What I Can and Can’t Teach ‘Em…

Recently, in a creative-writing context, diekreuzen wrote:

I’m glad I missed my last fiction class. Since we’re coming to the end, students are starting to get touchy about their progress. They wonder why their writing hasn’t gotten better. They’re lashing out at the critiques, questioning their usefulness. Such displays make me cringe–like witnessing adult temper tantrums.

All of this is the unhappy realization that no one can tell you how to write. You have to figure it out for yourself.

I have been thinking about this. Post-midterm, I have been making strong efforts to ensure students in my elementary writing don’t just discard the skills they’ve been working on mastering. It’s an unfortunate fact that when students have the experience of preparing for crazy tests like the University Entrance Exams, in which memorizing everything and then, post-exam, forgetting as much as possible is the norm, students can develop a deeply-ingrained habit of discarding whatever it was they learned before midterms. (Even more shocking was the girl who came to me last week to clarify what the difference between this type of list and that type of list was: I cannot fathom how she completed the midterm without knowing it solid!) Sometimes I throw in exercises where, among other things, they have to use this or that technique from before the midterm. During one of our short-classes, I even had the students make up an inventory of things they should have learned thus far, and then told them all to write me a letter using as many of those techniques as possible, and then to mail it to my office postal address (for a checkmark).

As I noted in my comments on diekreuzen’s post, linked above, I think a good teacher can make students a little more aware of things in their writing, a little more sensitive to things they ought to watch, a little more skilled in the mechanics of things. I tell them they still have t come up with something interesting to say or to write about, but the technical stuff, that’s what I’m giving them — the tools to say what they want. Of course, during the “Learning Inventory” we had, I asked them what they thought of their progress, and some of them were quite dubious. They seemed to feel that they’d made no progress at all, until I had them catalogue all the skills we’d covered. Then I reminded them that writing really well takes a long time, and involves both a lot of practice and a lot of reading, but that as far as using these skills to organize their writing, they’ve made the first few steps. Then I tell them if they’re planning on taking another writing course, they’ve better keep practicing.

(I think I’ll ask them if they want me to leave the classblog up this summer. But I think the majority will probably say no.)

7 thoughts on “What I Can and Can’t Teach ‘Em…

  1. Gord,

    I thought I would mention that I have started a new EFL & ESL Wiki over at my site. It’s fully integrated with my blog and forums requiring only one login to use. commenting on blog entries still does not require login.

    I am looking forward to contributions by yourself and if you could post a little promo on your blog I would be very grateful. Sorry for the off-topic comment.

    EFL Geek

  2. I’ll check it out soon and post about it once I do! And I’m interested in your EFL podcast idea but not sure how I can help… and currently too busy to even think about it! :)

  3. “All of this is the unhappy realization that no one can tell you how to write. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

    This person should not be teaching others to write if this is what he sincerely believes.

    But for others, the most useful book I have read on writing is Robert de Beaugrande, Text, Discourse and Process. I would recommnend it to all who wish to learn so that they can teach.

    Writing can be taught!

  4. Tony,

    I honestly believe that aspects of writing can be taught, and so I agree with you on that area. But there are other areas of writing which cannot be “taught” but need to be learned through experimentation, dedicated practice, and extensive reading. You can’t teach writing to someone who doesn’t practice, read, and feel a desire to improve. Certainly you can’t teach someone who write who thinks that all they need to learn can be learned in a single semester, or that the main purpose of learning it is to get As in a class.

    For the record, the person who wrote the above was discussing CREATIVE writing. As he’s taught essay-writing, I’m sure he agrees that the mechanics of writing can and should be taught. But it’s impossible to give a student a poet’s soul — he or she must build it for himself or herself.

  5. Yes, Tony is correct (this was my blog entry, BTW). Writing can be taught. In a creative writing context, craft can be taught.

    But I agree that what Gord calls “soul” (or “inspiration” or “vision”) cannot be workshopped. In my workshop, I’m seeing students ask the teacher how their characters should react in a given situation. To me, this is wrong. Yes, if readers keep saying “I don’t think someone would do this”, you might have a problem, but if the writer really knows the character, he will make characters do the right things, no matter how improbable they seem.

    Making character action seem plausible is craft, but it’s a gut-level decision to have chosen that action in the first place. If it weren’t, writing fiction would be the same as writing technical manuals (and I’ve spent plenty of time in that salt mine).

  6. And even in writing pedagogical or technical materials, there are ways of doing (some of) it with a little soul and zest. It gets worn away, eventually, but it’s possible at the outset, and I do consider it a gift when someone can make REALLY boring technical crap interesting.

  7. Gord,
    even if you are busy just writing a post will help. I’m currently pretty busy too and am not going to start site design until I finish finals – but I’m trying to drum up interest.

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