Thoughts on life after the PhD
I teach expository writing as part of my graduate fellowship, that dreaded “freshman comp” course that most universities let students place out of with AP credit. Not my university. Everyone’s got to take this class, which I would argue is a good thing, because I’ve learned that most undergrads–despite stratospheric SAT scores and gallons of AP credit–can’t write their way out of a paper bag. More specifically, they can’t think their way out of a paper bag. Their essays may be polished and carefully organized, but they’re full of tired ideas and gaps in logic that would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic.
I feel like a lot of this is the result of their high school education, which teaches them to write for exams–quick, efficient essays that meet certain basic requirements and don’t require an ounce of original thought. I hate this style of writing with a passion and pride myself on being an instructor who encourages students to think for themselves, to find their own voice and their own views in writing, and to “think outside the box.” So I was a bit alarmed recently when I felt that a student was accusing me of promoting conformity. I had passed out samples of paragraphs from their previous essay that I had thought were good examples of paragraph organization and introductions. The student in question said he felt they weren’t very original, and that he wondered if newness and innovation were worth anything in a class like this.
For the record, they weren’t very original. That wasn’t the point of the demonstration–it was about mechanics, not originality. And I should point out that the student in question is a free-spirited, highly motivated, creative and hopelessly disorganized thinker who isn’t really taking to the whole expository writing experience. His first paper, which was supposed to address the role of religion in politics in 5-7 pages, was instead a 12-page stream-of-consciousness-style piece on the importance of art as a means of promoting world unity. So my first instinct was to get defensive–of course I’m all for newness and innovation, but not when it comes at the expense of clarity.
But he got me thinking. Am I, in fact, falling into the same trap that so many high school teachers are forced into by the demands of a test-oriented education system (and the realities of having as many as forty students in a classroom)? In emphasizing the similar SKILLS that students need to master in order to become effective writers, am I in fact stifling their creativity? Am I basically guaranteeing that all the essays will be similar, and that the more “original” ones will get lower grades?
Well, yes and no. There’s a difference between emphasizing that everyone master the same skills and forcing everyone to write the same paper. I gave this particular student the “stand before you fly” argument–until you’re really comfortable with some of the basic principles of expository writing (defending a thesis, organizing your paragraphs, developing an argument), you’re better off not going off the deep end in terms of newness. Does this mean you should stick to old, boring ideas? Of course not. But don’t mistake illogical arguments for innovation. Riskier, more provocative positions are a lot harder to defend, which is why you need to have a really solid mastery of basic writing skills before you attempt them. And as a teacher I’m likely to be kinder to a well-organized, well-reasoned paper with a not-quite-earth shattering idea than a disorganized, incoherent paper with an interesting idea. Maybe that means I’m stifling student creativity, but all the creativity in the world doesn’t get you very far if it’s poorly presented.
In the end, I’ll admit that this class will probably never be a breeding ground for provocative ideas. I’m a lot more concerned with just getting my students to write at the college level. Some of them will make it to the provocative stage by the end of the semester, but not many. Ultimately, I just hope they get there eventually, and that maybe my class will have given them some of the tools they needed.
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