Monday, November 24, 2014

RYS Flashback: 6 Years Ago Today.

"The Regulars." Milo Wonders Why High School English Teachers Have to Fuck Everybody Up.

What is it with high school English teachers? Is there a facility somewhere in the Midwest that breeds them for their ability to fit comfortably into the factory farm model of education? That instills in their docile minds a few basic (and wrong) rules about writing? Because my students are showing up in my freshman writing classes with a set of assumptions about writing that are not merely unproductive, but just plain dumb.

My students are not stupid. Many of them are passing calculus and physics, but their grasp of basic manuscript mechanics and standard academic usage is, to be charitable, very weak. Still, that’s stuff I can teach – it’s not very high level, but reasonably intelligent students can grasp such things pretty quickly. Even disabused of error, however, my students for the most part do not understand what an essay actually is, or does. They have been taught, near as I can tell, that an essay is a form that must be filled out neatly, or that it is some pretty thing to please a teacher with its fidelity to a diagram in an elementary rhetoric handbook. That is has anything to do with fidelity to their own thought has not occurred to the vast majority of the students in my writing classes.

For this, I blame their bovine high school English teachers. No doubt Edgy Eric will be coming after me with his red pen, but someone out there in teacherland is not doing his or her job even if Eric is. Oh, I’m sure there are some decent teachers like Eric out there in the high schools – years ago I was lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a couple of them myself – but these days, near as I can tell, the system mostly produces drones and time-servers. What’s worse, the drones and time servers obviously are not writers. And, no, I don’t expect high school teachers to be publishing in the Atlantic Monthly, but no one who took the time to craft an occasional letter to the editor of the local paper could possible believe the things many of my students tell me they have been taught in high school:

1) Never use the first person in an essay. The choice of point of view is fundamental to fulfilling the purpose of a piece of writing. Telling students they can only write in the third person is like telling a soldier he can have boots but not a gun when he goes into battle.

2) Never ask a question in an essay. Essays are about posing and answering questions. What sort of nimrod doesn’t know that? How can you pose and answer questions without, you know, writing them out?

3) Always have three body paragraphs. This leads to intellectual absurdities so grotesque they give me nightmares. This third absurdity also leads to thesis statements that assert the obvious and result in flat organization: “There are several examples of children learning moral lessons in the novels we have read,” followed by three random examples that do not have any particular relation to each other, that could be presented in any order, that do not, in short, amount to anything approaching an argument.

4) Reading for comprehension: just because a novelist describes something – genetic engineering gone haywire, pornography, violence against kitty cats – does not mean the writer approves of the practice or is recommending it; but many students arrive thinking this is true. Many students read in isolated fragments and appear unable to see relationships between ideas. Actually, I can’t blame high school teacher for this exclusively – I think a lot of it has to do with the sort of narrative entertainment available to teenagers. In most video games and TV shows there is no critical point of view, only the wash of images designed to stimulate the limbic system. There is a sense in which any verbal or visual representation is, for many of my students, “pornographic.”

I won’t even try to list the simple things my students’ high school teachers apparently have not told them – like it’s a good idea to put a title on your work other than “Essay Two.” Actually, a title like that exactly reflects the attitude my students bring to writing essays: that it is a work product, not the record of a process of thought – first you do one, then you do the second, and so on. Factory work.

I’ll conclude with a story: The other day, Sincere Sophie stops by for office hours with her second essay in hand. I’d asked her to rewrite it because she thought that an essayist who described a particular idea about the nature of the self was advocating for that idea instead of holding it up as an over-simplification, which he then went on to make more complex. (See No. 4 above.)

Sophie always comes to class and it’s clear she’s been doing the reading by the comments she makes in discussion. Sophie is intelligent and willing, but as we were discussing here essay, she said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world,

“Oh, I don’t actually believe any of what I wrote in the essay – I just found something I could find examples for.”

After recovering my equanimity, I said, “That must have been a painful experience, writing an essay that way.”

“Yeah, I hate writing essays,” she replied. Well, naturally you do, my dear, I whispered to myself. “What questions would you like to answer about Conrad’s portrayal of the self?” I asked her.

“You mean I can ask a question? In high school we were told to never ask a question in an essay.”
“Well,” I replied, “the thesis statement should be a declarative statement, but there is no reason you can’t ask questions that your thesis then attempts to answer.”


So we talked about what it would be like to write what she actually believed about the subject and she agreed that that would probably be more fun and more useful. I suggested we make a deal – she could rewrite her essay using questions and forgetting any other rules she had learned in high school and I would guarantee her a grade of 75 or higher. I wanted to give her a safety net. As I was talking I noticed something amazing: the dead mask dropped from her face and her posture went from slouched to alert. She left my office with what appeared to be real enthusiasm for the task of rewriting. I’m looking forward to reading that essay.


  1. High school history teacher here.
    1. Why *would* you allow students to use the first-person voice in a thesis-driven essay designed to support an argument with evidence? I don't want my attention drawn to the writer, I want it drawn to the evidence. They already think that any piece of writing is a venue for them to express their own uninformed opinions; I don't want to encourage that impulse in their expository writing. It's a scholarly argument, not a selfie.
    2. Of course they're answering questions in their writing. What we're telling them NOT to do is pose "cutesy" questions in the middle of their arguments ("How short *was* Napoleon? Let's find out!).
    3. I get that the 5-paragraph essay thing is annoying when they cling to it well beyond its usefulness, and they hella shouldn't be doing that in college, but I'm not at all surprised that they are. The 5-para structure is very helpful in getting younger writers to understand the structure of a thesis-driven essay. However, I teach 10th graders, and I'm forever having to tell them that I don't give a thundering tea party how many paragraphs their paper has. It takes time for them to throw away the crutch, but that doesn't mean the crutch wasn't useful for a time.
    4. Short essays that are answers to an assigned question don't need titles. It's not a monograph.

  2. Re: first-person in an essay

    If you're talking about a straight up "why did X happen?" argument and the answer is to be found in the textbook/sources, then yeah...the writer has no business interjecting her-/himself into the mix. However, sometimes (not often, but it happens) students have legitimate insight based on their life experiences, and/or the issue they're writing about has a direct impact on their lives. In these cases, forcing students to write in the third person is unnatural.

  3. I wouldn't blame the teachers so much as the idiots who write the curriculum that they have to conform to.

    1. That was my first thought, too. There's very little room for creativity in the current teach-to-the-test environment (even, perhaps, sadly enough, particularly, when that test includes an essay).

      The other problem, as Surly points out, is that rules/guidelines for a certain stage of learning to write tend to get generalized into always-and-forever rules. Essentially, the student never realizes that the training wheels aren't an integral part of the bike (and/or that there are other forms of transport that may be more appropriate for various situations). One would hope that high school teachers would have time to nudge students toward that realization (and it's quite possible that they do; there are certainly plenty of things I teach my students that don't appear to fully sink in to a significant number of their brains), but, if they don't, I don't think the problem is entirely or even mostly of their making.

    2. "Essentially, the student never realizes that the training wheels aren't an integral part of the bike."

      I love that. On the opposite extreme are students who, while their classmates are learning to ride a bike with training wheels, want you to give them credit for riding a skateboard. They are convinced that since experts routinely break "the rules", so too must they, and so learning the rules is unnecessary.