I mean this in 2 ways:
1) to save the essays from the dumpster:
Roughly 12 million essays are written every year by college freshman comp students, and, by my educated guess, roughly 12 million of them are eventually trashed, in one way or another. Once graded, they’re eternally stored away in folders, on backup discs, in the dusty closets of hard drives, they’re cheerfully deleted, or thrown away. As a recent MFA grad entering into my first instructional position, the inevitable doom of my students’ papers made me question the point of it all. Here I am preaching audience audience audience, know your audience, and they’re thinking dumpster dumpster dumpster, what’s the quickest route to the dumpster.
2) to save the essays from becoming worthy of the dumpster:
What’s even sadder is that many—if not most—freshman papers deserve their wasteful fate. If they were written for the dumpster to begin with, then the dumpster can have ‘em—who’d want to read them? To “save the essays” we need first to inspire essays that are worth saving.
I do not mean to say that all college freshman writing is bad. Certainly, there are a few exceptions in every comp class—self-motivated students with a predilection for writing. Ask any English prof, though, and you’ll hear a dismal testament of the student majority. Comp students just don’t care that much. And why should they? No one’s ever going to read their writing, right? Except the instructor, who is paid to be sympathetic to shitty work and polite in criticizing it. If they can get past the instructor, then they’re golden, and they know it.
In his article English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure, veteran instructor Jeffrey Zorn describes the field of composition pedagogy as his “adrift, embarrassing, infuriating, failing profession.” I agree.
Many experts blame the students: a spoiled, lazy, inept generation. Seriously? Take a look on YouTube—the greatest showcase of talent anywhere ever. Read the quippish genius happening all over Facebook and Twitter and in the captions of memes. People are brilliant . . . when they care—the same ones texting in the back of class and citing Wikipedia on their research papers.
Perhaps the predominant view is to blame lackadaisical and feeble professors for skirting extensive feedback because it’s either too much work or they don’t want to upset students and face grade disputes, that instructors need to push harder, be tougher. I used to share this outlook, before I experienced how poorly it works.
You can drill students until their typing-fingers blister, but they won’t learn until they want to. To an unreceptive student, intensive line editing and heavy-handed feedback teaches only how to imitate your correctness. So yes, you can improve a student’s writing by telling them what they did wrong and how to fix it. They’ll fix it, and it will be better, just like a patient takes pills to get better. You gave the student a fish. If they don’t care, all your brilliant advice goes into the dumpster along with their papers the second they see their final grade. Try as you might, you cannot teach a student how to fish until s/he’s hungry enough to need to learn.
How hard is it, anyway, to learn active voice? Every writing text and a thousand websites explain it pretty clearly. If you don’t care, you’ll struggle with it all semester, and then you’ll use it (badly) in the future because your professor told you to and you assume it’s always best. If you care, you’ll look it up and teach it to yourself in an afternoon, and when you use it in the future it will be because you want an active agent in your sentence in lieu of stating existence or victimizing your subject. Yes, it’s vital to teach craft, but it’s futile to shout it into deaf ears.
In my (fairly virgin) view, issues of craft are secondary to the primary concern: saying something worth reading—eschewing vapid bullshit. I’ll get 20 papers on gay marriage rights, 30 on marijuana laws. Gay marriage should be illegal because it’s in the
Bible. Legalizing weed will stimulate the economy because of the tax surplus. Every round of papers amounts to a grand collection of other people’s ideas. The papers are so fluffed and formulaic and monotonous and trite that offering feedback is an often worthless endeavor. You can’t polish a turd, as the saying goes. More aptly, you can’t edit substance into a vacuous composition.
Editors won’t take the time to line edit unless the manuscript is worth the work. Why should teachers? We know how to teach grammar and logic. That’s the easy stuff; it’s concrete. Railing students on passive voice and semicolon use while ignoring the banality of the thesis at best churns out exceptionally active, grammatical writers who actively and grammatically say nothing. I see a greater challenge. How do we teach significance? Passion? Originality? A desire to express oneself, to seek information and self-improve?
Call me a hippy (I’m not), but I believe everyone loves writing, in some form. It’s one of the defining traits of being human. It’s tragic that so many people are growing to hate it. How do you effectively teach someone how to do something they hate? You don’t. Thus, first and foremost, I believe my role as a comp teacher is to tap my students’ natural love of writing to draw out substance. I don’t care if there are a hundred passive constructions. If the core is strong, we have something to work with, and the student will lead the charge if s/he actually wants to make it better.
So how do we teach caring?
I’m asking as much as I’m suggesting. In the past, I’ve tried provocative prompts, personalized assignments, peer evaluations, every manner of bonus offering (this at least gets a response), hard-ass threats (this doesn’t), public challenges, direct communication, the “you’re all geniuses” approach, sardonic humor, harsh criticism, all positive criticism, all negative criticism, extensive feedback, sparse feedback, and on and on. Some methods work better than others, but in the end the papers are compost, and who knows if anything stuck. The core of the problem remains. They’re writing for a grade, not for an audience.
Perhaps the solution, then, is to provide an audience?
This question echoes back to my previous life as a music teacher, where I faced a similar problem. Kids would come into my little guitar closet and genuinely want to learn, but weeks of practicing at home and playing for me and practicing at home and playing for me would gradually suffocate the students’ fire and they’d often quit halfway through. Then I joined the faculty of a progressive school of rock (www.musichouseschool.com, ftr). They held end-of-semester performances, which gave a stage to the students. The same kids who took months to learn half a song were suddenly learning full songs in a week, perfecting them in a few. The difference was staggering.
This past semester, I reflected heavily on my past student rock stars. I wanted to offer a “stage” to my writing students, so I tried something entirely new. I published my students’ writing—like for real (contracts and all). I aimed to kill the arbitrariness of my assignments by providing a real outlet. We worked together toward a common goal. I needed them to write well because their papers would be in a publication associated with my name. They needed to write well if they wanted to get their name in the publication, and to be proud to have other people read it, which gave them an incentive to write beyond the grade. The focus remained on the writing and the publication as much as possible and shifted to grading only when the college demanded it.
Aside from the lectures, which I viewed more like training seminars, class ran like a publication house. I was the editor. They were staff writers. Instead of requiring assignments and arbitrarily grading them, I gave prompts and payouts for those who responded. They chose which prompts they wanted to respond to. The payouts came in the form of “class cash,” which accumulated to determine their final grade (a bit corny, I know, but it gave the realistic feeling that I was paying them for their work, which essentially I was). When they submitted papers, instead of line editing, I played editor and either accepted or rejected their papers. If rejected, I would give a paragraph or two detailing the reason and offer them the chance to resubmit for the next revision period.
Some of the papers I read 3 or 4 times before accepting, and they vastly improved throughout the process. Often, in narrative writing, students would interpret their experiences through sentimental, vague, clichéd language in their early drafts and then gradually comb out the mawkishness in trade for original expression that conveyed their significant and inimitable human plight. Many students clearly learned something about themselves through revising: that they weren’t just “a broken heart” or “an ordinary kid”—they saw that they were distinct and complex people living complex lives and that personal writing is a process of unraveling and understanding who they are and what made them. I’ll take that over active voice any day.
At the end of the semester, the students took roles as editors to address the minutia—at the point where it’s actually appropriate to deal with such issues. The entire class came together to edit and produce all the accepted papers into journal form, which now has its own website (www.thefreshmanreview.com) and is available in print through lulu.com.
The semester was not without its problems (I have many tweaks planned next time around), but for the first time, on a large scale, I saw students take genuine interest in their work—especially during the production process. When I turned the responsibility over to them, they took off. Apparently, real responsibility incites real effort.
My publication, however, is a temporary fix. It’s absurd for me to create an external publication company just to get my students to care. If everyone did this, there’d be 100,000 new publications just to cover freshman writing, and the overabundance of publications would become another type of dumpster. I believe firmly, now, that students need a real audience to develop writing skills, and I think colleges should be the ones to provide it. They could run a freshman publication within the college for the best papers—perhaps through the school paper or university press. Or, professors from different fields could commission papers from freshman students: allow them to provide real-world, needed research. Freshman writers are a valuable untapped resource. Use them. Save them.
Let their 12,000,000 papers count for something.
Photo by Shauna Yorty
Jeff Minton lives in Camp Hill, PA, where he divides his time between his wife and three boys, his writing, composing music, disc golf, and teaching English at Elizabethtown College and Harrisburg Area Community College. Recently, his fiction won finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award and he presented a panel titled “Orchestration for Writers 101″ at the 2014 AWP Conference. He holds an MFA in Creative writing from Wilkes University.