After eleven years of teaching English composition and literature to undergraduate and graduate students, I doubt I can do my own assignments. I’m no longer sure of being logical, rational, rigorous, sympathetic, organized, or careful; no longer confident of any words, rules, or methods, either for teaching or for writing. I can’t use the word “development” or the word “clear” with any conviction. And that goes for the words “thesis,” “argument,” “concrete,” “specific,” “experiential,” and “organized.”

Over the past decade, I’ve made hundreds of comments on student papers. Most students don’t want them, and yet most students say they want them. Composition “specialists” have done research to see what use students make of teachers’ comments: the more there are, the less students respond to them. The researchers therefore recommended that fewer comments be made. This finding should come as no surprise. Making comments on papers takes time, and time is what professors have none of.

What kinds of comments are most useful? Those addressing a student’s argument, its organization and development. This helps, when there’s an argument to address. It doesn’t help when, instead of an argument, there’s a tissue of formulaic thinking negligently expressed, paragraphs of every length and no relation, sentences that don’t formulate, words misused and misspelled, quotations mangled, and typos in every line.

I’ve tried circling or highlighting one good idea in a paper. Students feel shortchanged. I’ve tried marking typos, correcting grammar, revising sentences, rearranging paragraphs. Say I find a “thesis statement” buried in the middle of a five-page essay. I’ll write, “Why don’t you start with this?” But I don’t have time to read the revised versions of twenty-five five-page papers; nor do students have time to revise. They didn’t have time to do the first draft—which in many cases is the only draft, and so the final draft. When students see their final drafts marked as though they were no more than notes for a rough draft, they tend to get discouraged. That’s what the professors who did the research into comments knew before they started: that teachers and students alike are discouraged by writing, by what’s called “the writing process.” It makes cowards of us all.

Between 1987 and 1998, students in my classes at Rutgers, Mills, San Francisco State, and the University of San Francisco accused me of many things—even, occasionally, of “making them think.” They accused me of talking slowly, dressing poorly, not washing my hair, boring them. They said I was disorganized and digressive. They told me that I didn’t explain things, myself included; that I changed things, chiefly the syllabus. They accused me, above all, of not telling them “what I wanted.”

When I told my students that I wanted them to be “personal” in their writing, they asked if they could use the pronoun “I.” Permission granted. They then retailed the latest slogans about freedom, independence, and individuality, paying only the scantest attention to the words of the writer they’d been asked to respond to. I then discussed their having resorted to commonplaces, formulas, clichés, dead metaphors—terms which had no reality for most of them.

For example. To the student who wrote, “A close reading of the following passage provides deeper insight into some of James’ notions of truth, experience and perception,” I wanted to say:

James’s passage is the “deeper insight” you’re supposed to read closely. It is certainly “deeper” than anything you go on to say in the two pages of your essay. The trouble begins immediately, when you write, after quoting the passage, “From my limited understanding of James, ‘finite’ shouldn’t have any association with the term ‘experience.’ Finite in its literal sense means having bounds, limits or being subject to limitations. Experience cannot really be said to have any limitations.” If experience cannot be said to have any limitations, what can?

I wanted to say such things; but, apart from being mean, they would have been useless where the following formula reigned: Whatever students write is their opinion, and whatever I say in response is my opinion, and both are valid, and no discussion is welcome.

On the other hand, perhaps that student was saying something unusual, something she hadn’t known she could say, something the saying of which surprised her? No such luck: what she was “really” trying to say above she in fact went on to say: “Experience is what gives our life fulfillment, knowledge and a spirited enjoyment.” James, she thought, was being “negative.” He had just told her that there were limits to what she could do. She thought not. “Everyday,” she wrote, “every week and every year, life leads us down a different path.” Life is wonderful. You can do anything you want to. Life is what you make it. As it happens, the idea that “life is what you make it” just begins to capture the melioristic spirit of William James’s pragmatism. Minus death, of course—that sense of the word “finite.”

I once asked my students in First-Year Composition at Mills to write an essay on how they learned to read and write. In conjunction with the assignment, I asked them as a group to make a list of the rules they were taught to write by. Most of the items on it can be traced to high school, but some go back before that, to junior high and even to grade school. Perhaps all of them derive from the manner children are taught to adopt in the company of adults: to be seen, not heard.

It isn’t surprising, then, that so many college syllabi now promise credit—anywhere from 10% to 20% of the final grade—for showing up. I’ve quoted Woody Allen to students: “Ninety percent of success is showing up.” No student, on hearing this, has asked that I change the distribution accordingly, so that written work counts for ten percent of his or her final grade and “attendance and participation” for ninety. Most students simply equate coming to class with participating in it. And most students would rather be seen than heard, since they’ve been trained to sound like this:

Rules for Writing
Always have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
Always have a thesis. Make sure the thesis is stated in the introduction.
Never use a sentence like, “In the following essay I will ...”
Always write in ascending order of importance.
Don’t write an essay in first person.
Don’t use “you” to address your reader.
Never use contractions or informal speech.
Use at least one quote per paragraph.
Never begin a sentence with “but,” “because,” or “and.”
Never start a story with a quote or dialogue.
Sentences should not be longer than three lines.
Always have at least five paragraphs in an essay.
Always have smooth transitions between paragraphs.

There are twenty-three more, but you get the idea: students are taught to forget how to talk when they write.

That’s one way of putting it. Another is to say that students think of writing as something other than talking. It isn’t their fault. Perhaps they don’t think of writing as a form of communication at all. They think of it as a set of rules, do’s and don’t’s, alwayses and nevers—the purpose of which is to give the teacher what he or she wants. It follows that school for them is neither a place of study nor of instruction, but a place where you get “the right answers” or you “bullshit” your way around them.

“At first I wasn’t going to say anything,” a student without his paper told me one day, “because I figured if the rest of the class did the assignment, one of two things was possible. Either they got the assignment and I didn’t, or they were bullshitting and I didn’t want to bullshit.” I suggested there might be other possibilities. “Could be,” he said.

One of my habits was to begin class by saying, “Are there any questions or comments?” (In ten years, maybe twelve questions and six comments.) One day, I knew I wouldn’t have to ask that question. Four students had formed a group; they were talking to each other. They had their books open—not their psychology textbooks, not their nursing textbooks. They were gesturing with their thin little Dover editions of William James’s Pragmatism. They were fomenting something, and they didn’t stop, as usual, when I came in.

“We’re English majors,” one of them began, “and we don’t know why we’re reading a philosophy book in this course. This is an English course, right? It’s required. But we don’t know exactly what it is. I mean, what’s ‘Junior Seminar’? What are we supposed to learn in here for our major? What’s the goal of this course?”

Another person spoke up.

“I mean, Pragmatism isn’t exactly a story. I’m a drama major, with a minor in English, and in the other courses I’ve taken, there’s like a theme that connects the stories. But I don’t see a theme here. It’s like, Pragmatism, and then Coriolanus, which is Shakespeare, and I like Shakespeare, but this isn’t one of my favorite of his, I mean I probably wouldn’t pick it, but that’s okay, and then there’s the Cavalier poets or whatever, and Maud Martha, and I just don’t see what the point is, why we’re reading this stuff. And yeah, I don’t know what ‘Junior Seminar’ is either, just that it’s required.”

Hadn’t I written a syllabus? Hadn’t I read it aloud and asked if it were clear, if there were any questions about it? Hadn’t I, that first day, said again both what I’d written in the course description and what I hadn’t been able to say at the time I wrote it? Here, three weeks into the course, I was being asked to “go over” what I thought I had done a pretty good job of “covering” the first two days of class.

How did I respond? I said something along these lines:

Like pragmatism, “Junior Seminar” is hard to define. Its definition depends on the temperaments, interests, and specialties of the professors who teach it. One colleague is committed to theory, and so she treats the course as an introduction to various theories of literature—how it’s written, how it’s read, what its relations are to social, political, and economic structures, and so on. Another professor treats it as an advanced composition course, a workshop in expository writing. Another, a specialist in Renaissance literature, is finishing a book on the institution of marriage in Shakespeare's late plays; that’s why there are three of Shakespeare’s late plays under the heading “Required Texts.”

I’m losing them, losing the tension the class began with. I straighten up: “The English Department hasn’t decided what Junior Seminar is supposed to accomplish. Any university English Department is really three departments: literature, composition, and creative writing. ‘Comp’ can be further divided: core comp, business and technical writing, and remedial or developmental writing. So can creative writing, into fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. And so can literature, into theory and literature. There is no consensus. I was given no guidelines. There is no pre-set syllabus, common to all sections. Each professor has to choose according to his or her interests, habits, and concerns. As for me”—and here I reach for the piece of paper I’m required to hand out on the first day—“I tried to say what this course is about in the syllabus here.”

I try to say again, in different words, what the “goal” of the course is, but without using that word. At some point during my new definition, I break off: “As for a goal or goals, I’ve never had a goal in my life. I don’t know what a goal is.” Most of the students laugh at this. When I recount the story to a colleague later, she says she can’t believe I’d say such a thing, by which she means she doesn’t think I should. It undermines my authority, and it undermines hers.

After half an hour, I still haven’t answered the other two questions. I’ve alluded to them, I’ve suggested that I’m addressing them, but they’re slipping away. My students want one-sentence answers and they tell me as much. They want to know what I want. I turn to William James. I suggest that we are “doing” what James is “talking about.” I say that James once defined pragmatism as “a method for conducting discussions.” Then I say that James discusses the problem of definition in Pragmatism, and I have us turn to the appropriate passage in the chapter we’re supposed to be discussing. Only five of the seventeen students have done the reading, which doesn’t surprise me. Most students read for two reasons: to confirm what they already know and to see what happens next. I close the book. “Don’t you feel the impulse to define for yourselves what you’re doing here—not as majors satisfying requirements, but as persons?”

That night, I call Reg Saner. I ask how it stands with him after thirty years of teaching. He tells me that I will never see on the faces of the two or three students I will reach in any class a sign that I have reached them. I tell him about Junior Seminar and James and the definitions. He laughs. He’s teaching a similar course. He asks students how it feels to read Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes.” They don’t answer. He feels like saying, “If you’re there, just show me some sign. Knock on your desk.” But he doesn’t. “We’re a dying breed,” he says.

A week later, I call Richard Howard. He isn’t home. I leave a message saying that I’m in the middle of reading twenty-five student papers, close readings of a passage from James’s Pragmatism; that I’m losing my sense of proportion, that the meanings of words and phrases are leaving me; that I don’t know what the old terms mean anymore; that the writing is abominable. I tell him I’m afraid to make comments, don’t know where or how to begin. I tell him that I heard he gave students A’s as long as they came to class on time. I say I’m considering the practice myself.

Over the years, I’ve thought of offering to give students A’s at the outset, so that we could get down to work, or C’s, which is what Thorsten Veblen used to do. If a student was bold enough to ask for a higher grade, Veblen would give it. But something always holds me back—as if I, who got a mess of A’s I didn’t deserve, could alone raise the “level of education” or lower the “rate of grade inflation” by being cavalier or arbitrary about grading.

A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, I have sometimes given bad papers A’s because there was one good sentence in them, sometimes graded easily at the beginning and gotten tougher as the semester went along, and sometimes given C’s and D’s at first and A’s and B’s at last, when I’ve abandoned hope.

Perhaps it’s a question of who I want to be ashamed in front of. Some students hate to have their grades inflated, to get an A where they expected a B-, but they are rare: incipient graduate students, they need accomplices. More commonly, students dislike me for assigning them too low a grade. I give them a B-; they deserve a D; they expect an A; I get called into the Dean’s office.

I like to think all students are moderately gifted, but many aren’t—not as students, anyway. They come to my office to talk about their papers. I listen. I hear the good things they’re saying, but I read none of them in the paper. What they’ve just told me is better than anything they’ve written down and turned in. I can count the students who’ve left my office and returned with a successful revision on the fingers of one hand. They haven’t heard themselves. They haven’t heard me.

E. H. Gombrich, the art historian, monitored Nazi radio transmissions in London during the war. They were hard to hear. He realized that “you had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said.” Most of my students know what might be said. The trouble is, they hear what might be said, not what is said. So they go home and change a few words. Then they expect their same five paragraphs to meet a happier fate. “But I got A’s in high school,” they say. Well, I want to say, you shouldn’t have. And you shouldn’t have been taught that everything you read is a story and everything you write should have five paragraphs.

Inadvertently, I give vivid demonstrations of the bad habits I’m asking my students to break. I become inattentive, prolix, illogical, abstract, vague, confused. Today I wanted to say, “Well, if nothing else, close reading will give you more control.” I am trying to be practical, to demonstrate a single benefit of the useless study of literature. But I can’t pronounce the word “control” eulogistically. I can’t sound “positive.” I can’t specify what it is they'll have more control of. Nothing I say seems to apply to them. I can see it in their eyes: my words are dribbling down my chin.

After class one day, I found myself walking behind three of my students. They were talking about how to study for the exam. “I suppose we should look at the passages he talked about in class,” one said. “Yeah, but which ones? He moves around so much. I mean, it’s whatever floats his boat.” I smiled at her accuracy: I improvise. Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever left the classroom satisfied with my performance. I leave with things I meant and never meant to say unsaid, and not simply because I don’t write the lectures I give. I never have written them. I’ve admired professors who have, but I’ve admired more those who haven’t. I want to know my material so well that I have it in me. But I never know just what I’m going to say, and never quite say what I have to say the way I want to say it.

My students want me to know what I’m going to say. They want me to have what a high school teacher whose class I visited called “Sets” and “Closes.” They want me to say where I’m starting from and where I’ll end up. It’s the standard formula for expository writing: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them you told them.” I don’t know what to make of it. The students who say that they know what to make of it promptly demonstrate that they don’t.

What students know best is that nobody has any time. Many of them work 20-, 30-, or 40-hour weeks at their jobs. Wanting to get their money’s worth from school at $2,000 to $10,000 a semester, they take on top of their work schedule at least fifteen hours of classes, often eighteen, sometimes even twenty-one.

“The normal academic load for undergraduates,” the university catalogues tell them, “is fifteen units per semester.” They stop reading at that point. I read them the next sentence on the first day of class. “Two hours of preparation for each hour of regular class work should be expected.” I tell them I expect them to do at least that much preparation. They laugh. Later, when they ask me what I want, I forget to remind them: two hours of study for every hour of instruction.

“So you’re saying you want just our opinion?” No, that’s not what I’m saying. And there’s no “just” about it. It’s a hard thing to have, your own opinion. What you usually have is another’s opinion, another’s courage, another’s conviction. “Then what do you want?”

Two weeks before the end of the semester, the student who’d struggled with the passage from Pragmatism raised her hand and said, with eyes wide open, “You mean there’s a meaning behind every word on the page?”

Teaching isn’t rewarding. And, with few exceptions, neither is learning.




Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646


Paperback: 86 pages
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