Sunday, September 27, 2009

Below the Belt, from the Peanut Gallery: Harsh Criticism in the Freshmen Composition Classroom

Nothing feeds egotism more than multiple people badgering you to update your own personal corner of the blogosphere, and though my life since the heavy reflection on nostalgia has been nothing but a haze of feminists erroneously capitalizing bell hooks' name and student personal essays about dead grandparents and the huge effect high school football has had on their lives, I will oblige.

In deciding to oblige, however, I've had to pick through the past two weeks with a fine-toothed comb to find anything worthwhile to blog about. Graduate school, it turns out, is an all-or-nothing endeavor. I seem to be consumed with reading, with writing, with planning, and with responding to student work. Ian tells me I haven't learned that I need to do only as little reading as possible to scrape by in class discussions, but I'm not sure if I'll ever learn that. It's never been in my nature to not complete what I've been assigned, to not finish what I've started. I imagine that because of this, I'll turn up at the Seatac airport in May of 2011 looking gaunt and exhausted, not having been in contact with friends or family for months and months, and completely unused to human contact and company. You might be reminded of those awful Bing commercials that are airing at the moment--people unable to communicate effectively because they are suffering from "information overload". Don't fret if, when you ask how it feels to be back in the PNW, I quote Derrida, or ask you to fully explain the "so what?" factor in your response to Malcolm X's literacy narrative. A glass of Honeymood house red wine and a good long break before beginning my PhD should get me back to normal within a few months' time.

In light of the all-consuming nature of graduate school, I present you with an exercise I recently did in my freshman composition class. The essay assignment at the moment is a personal change story--the class has to write about something that happened to them that changed them, or changed their thinking, in some way. I've gotten a variety of topics, from fathers passing away to realizing why magicians are important. In my pedagogy course, we have to write first drafts of the essays we assign, to familiarize ourselves with the complications and difficulties students might have in writing themselves. I produced a rather rough draft of my own personal essay, chronicling my drive from Bellingham to Dover--I actually culled quite of bit of it from previous blog posts, most notable "Here I go again." In an effort to create an understanding of the revision process, I had the students work in groups to read, edit, and revise my essay (without telling them it was mine).

The result was disastrous. Had I any softer of a skin, and hadn't recently been accepted into six, count 'em, six, graduate schools based on my writing ability, I would be running home to skulk and bemoan the malice of 18 year old college students. They hated my essay: it was too wordy, the sentence structure was confusing and complex, the paper "forced them on a road trip they did not want to be on," it was not a personal change, the author came to no realization, it sounded as if it were written by a guy but the author mentioned wearing high heels, it criticized New England too much, there were details but all in the wrong places, the 'scenes' seem too disjointed and there isn't anything linking them, the list goes on and on and on and on. You wouldn't believe how much they railed on it.

I found myself wanting to defend my writing, to defend my position as the author ("but you see, there is a significant change..." "the narrative feels disjointed because I am coming to the realization that America itself is disjointed..." "I don't sound like a man when I write, do I???") to a class full of 18 year old that were not qualified to judge my writing (particularly when they admit that the essay had words they had never heard of before). I stressed that they should leave behind their judgment on the essay's merit and work towards coming to an agreement about what the essay needed, how it could be revised to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. To no avail. They could not move past their distaste for the essay. Once told that this was student work, and not their classmates' work, they felt at ease to tear it apart--something they do not do even with the student work we deal with in class that is published in one of their textbooks. To these freshmen, there is a difference between published writing and unpublished writing, a difference not determined by the actual quality but by the mere fact that someone--someone more important than them--decided to put it into a book. I am tempted to pull a published essay out of a book, print it off, and let them go wild. Something written by someone they know and consider an authority, but something they will never have read before. Suggestions?

After I revealed to the class that the essay was, in fact, my own, and I allowed the guy who said it sounded like a man wrote it to blush sufficiently, one of my students asked, "So did you write it bad on purpose?" I managed to scrounge up a reply that I don't believe revealed any wounded pride, and responded that I had intentionally written a rough draft, after which she said, "so, yes." Yes, according to my students, I wrote it bad on purpose.


Ardith said...




(It's important, because it's in all caps.)

Scar said...

OMG best idea ever!!! These are probably 18-year olds who enjoy Stephen King and the stupid Twilight series. Send me your essay, I want to read it :)

Chelsea said...

Wow. Do you think Stephanie Meyer has written any personal essays you could let them rip apart? Haha.

Personally, I love the idea of taking someone "important" and making them anonymous - teach those little suckers a lesson about their own subjectivity!

Heather said...

Yes, please let us read your "intentionally bad essay"! I think if I were you I would have never told them that I had written it. And then I'd quiz them on the words they didn't know!

Ooh! I vote give them a story by Roald Dahl to pick apart! Wait... is he considered well known? The adult stories, not the Cinderella re-make (which Is quite good). Or an excerpt from Thoreau? He uses big words and convoluted sentences. And even if they Had read it, they probably wouldn't recognize it. Joyce? Trying to think of the bigger name "historical stars of writing" that they'd at least have heard of.

Oh. JK Rowling. Haha, yes.

Kate said...

Oh, they're just trying to look all smart. Besides, it's WAY easier to tear things apart than to construct - no wonder they couldn't focus on fixing the percieved shortcomings. I like the Roald Dahl idea - he's weird and disjointed and they'll know him from his children's stuff.