Saturday, May 21, 2005

Teaching Writing

Usually, this job is thankless. When a student's writing improves over the semester, a humble instructor has to think "well, this student would have responded to any careful attention." Such a reaction is ethical--I continually worry about the impact of personality--but not at all gratifying. Perhaps ethics and gratification shouldn't intertwine, but I do know that a young teacher's desire to see immediate results can be misleading and even do harm to his or her students.

I had a student this semester who needed help. He was the nicest kid, the smartest from the ghetto high school, the potential kid, maybe the affirmative action kid. He had a Latino last name. He explained to me at one point how an excellent science project in high school had gotten him a support-staff job at the swanky university. Maybe those connections got his undergraduate application a special consideration, but the kid has potential.

He's smart, but at the beginning of my class, his second semester, his writing was still a mess: ungrammatical, unsystematic, non-subordinated in logic or in grammar. I hauled him into my office--and he took it like a trooper. This kid worked his ass off for my class, and, yes, he's going to continue to struggle, but he's on it now, I think.

If anyone is reading this, I hope you'll let me know whether it's beyond the pale to quote a little from this student's last paper. In any event, further musings are under the fold.

My department's curriculum demands that the final paper be a "retrospective" one, which I always try to interpret widely; in fact, I usually present the curriculum's goals and open an essay-prompt contest. Those who choose to disregard the voted-upon prompt usually have something particular that they want to say. The above-mentioned student definitely had something to say.

In the most lucid and heart-felt prose I'd ever seen from him, he talked about how his high school teachers told him that his essays were "convincing" and "interesting." He said that he had graduated in a spirit of confidence, that he could hack it at the prestigious university, even if perhaps he would not excell. Then, he talks about his first semester. His introductory English teacher doesn't accept his first draft; rewritten, the paper gets an ignominious C+.

The next sentence's pathos and restraint make me want to cry, so I find it impossible to paraphrase. If any readers think I've violated this student's privacy, I will immediately delete this part of the post.
The C+ did not hurt as much as tthe thoughts that came to my mind about my previous school. My thought processes lead me to question the academic integrity of the high school I graduated from. I began to assume my teachers patronized me, and saluted me for a job well done, when in fact, it possibly was not well done.

In my comments to this paper, I of course tried to point out that this students' teachers were probably trying to encourage him, trying to keep a spark alive against perhaps difficult odds--but, oh gods, I felt for him, trying to work through having been the smartest kid in the ghetto to being one of the least prepared kid in the Ivy League. Least academically prepared, perhaps. Emotionally, he's three steps ahead. He even had tear-jerkingly kind things to say about my course:
It is weird to say [Jackmormon] constructively criticized a paper by never criticizing, meaning [Jackmormon] told you straight out "This is not quite right, let us work on this."

This is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my teaching: that I was directly helpful. Yeah, we'd all like to be inspiring, and all that shit, but when it comes down to it, this kid is the kind of person whom we can really help. And, yeah, this kid managed to come to the perfect pedegogical attitude: he found out that he needed help, and he sought it. He was in my office more than anyone else--because he recognized that he needed help.

And this is the kind of kid whom we can really help. I spent more time with him and with my international students than with most of my bright, distracted students combined. Some of the brightest stars in my class didn't make any grade-progress over the semester; the terrible secret is that I don't feel bad about them. I have been a bright star, and I know how limiting arrogance can be at 17-18.

Well, anyway, the post is an indirect brag. This student's essay made my month, my semester--and no, my gratification didn't earn him an "a" because the whole point of what he was expressing was that some students are still able to respond to teachers' saying "you are bright, but your paper is still flawed."

This sort of response takes time and enormous tact (another way of expressing time). And, yes, my dissertation is progressing rather slowly.


Blogger Nancy A. McKeand:

There was nothing inappropriate about the post. And it didn't sound like bragging. Sometimes some pretty amazing things happen and we just have to share them with someone. Thank you for sharing it with us.

5/21/2005 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

Thanks, Nancy: I was worried about violating the kid's privacy--but not enough to censor myself, obviously.

5/21/2005 07:49:00 PM  

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