Semester Observations

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

It was a short, busy semester, with lots of revision work to the College’s General Education model, lots of talks, meetings, and out-of-classroom work, and a lot of preparation for the Spring already. I still don’t know how to get all the required work done, especially given the break when no one heeds their email.

I taught two writing courses, one research-based, this semester and amidst them rose water both high and low. (New media and World Literature, also.) I wanted to make some general observations and conclusions based on my experience.

Generally, students are reading well. But what to do with the reading: That’s becoming an issue. Partly, this has to do with a student’s ability to take a position and sustain it through a set of arguments, react to a variety of ideas or conclusions with more than just a perfunctory response, and to take other ideas and grow them beyond their original context, and to find something significant beyond the observations, arguments, and conclusions of another thinker. Moreover, it has to do with developing special habits in school, work, and with friends and family. I don’t sense that the majority of students have lived a life where questions, disputation, examination, and critical thought are common expectations (see final paragraph).

This is not true of all my students and this doesn’t even mean that every student in my two writing courses could not have risen to the final entries in their portfolios. As is typical, older, more experiences students, even those in and around the age twenty but who have returned to school from other endeavors, have more of a handle on problem solving and with the development of ideas and cases using written and spoken language. I saw shades of excellence in many of them, but excellence is diminishing. More practice with sustained critical thought will serve them well (why they haven’t had this before is a mystery). Over the years, as the younger and less exposed students gain experience, I’m sure they’ll develop better habits: longer hours over problems, more engagement with materials, more patience with the unfamiliar, perhaps more engagement with new modes of thought, and more serious consideration of directions and formal presentation.

On the language management end, I’m stymied. All students are coming into college with at least 10 years of formative education, yet very few of my students have a competent linguistic, orthographic, or rhetorical sense from which to begin a course of study in frosh composition. In many cases students behave as if the language is something of a mystery, from the sentence level all the way up to the lemon dressing, as if writing on a subject with certain purpose is something new or surprising. This I don’t buy or understand. Composition is about making structure and ideas with the language, not about proper grammar or diacritical notation. While these can be strengthened and must be applied, they are a distraction in composition, even for frosh.

The above leads to my final observation. Even with more reading on the web, my students have not read and practiced with the language enough, which prohibits self teaching and learning. Many argue that strong writing requires strong reading and the other way around. This is neither true nor false. One may need to both. Writing teachers want both. The relationship is more about the habit of mind. But there is a deep problem here and this has to do with the fundamental structures that language produces, from magazine articles to hypertext fiction. Having a sense of language structure–knowing when a sentence and a paragraph make sense and hence are complete or leading and why–comes from experience with forms. And this is where students are most lacking.

But they are wonderful people nonetheless, and I had a great time with all of them.

3 responses to “Semester Observations”

  1. Mary Ellen says:

    Remember the Lucille Ball episode with all the candy coming down the conveyor belt? This is my view of current public education, and it is echoed even by the most astute–and least academic students–I encounter. The 7th grade girl (15 years old) who has failed English since 4th grade is still passed along. She completes none of her assignments, refuses to comply with teacher’s goals, and will move into the 8th grade next year. Why? There is no reason to keep her. The people in charge already think she is useless, will be pregnant soon and drop out. Make her someone else’s burden. So, when she’s 18 and wants to become a radiology tech and TCC says she needs Comp 101, what will you have? Someone educated by the state of CT but who cannot decipher, understand, or apply the English language to any degree above mechanical competency.

  2. Josh says:

    I agree with Mary Ellen. Education is a responsibility, not a right. Tax money should not be spent on those who do not want education. They may discover their error, and should they do so then they should be responsible for paying for it themselves.

    I am not fond with looking at the systems of other countries or regions due to variables, but one thing I do like about German education is that the system cannot afford to tolerate slackers. And they don’t–the chaff is separated from the wheat at every progression.

    Germans are not necessarily being better educated as a people, but I’ll bet Germany benefits from far more productive graduation classes. Ditto Japan. It’s something that the American education bureaucracy should be ashamed of.

  3. Jesse Abbot says:

    With the hypertext moment (both literally and more generally, in the sense that channel surfing on one’s extended cable represents one of the more impoverished expressions of the point-and-click idiom), we may run the risk of *relying* on parataxis (“this happened and then that happened and then the other thing happened” ) rather than availing ourselves of a broader palette of rhetorical tools. An antidote: ways to guide people into more cerebral hypotaxis or subordination alongside the officially sanctioned version of ADD.

    Homer’s verse is paratactic, too, but more richly hypertextual than many of today’s incarnations, because naming then was “divine-ing,” a formula for provoking epiphanies. I am not arguing the merits of hypotaxis over parataxis, but think hypertext tools may themselves present remedies if they can guide readers into decision-making that constrains the mind to consider that one issue is often predicated upon several others.

    I’m in the misty land of a paper-grading marathon right now, so the above is a bit of a rant, but I appreciate the thinking your posting stirred. I share many of your reflections and concerns in relation to the work of some of my own students. I am still of the mind that E.D. Hirsch offers another piece of the puzzle. But what to read and how to read and write are not necessarily mutually exclusive problems. I am seeking a kind of poetics of hypertext in which the typical dichotomy of focus and distraction can be left behind in favor of a kind of vigilant jouissance of reading-writing-performance.