The Sacramentality of Teaching and Learning

For the one-credit journalism class that I teach every semester, I’m teaching a unit on editorial writing. Students will take a leisurely 10-chapter journey through Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace.  It’s the first time I’ve taught a whole unit focusing on sentence-level phrasing.  The class meets once a week, for just one hour, and the students taking the course are expected to be actively involved in the production of the student paper, so there’s only so much work I can expect them to write; still, I am looking forward to the idea of reading through each chapter one week at a time, without the pressure of having to build up to a big research paper.

I don’t usually have that kind of luxury to focus on phrasing in my freshman writing courses.  Basic Comp focuses on paragraphs and grammar, and Seminar in Thinking and Writing involves the discussion of readings in cultural identity, in a process that leads up to a researched term paper.  These are the classes where students face the uncomfortable fact that even the bright students — the ones who pay attention in class, and take good notes, and know how to spot the main ideas they’ll be asked to echo back on a quiz — have to work hard in college.

This realization is a ritual.  Not a series or random actions devoid of meaning; not a pattern to memorize in order to avoid deeper thought.  Like any ritual, it cannot be summarized, or transmitted through a lecture or book. The learning happens only after we try, measure how far we fall short of our goal, and try again.

This year, I’ve noticed that almost all of my freshman writing students are showing up very early.  They just sort of sit there looking at me, waiting for me to begin.  So Friday, a few minutes before class started, I played this clip from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.

The cartoon illustrates the dangers of churning out off-topic filler (Schroeder), minimal intellectual engagement (Lucy), puffed-up language (Linus), and, of course, procrastination (Charlie Brown).

I told my class that my 11yo son asked me what feedback I would give each character. Nobody produced a successful 100-word book report on Peter Rabbit.  Schroeder clearly hasn’t found the right topic. Lucy hates everything about the assignment, but she almost accidentally shows aptitude in math and agriculture.  Linus spends more than 120 words just setting up his thesis, and he doesn’t actually prove any of it. At one point, Linus says Peter Rabbit was driven to “perform acts of thievery which he consciously knew were against the law.”  (I pointed out in class that Linus could have instead written “steal.”)  We don’t actually see what Charlie Brown ends up with, but because the assignment is “not due ’till Wednesday,” he and all the other characters still have time to revise.

Will this clip prevent my students from making these same mistakes?

It’s tempting to wish that, if only I warned them more forcefully, they’d go into their assignment knowing exactly what not to do, and the learning process would go much easier for them and for me.

I’m pondering such things on a deeper level than usual, since I’ve been reading Zinsser’s Writing to Learn.

The author offers some very eloquent ways I might try to introduce some of the points I find myself hammering over and over. For instance, my students are used to hearing me talk about the difference between showing and telling, and I regularly cite a handout where I try to make this point with examples. “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”

I’ve tweaked that handout so many times that I feel fairly confident it covers the subject in exactly the way I’d like my students to encounter it. (Why does writing fall flat when it announces “I was really excited” or “It made me angry,” labeling and listing the emotions the writer feels, rather than attempting to generate those feelings in the reader), that I was pleasantly surprised to find just how useful it was for me to read Zinsser’s very different attempt to make the same point.

Readers must be given room to bring their own emotions to a piece so crammed with emotional content; the writer must tenaciously resist explaining why the material is so moving. (34)

Or, as the Robot Devil from Futurama put it in a self-referential opera:

Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry.

My freshmen will be submitting their first writing assignment Monday. I’ve told the students I’ll evaluate them on whether they can use MLA style to cite brief quotations, and I’ve also asked them to demonstrate their ability to write an academic paragraph (which the should have learned in the first half of the freshman writing sequence).  But my real goal is to introduce students to the interactive process that begins when an instructor marks up a student’s draft.

I find that it’s common for students to feel almost cheated when they see the comments in the margins of their papers. “If I’d known you didn’t want me to write it that way, I’d have written it differently,” they sometimes say. “Why didn’t you just tell me, in a lecture, that you wanted it that way? I would have given you what you wanted, and I wouldn’t have lost any points on the assignment.”

The Peanuts clip won’t magically inoculate my students; the Futurama quote won’t magically teach “Showing vs. Telling.”  Again, Zinsser says it well:

Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy way to teach writing. When I first did it, I assumed that a good part of the job could be accomplished by explaining in class the elements that constitute good writing. Surely if I assailed my students with my sacred principles… they would go and do what I had told them to do. | No such transfer takes place. Writing teachers are lucky if 10 percent of what they said in class is remembered and applied. The bad habits are just too habitual. They can be cured only by that most painful of surgical procedures: operating on what the writer has actually written. Only there, where a writer is at his most vulnerable, having put some part of himself on paper, does he make the connection between principle and practice. (47)

I have read student encounters with death, their struggles to cope with life-changing injuries, their triumphant, miraculous moments of grace, and their secret moments of shame.  And it’s my job to do more than simply praise the student for surviving the illness, or mourning a loved one, or choosing to share.

But Zinsser praises the writing teachers who take this part of the job with reverential seriousness:

Whenever I hear them talk about their work, I feel that few forms of teaching are so sacramental; the writing teacher’s ministry is not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words…. Through the writing of our students we are reminded of their individuality. We are reminded, whatever subject we are charged with teaching, that our ultimate charge is to produce broadly educated men and women with a sense of stewardship for the world they live in.

So early in a writing course, I aim to acknowledge the student’s willingness to open up, while at the same time hinting at opportunities they can seize, in order to share their stories and ideas in a form that is more convincing and memorable for the reader, and more efficient and productive for themselves.