How Not to Teach Writing
In an episode of Rod Serling’s TV series The Twilight Zone, Professor Fowler (played by Donald Pleasence), an English teacher at a New England prep school, is forced into retirement. Racked with the identity crisis thrust upon him, Professor Fowler (language mavens, note the name) decides he would rather face his mortality than his impending obsolescence. In the evening, he takes a pistol and goes for a drunken stroll through the campus. When he reaches the classroom that is no longer his, he is ready to shoot when the ghosts of his former students appear before him. Each one speaks of how he thought of poems, literature, and lessons that Fowler had taught them before they died courageous deaths in various battles going back through several American wars. Of course, Fowler decides it hasn’t all been a waste and puts away the gun.
Writing for the social network
Men and women who traffic in letters and words and sentences are remanded to a defensive posture for life. We must constantly make the case for our necessity. Of course, that’s somewhat easier for published writers. But who has it harder than the teachers of English and the teachers of writing? The Professor Fowlers of the world will likely never publish anything, and neither will their students. Nevertheless, they enter classrooms every day and make the case that reading and writing and words and punctuation matter.
You’d think that the importance of good writing would be far more evident to students than it is. We live in a time when access to the written word has never been greater, basic literacy rates have never been higher, and where text surrounds us everywhere we go. But as the markets in our minds become more crowded with written material, it becomes harder to discern value in what we see. The utility of good and proper writing is remote to most students, who use the written word to express themselves mainly in the virtual worlds of social networks. The audience for this kind of writing is almost entirely specific to the writer; only his “friends” will read it, and, therefore, only his friends need to understand it. As a result, idk wat ppl wrtng lyk this r tlkn bout. But I don’t need to know what they’re talking about; only their friends do. Still, as their teacher, I do have to understand their essays. Most students recognize that the language they use on Facebook is not appropriate for writing a college term paper. That knowledge, however, is usually abstract, and their Facebook habits are hard to break.
The anti-Elements of Style?
Our students can learn a great deal from modeling good writing. It is always worth it to expose them to quality text that they can think about and even mimic. Mimicry is the chief pedagogical tool offered by Stanley Fish in his new book, boldly titled How to Write a Sentence. Fish’s other tool is breathless gushing over sentences he deems brilliant enough to be worth mimicking. Early in the book, he presents How to Write a Sentence as the anti-Elements of Style, proclaiming (perhaps rightly) the Strunk and White classic as irrelevant to today’s students, who severely lack knowledge of the grammatical terms and stylistic conventions explained so succinctly in that classic text. Unfortunately, How to Write a Sentence is didactic without being instructive. In contrast to The Elements of Style, it feels slight and unnecessary. This is not to say that I disagree with Fish’s assessment of Strunk and White’s usefulness in today’s classrooms. At the community college where I teach freshman composition, the students learning English as a second language are the only ones with any abstract knowledge of grammar. I have never used Strunk and White with my students because it is, in essence, written for writers. But the nice thing about it is that it is sure of its role and it performs that role briskly and surprisingly completely. Stanley Fish, on the other hand, makes an earnest argument for the methods laid out by his book, but he is never as coherent, interesting, or accessible as he thinks he is.
What is a sentence, anyway?
First of all, a book telling you How to Write a Sentence had better have a damn good definition for the word sentence—which is admittedly difficult to define for beginner writers. This is Fish’s effort: “(1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships.” The two-part construction of this definition gives the illusion of complexity and completeness, but the words themselves leave much to be desired. Perhaps it would work better if the parts were combined into one: “A sentence is a structure of logical relationships that organizes items in the world.” The problem with this definition is that it takes far too much unpacking, and by the time Fish has gotten through his explanation, we’ve all but forgotten his original definition. Rather than closing the book on sentence definitions, Fish opens an entirely new one.
One area where Fish unquestionably excels is in selecting good sentences. There are the predictable, but no less satisfying for that, bons mots of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. Fish also includes in his chapter on what he calls the “additive style” a section from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail that piles subordinate “when…” clauses on top of each other. Reading this extraordinary sentence in isolation reminded me of the power of King’s letter, far more incendiary and thrilling than “I Have a Dream,” and I am now resolved to find an excuse to teach it as soon as I possibly can. Nonetheless, Fish hasn’t managed to change my mind about Emerson, whose prose style I have found leaden and lifeless since I first read him as an undergraduate.
From start to finish
Fish has particularly missed the point (and an opportunity) in his climactic chapters on first and last sentences. He has, unfortunately, chosen examples of sentences exclusively from works of fiction, which for the undergraduate he has presupposed as his audience is aggressively alienating. It’s not that that beginners can’t learn from great fiction writers, but starting and finishing a novel is very different from starting and finishing a term paper. And this is particularly distressing from a teacher’s perspective because perhaps nothing about the writing process causes more anguish in a pupil than the beginning and end.
There is a lot of terrible common wisdom on introductions and conclusions—and students are prone to internalizing it in various, sometimes comical, ways. Teachers tell them to “say what you’re going to say; say it; say it again and again; then say what you’ve just said.” This reductive, even ugly, phrase is particularly unhelpful when a college English teacher is trying to break students from the five-paragraph form taught in high school. One of my students, who had been told once upon a time to begin essays with a general statement about the topic, followed this rule to perfect failure when she wrote, “The library is a place full of many books.” Another, who had been told to begin with a quotation, wrote, “A quote once said, ‘with great power comes a lot of responsibility.’” Such examples support Fish’s argument against breaking writing down into abstract rules devoid of context and concrete examples. But they also underscore how short he falls in his effort to combat dogmatic approaches to writing instruction. The yawning gap between abstract rule-making and the tortured writing student groping for a way to start his essay goes unfilled.
Reading and writing: two sides of a single coin
Fish, an accomplished academic and online columnist for the New York Times, is stepping into the fray that many writers and teachers of writing feel compelled to enter. We always feel the need to justify what we do. Perhaps I am too hung up on the “how-to” bit of Fish’s title, which may well be a publisher’s conceit, but I cannot imagine a student of mine being convinced of anything after reading Fish’s explications of quality sentences in what he calls, at one point, “full appreciative mode.”
Few of us will ever have a “Twilight Zone moment” of total affirmation of a life’s work in words. In the President’s recent state of the union address, we heard him call for more science teachers. Indeed, we hear all the time about children’s reading and math scores, but writing does not usually enter the discussion. Debates over how to teach reading and writing seem to miss the point. In New York State, our sixth- and eighth-graders have writing sections on their standardized exams, while seventh-graders do not. Where is the logic in that?
The one great, implicit point that Fish makes is that to read and write well, the two have to be considered as inseparable. English teachers need to resist the compulsion to explain why reading and writing are important. We must be resigned to the fact that we will never get the respect we think we deserve. We can only continue trying to maketh precise men and women out of our students. And, true to one of the great last sentences, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.