Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 6 comments

So, the summer is winding down a little, and this book is finishing itself, and I thought that I would try, today, to answer a question from a friend of mine that I’ve been dancing around in my head now for several weeks.

The question is this: what would be the best course to take to teach somebody how to write?

In this case, what’s wanted is not just the mechanics (although those are important) as the ability to clearly state and develop and argument and/or an exposition.

And I’m sitting here writing this post about it today because it occurs to me that I don’t have an answer.  I don’t think anybody has an answer.  And that brings me to a couple of problems.

Because, obviously, composition can be taught.   None of us are born knowing how to write an essay, and some of us do learn. 

The same is true of rational thinking.  Most of us are not born knowing how to reason things true, knowing what a valid or invalid argument is,  but some of us learn.

And some of us, of course, don’t.  In fact, lots of us don’t.

And I find myself, when faced with a request for what would be the best course to teach someone, forced to admit that I don’t know of a single course or program that actually does the job.

Not one.

No composition course I have ever taught, or ever seen taught, has been able to consistently and predictably teach students to write better.  And none has been able to teach them to reason better–in fact, they do less well at reasoning than they do at writing.

The extent to which this is true is really staggering.  And I don’t think it’s true for any of the usually cited reasons.

At least on the college level–or the community college level–the disdain for grammar, punctuation and spelling that supposedly characterized Sixties English classroom is not in evidence. Every composition teacher I know, on every level, struggles mightily with the basics.

Maybe it’s just that we’re too late in the process, and all that had to be learned much earlier–but we have minimal success in instilling it now.

Nor is it always the case anymore that people entrusted with teaching composition were never trained to teach composition.

For a long time, courses in composition were taught by people with degrees in English literature, which meant that most of them knew nothing at all about how to teach writing.   They had not been taught how to write.  They’d been taught how to explicate.

These days, however, there are actual PhDs in the teaching of composition, and more and more people being hired for English departments are being hired precisely because composition is what they’ve been trained in.

It’s only at the highest tier places that the people teaching Comp are still former “English majors” in the classical sense of the term.  And the highest tier places are the places with the least trouble with students who can’t write.

Of course, they’re no longer places with no trouble with students who can’t write, so there’s that.

No matter what their virtues, people who get degrees in teaching composition are almost always people who are good at composition, meaning that most of them are like me–they have no idea why they write well instead of badly.

Some of them remember something about the way they themselves were taught, and some of them find those methods wonderful, or awful, and respond accordingly.   I don’t remember a thing about the way I was “taught to write,” and my suspicion is that I wasn’t.  I don’t think anybody these days learns to write in a classroom.

Of course, there are some mechanical things that can be taught–the proper structure of the five paragraph essay, for instance–but when people complain that this new generation of graduates don’t know how to write, that’s not what they mean. 

And although the grammar, punctuation and spelling thing is increasingly urgent, that’s not what people mean, either.

They mean that these kids can’t think their way out of paper bags.

And that is where I find myself completely stumped. 

A hundred years ago–literally by now, I’d think–the English public schools taught their pupils to write by forcing them to copy out classic essays verbatim, and then marking them down for every mistake, no matter how small.

I have no idea if that taught anybody to write, or to think, but I do know that the several generations that were the product of that system gave us some of the most brilliant writers in the history of the English language.

Well, at least, the most brilliant in terms of nonfiction prose.

I don’t know if their more numerous compatriots were as good,  or even any better than our students and new hires.

The more I look around, the more strongly I believe that being able to think your way out of a paper bag is the exception, not the rule.  And it’s been the exception in virutally all eras of history that we can document at all.

Yes, at the top of the pyramid are those writers whose works are destined to be classics who do very well at it–and then there’s everybody else, indulging left and right in non sequiturs, ad hominems, circular arguments and all the rest of it.

Hell, I’ve started to think that the US has abandoned baseball for straw man arguments as the national game.

I get brought back, again and again, to the feeling that we’re going about this all wrong, that we have assumptions about education that do not accord with reality.

I think that it’s possible that we’re tryinjg to teach the wrong things, or trying to teach them in the right way.

And I’m still on that kick where I think that putting a bunch of people into classrooms with a teacher at the front may be the least effective way to teach anything at all.

Which is not the same thing as saying that I know how else to teach it, because I don’t.

What English departments do–or composition programs, if the university in question has abolished the English department–is to tell themselves that the kids have “learned” the “skills” necessary if they can pass the exit exam.

The rest of us have to deal with them when they’ve passed the exam and promptly forgotten everything they learned to pass it.

Which means, to me at any rate, that they never really learned it at all.

Okay, this is depressing.


Written by janeh

August 10th, 2010 at 9:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Composition'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Composition'.

  1. I had a great composition teacher in high school. He taught the structure of essays and that’s what we did – wrote essays until we got it. We’d all had basic grammar well before we got to high school, of course, which helps. I still remember one elderly teacher who actually taught us to diagram sentences, which I don’t believe was very common any more even when I was in school.

    How to think is a different question. I remember learning logic, but that’s different – even then I knew that some of the kids there who were learning the rules of logic were completely unable to apply it to their own thoughts.

    So, yes. It’s interesting – how DO you get it?


    10 Aug 10 at 9:52 am

  2. I think it’s practice, explanation of the structure of literary forms and mechanics, and practice. And then more practice, with of course lots of exposure to stuff other people wrote. Written language comes so early and so easily to some people that is seems like instinct, but I don’t think it is.

    Some ability in or gift for thinking critically or writing clearly if not brilliantly is no doubt innate, but I’m sure it can also be taught. Figuring out which approach works best for which people is difficult, of course – and professional education does tend towards the ‘one size fits all’ model, even when they’re deliberately trying not to. (I’m thinking here about the attempts to allow children to progress and learn at their own speed and on their own, which doesn’t actually work very well for children who haven’t yet learned to structure their world very well, or who maybe don’t have the kind of personality that enables them to decide on and control the direction of their own efforts to learn.)

    It’s remarkably difficult to teach someone something you know at an almost instinctive level. You know the right answer, but you can’t explain it in a way someone else will understand and generalize from.

    I do think that the tendency to shorter blocks of learning and evaluation have made students more and more likely to learn ‘for the test’ and then forget it. When I was in school, we had to remember stuff we learned in September for an exam at the end of June. Most students now are expected to remember it long enough to get through the unit test at the end of the month. So that’s what they do.


    10 Aug 10 at 10:19 am

  3. Hmmm. I have an opinion on the subject, and an idea about how to get facts, which may be more to the point.

    Opinion first: I think composition and clear logical thinking are separate skills, though obviously some types of writing require both. And I suspect that in both cases, Freshman Comp is at least four or five years too late. Somewhere around 7th or 8th grade, the kids have transitioned from reading and remembering exclusively to writing and thinking at least part of the time. If they haven’t learned to do it right, the college Freshman Comp teacher has to get them to unlearn bad habits as well as acquire good ones, and it’s not going to happen in the time allowed. (Thank you Mr. Rothaar, who worked me hard on organizing material in 8th and 9th Grade.)

    I’d say the first step to writing well is reading well-written things. That means stop giving the kids reading assignments in which the author is trying to sound like a contemporary adolescent or copy “authentic” dialogue, and give them material written the way we want them to write. Insist on a lot of writing, and critique it ruthlessly–but in 8th Grade, not Freshman Year of collage.

    As for logic, we might as well put rhetoric back in the curriculum. Begin by teaching the syllogism, go over all the named categories of error, and show no interest in “best effort” or how they feel about something. Ideally, they should be reasoning toward conclusions which can then be tested, and a dose of chemistry, physics or engineering might do a world of good. The belief that “it’s all opinion” is the enabler of bad logic, but a bridge either holds a load or it does not. Working structures are seldom designed by mistake. (Special thinks to Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper especially, for NEVER confusing wanting something to be true with having supporting evidence.)

    But that’s opinion. In the era of the computer and the internet, we should have facts. Find a widely administered test which measures the skills you’re looking for, with results which can be sorted by postal code or census district. Then run postal codes or census districts against some common measures of family background–income, education or whatever to eliminate the areas which “ought” to do well. Then look for anomalies. If compositional skill is strictly family background and IQ, you should have a “flat” field with a certain amount of statistical clustering. If you start getting spikes–postal codes in which students are unusually able–it’s time to look at curricula and teaching methods, to find out what’s being done differently.

    Which brings me to those PhDs in Composition. Their paperwork may be in order, but if we can’t tell the students who’ve taken their courses from those who haven’t, it’s time to ditch the degree. We don’t need (more) people who have memorized a theory to the satisfaction of their examiners when the theory itself is false. We already have the MBAs.


    10 Aug 10 at 4:53 pm

  4. Can I generalize this topic? You can’t teach Physics, or Math or Computer programming. You can teach basic theorems and techniques. But there is no way to teach people to look at a problem and see that it can be solved by applying theorem 1 and theorem 5.

    As far as writing goes, you can assign a thousand works on a topic and critise the result. DO this every week for a year and some students will learn to write. And some won’t.


    10 Aug 10 at 5:19 pm

  5. For what it is worth, I tend to agree with John that people learn to write or they don’t. In my experience, there doesn’t seem to be any way to teach those without any aptitude for writing to do so, and only those with a genuine love of the written word are eveer likely to have such an aptitude.


    11 Aug 10 at 1:20 am

  6. But writing isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Some people are going to write brilliantly, given even the most basic of introductions to the skill. Some are never going to learn to do more than to write their name, and perhaps simple literal instructions – and those ungrammatically. But I think many – maybe most – people can learn to write clearly and grammatically, even if they never learn to write an excellent essay.

    It’s like singing. I am not musically gifted and have not got a good voice or ear. I can, however, learn to sing with the kind of community choir that has no auditions and carefully-chosen fairly simple music. All that takes is effort on my part, and effort on the part of a skilled director. I’ll never be asked to do a solo, much less take a role at the Met, but I can sing, and I can improve my ability to do so to the limits of my talent and voice.


    11 Aug 10 at 5:54 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.