I found it interesting that the essays written in response to “The Writing Revolution” article seemed to be predicated on an either/or template: teach boring grammar/form/composition or engage in a creative writing free for all. I think the best teachers probably combine the two schools of thought, while incorporating Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay.” That being said, I disagreed with the premise outlined in many of the pieces – that creative writing is and should be a free flowing, mode of personal expression untethered to more practical considerations. In “What Poetry Teaches Us About the Power of Persuasion,” Dorothea Lasky writes: “It would be hard to say that any outstanding essay does not involve meticulous word choice or the ability to persuade a reader through sheer aesthetic prowess. Poetry teaches students how to do this.”
I would argue the opposite. If students have trouble creating a coherent sentence or phrase or image, it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to focus on vivid language, simile, metaphor, tone, point of view and so on in their poetry or short stories (or in a college paper). It’s going to be difficult for the poem to move, to breathe, to take on a life of its own, to resonate with the reader or even with the writer. Form shouldn’t be viewed as some horrible rote exercise, but as a means to an end. Hopefully there’s a better, more meaningful way to teach composition than circling participles in a sentence. But I find the trend to downgrade this part of writing disturbing and ultimately counter-productive.
Of the five essays I read, my favorite was John Maguire’s “The Secret of Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas.” I liked this piece because instead of taking sides in the debate, he offers a concrete solution: Identify skills students lack and address them. More specifically, he advocates writing with objects as a way of circumventing papers filled with abstract and ultimately meaningless sentences. “Student papers,” he says, “are often unreadable not only because their grammar is bad and their sentences incomplete, but also because they are way, way too abstract.” Agreed. I found that even when I assigned students to write a personal essay (about why you’ve been following Jenna Marbles on YouTube for two years or whether A-Rod’s steroid use made you less of a fan of his, for example) their papers were filled with general, repetitive, muddy phrases on what “we” as a society think about celebrity culture. Perhaps focusing on concrete nouns, or as he puts it, “words that can be dropped on your foot” will stifle the urge to move “vague terms around like checkers on a board, repeating them, and hoping that through repetition something will be said.”
I’m wondering if anyone else has any practical suggestions for addressing skills students seem to lack. (I liked Karen’s suggestion on Thursday to “write what you just said”). Perhaps these ideas could be shared on a blog thread, as well as in class.