Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

August 28, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 1

(This article is part of a series about writing, inspired by a column written by Stanley Fish on NYT.com.)

I have long felt that the only purpose of writing is discovery.  Writing helps me to look at my topic in a new light, to clarify my thinking on the topic, and to explain my ideas to others.  I, of course, have not read the same essays Mr. Fish cites as inspiration for his column: the papers for a “graduate literature” course that had no “clean English sentences.”  But from my personal experience as a college student and a writing tutor for high-school and middle-school students, the real reason students can’t write is because the process of School has disconnected them with the most compelling reason to write: discovery.

John Holt, in How Children Fail, claimed that in Schools, children are distracted from learning their subject matter by the politics of the classroom: namely, their status in relation to the other students, and the teacher’s behavior.  He argues that students mainly learn how to please the teacher.  As I mentioned in a previous article, many teachers spend a lot of class time trying to get students to jump through an exact sequence of hoops so that they can “interactively” learn what the curriculum dictates.  This does not encourage original thought.  Instead, it encourages students to guess what the teacher wants to hear.  By the time these kids get to college, where professors ask them to “choose your own topic” and “develop an original thesis,” they FIRST: wonder what the catch is, and SECOND: become really, truly confused.  They have never had to do this before.  So they fall back on a tried-and-true method (guessing what the professor wants to hear), and they produce this vaguely literary-sounding mumbo-jumbo without actually using proper English or critical thinking skills, because they have no idea what they’re talking about.  They don’t know what original thoughts or ideas they have on their subject, so they have no real motivation to explain these ideas to another.  At least, that was the case with me.

Although I considered myself to be a pretty good writer in high school, I stumbled through my first two writing courses in university.  I used proper English, for the most part, but my professor kept saying that my thesis wasn’t really a thesis, and that I didn’t even manage to support it very well.  I reviewed each revised draft with her, trying to pinpoint exactly what I was doing wrong, but I didn’t get the grade I wanted in that class because there was a fundamental disconnect in our communication: I kept trying to figure out what she wanted, when all she wanted was to know what I thought about the subject.  At the time, I didn’t even know how to think about the topic, let alone what I thought about it.

For my second “writing-intensive” course, I wound up in a class about Kafka.  At first, I thought Kafka was intriguing.  Then I thought he was challenging.  Then I started to panic as I realized the man was completely inscrutable.  I mean, I could kind of understand how the guy turning into the bug was a metaphor for isolation in the Industrial Age, but we weren’t allowed to write about that one.  We had to choose another of his short stories for our essay.  So I did what any desperate-to-keep-her-slipping-academic-status student would do: I decided to cheat.

Find out how well that worked for me next week, in How I Learned to Write, Part 2!

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3 Comments »

  1. Stumbled upon ur blog googling up Kafka.

    I will be writing an essay regarding Metamorphosis. The exact question will be released some time soon. Interesting to see what u did to cheat. I must agree that that’s what any desperate-to-improve-his-slipping-GPA student would do.

    Do i really have to wait a week? haha. A week it shall be. (:

    Comment by M — August 29, 2009 @ 10:37 am | Reply

    • Hi M,

      The next “chapter” will be posted on either Monday or Tuesday, so you don’t have to wait a whole week! I hope the second part will be of help to you!

      The Reluctant Teacher

      Comment by christinag503 — August 29, 2009 @ 4:40 pm | Reply

  2. […] New York Times, plagiarism, teaching literature, teaching strategies, teaching writing Click here to read Part […]

    Pingback by How I Learned to Write, Part 2 « Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher — September 17, 2009 @ 10:06 pm | Reply


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