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This Is An Apple

We live in good times despite all evidence to the contrary. [<--- Theme sentence.]

When I was admitted to graduate school (over 20 years ago, now), part of the admissions package included a teaching fellowship to help me pay my way. The school I attended had an excellent program (reviled by freshmen, of course) called "Rhetoric". The school used the word not in its contemporary, degraded sense ("That's just rhetoric"), but in its classic sense: the science of constructing and presenting an argument. The course's subtitle might have been "Reading, Writing, Speaking" since we were required to spend our time in the classroom developing the skills of our students in those areas.

Every entering freshman was required to either take the course or test out of it. The requirements for testing out (known as "clepping out") were rigorous and very, very few students got out of having to take the course. The students looked on it as a rite of unpleasant passage, not unlike having to go through puberty, I suppose.

Generally, professors in the upper level courses loved it. By the time the students came to them and were asked to write papers or participate in classroom discussions, the students' skills had been at least improved and in many cases very much improved. The most salient criticism of the program was that many of the graduate students who were teaching the courses just weren't very good at it. Indeed, as I understand it, some were actively bad. There were a couple of weeks of training for incoming graduate students to help them "get" the purpose of the program, and to help them decide how they wanted to teach their sections -- we had a great deal of freedom in that regard -- but, hell, I'd never taught a course before and it was scary. I'm not surprised there were some truly sucky Rhetoric teachers who didn't have a clue.

Still, overall, the program did what it was supposed to do, I think. I heard enough horror stories from my students about other Rhetoric teachers to fill a smallish volume, but still... no program meant to accommodate the needs of thousands of people can work for everybody. We're all stinky and messy and full of our own peculiarities. You do the best you can, and overall I'm glad I had the opportunity to participate in this program. Though it has to be admitted, in my third year of grad school when I was given the opportunity to teach more advanced writing courses -- instead of Rhetoric -- I didn't leap at the chance, I launched myself at it like a Sidewinder missile.

You'd be astonished at the number of bad writers who come out of high school convinced by their English teachers that they are great writers. These are the ones who use Big Words, and who give you (you can spot this halfway through the Perfectly Constructed Theme Sentence, With Big Words) exactly what they think you want. These, for me, were both the most interesting and frustrating students to deal with. When they got their first papers back from me, they were shocked and angry and my Office Hours were suddenly booked to overflowing. Which was good. This was precisely what the doctor ordered. It gave me the chance to sit down with them and personally talk about their writing with them. We went through their individual papers and I pointed out this flaw and that flaw but it always came back to the same general point: writing is not bullshitting. So, you know, don't bullshit me. Writing is thinking. So, you know, think.

It was a delight when these particular students got it. It was horrible when some of them either didn't or wouldn't get it. Those students who couldn't get it never forgave me for not falling for their bullshit. Fortunately, these die-hards were relatively few and far between.

I love writing stuff. Just, you know, writing stuff. Writing has always been thinking for me. Maybe not good or smart thinking -- I don't pretend to be the sharpest knife in the drawer -- but it was thinking nevertheless and so it was fun. It's also, of course, just playing. The other day I posted about a "web novel" that I wrote just because I thought it would be fun to write it. But that's another sort of writing, equally gratifying for me, but not the sort of writing I'm talking about here.

Like the self-centered brat that I am, I found it astonishing that others -- in particular these students of mine -- didn't see writing the way I saw it. It struck me, not to put too fine a point on it, as a god-damned shame. So after a time I determined that I would change my students' worlds for them. I would try to find a way to make them see writing as thinking instead of bullshitting. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I see now I was helped enormously by the impulse that exists in most folks in their late teens to call other people's bullshit. All I had to do, really, was find a way to let my students know that they couldn't bullshit me the way they'd clearly been able to bullshit others. After that, they'd do the rest of the work for me.

Okay, that was easy enough. I just told them, you bullshit me, and your grade will suffer. Like it or not, for better or worse, this approach has a tendency to make students sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, however, disposing of that difficulty revealed a deeper writing problem shared by many of these students. They now knew they weren't allowed to bullshit me, but they didn't know how not to bullshit me. Writing had always been bullshitting for them and if I was going to take that away from them, what on Earth were they to do?

So I realized that I had to more or less reforge a link between writing and thinking for them. I suppose somewhere along the line they had either been taught or had otherwise learned that what they thought was not particularly welcome in the classroom. Their natural survival response was, then, to not think and to instead give their teachers whatever they thought they wanted. Unfortunately young minds are quite adept at figuring out what their elders want from them so it was easy enough for them to just take that route. It was hard to learn that what they thought could actually be welcomed by a teacher.

I had to start from scratch. Simplicity is always best, so I went simple. Every day or so, I would start the class period with ten-minutes of what I called (not originally) "free writing". I told them to take out some paper and a writing instrument and when I said "go", and for the next ten minutes, they were simply to write. They were not allowed to stop and ponder. They were not allowed to stop and gaze at the ceiling and tap their pen against their teeth. They had to keep the point of their writing instrument on their paper and they had to keep it moving. I didn't care what they wrote about. I didn't care if it made any sense. All I cared about was that they keep their writing instrument moving. I think, but don't quite recall, that I told them they could hand in the product of these free writing exercises, if they wanted. The free writings would not influence their course grade one way or the other. Basically, I think the rule was if they were particularly enchanted by what had emerged from them that day, they were welcome to show it off to me.

Once they understood that there really was only one requirement -- keep the writing instrument moving -- they began to relax and actually (or so they told me) enjoy this sort of writing. The purpose was obvious, of course. If you aren't allowed to stop and figure out what bullshit strategy you will use next, you can't bullshit anymore. Eventually, you actually have to start putting down whatever occurs to you, and that will lead to whatever occurs to you next, and that to whatever comes after that, and so on. After a time, perhaps to your astonishment, you realize you are thinking on paper.

It doesn't always work that way, of course. And for some people, it never works. But still. It worked often enough for enough students for them to generally get it: writing is thinking.

In the end-of-semester teacher evaluations the students were required (by the university) to fill out, these free writing exercises were often cited as the most useful part of the course. And, it has to be immodestly said, many of these students (for whatever reason) were much better writers by the end of the course than they had been at the beginning.

Today is the first day of the rest of the SAT's life. You may have heard or read about the new essay-test requirement. As I understand it, the newest addition to the test is a 25-minute, two-page essay section. Some topic is given to the student, and the student then writes for 25 minutes on the topic. American education being what it is, i.e., being more oriented toward testing than teaching, I think there is an excellent opportunity here.

I was listening to a discussion of this new SAT essay section yesterday, and the reporter was asking the Noted Expert whether there was a danger that students would prepare some canned essay in their minds, then come in and wrench their canned essay into fitting the given topic. For example, a "wrenched" canned essay might begin: "I support increased funding for space travel for many of the same reasons I support gun control laws." Okay, I suppose that could be an interesting essay if the student could actually make some intriguing connections between funding for space travel and gun control laws. It could be good if it wasn't, you know, just bullshitting in order to cram the canned essay into the given topic. Chances are, though, you're going to get the canned bullshit.

Let's hope the test evaluators give the bullshitters the poor grades they deserve. Putting aside the question of whether standardized testing is actually a good thing, let's consider for a moment the opportunity we're presented with here. If word gets out that bullshitting is going to cost you, and given the fact that there is a great deal of "teaching toward the test" in American education, maybe we'll luck out and students will begin to be taught how to survive this 25 minute, two-page essay section of the SAT. That is, maybe they will be taught, more often than they may be now, that writing is not bullshitting; it's thinking.

But then it occurs to me that maybe this new SAT section is not such a new opportunity, after all. Or, more precisely, it occurs to me that maybe this supposed new opportunity isn't particularly important.

A few weeks ago I was having a pleasant dinner with some Well-known Bloggers and one of the many questions we settled that evening was that there was too much good stuff on the web. A lot of crap? Sure. Anyone with half-a-brain able to filter it out? Also sure. The fact is, there is so much good writing all around us -- on the internet, on the web (despite the scorn that is heaped on both) -- that you can hardly keep up with it. The link above takes you to an article in the Christian Science Monitor called "Teens ready to prove text-messaging skills can score SAT points". It makes the point that in these Internet Days we live in, young folks have been doing a lot of this "free writing" I talked about above. I spent a lot of my early days online hanging around the Usenet groups. Anybody who has spent any time there knows how filled with crap that venue can be. But they also know there is a lot of invigorating writing going on there too. Conversations. People thinking on their fingertips. Pressing their points. Arguing their cases. The great thing about it is that you pretty much can't get away with bullshitting people, no matter how much you think you can. You always get called on your bullshit.

In the old Internet Days, it used to be the conventional wisdom that all this online writing had degraded the overall "literary skills" of writers everywhere. It seems obvious to me now that the truth is quite the opposite. We are, in general, as a culture, much better writers than we used to be. In fact, I wish there were fewer good writers out there. There is too much good stuff to read on the web. I can't stand the thought that I'm missing a bunch of good stuff simply because I can't spend my whole god-damned day reading all the good stuff on the web. This is a glorious embarrassment of riches, and it's torture.

And the really exciting thing is that a great deal of this good writing is being produced by so many "young minds" -- minds of an age I was teaching back in graduate school. These "young minds" produce some of the sharpest, funniest, wittiest, most original stuff you see anywhere on the web. I love it. Sure, I love the good old guys, guys my age, who have the worldly experience and widely read background to sink down into heretofore hidden places. There is an abiding thrill to that. But I especially love the young ones coming up. They enliven me. And, I hope, I'm working on it at least, they enliven my writing.

And so the circle comes round. I used to teach them, or at least I tried, and now, everyday, cruising the web, I find myself learning volumes from writers half my age. Thanks, Teach. Thanks to all my new teachers out there. If I could manage it, I'd put a bright red apple on all your desks.


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