Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Chasing Away the Ghosts
by Anne Jung
There are certain moments in my writing process, even more than twenty years later, that I can still imagine hearing that sharply critical voice striking a deep and lasting blow as the journalism assignment replete with bloody red ink landed on my desk. ďThis is all wrong,Ē were the words my high school journalism teacher stabbed me with as she passed down the aisle pausing only long enough for me to catch a whiff of her nicotine breath. At the very same moment my stomach muscle knotted, my face burned as if with fever, and those four words echoed out of control over and over again in my ears. Notoriously late for class due to her love of smoking cigarettes in the teacherís lounge (in those days smoking was allowed in school buildings), Ms. Batchelorís entrance into the class on this particular day was no exception. With a flurry of authority, arrogance, and impatience, she appeared before me-the subservient and humble student. Her disdain for my writing was obvious in her written comments on the returned assignment. But it was the spoken word about my writing that intimidated and humiliated me, even to this very day when I allow myself to think back on the incident.
Hearing that my work was ďall wrongĒ in the presence of other students was the worst embarrassment I could imagine as a shy and overly sensitive teenager. I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide. I managed to fight back tears until my retreat to the lavatory at the end of the period. Any confidence I had in my writing died that day. From that moment on my dreams of being a writer were severely compromised. Ms. Batchelor had taken advantage of her position of power over my writing. Whether this was intentional on her part or just a case of insensitivity or carelessness has no bearing on the story. The result was the same. It must be that I managed to produce other meager pieces of journalism necessary to pass the course and graduate from high school, (since Iím telling this story as a PhD. student), but my impression of myself as a writer would never be the same.
Nearly two decades later I still realized the implications of this comment. Deciding to return to college to complete my undergraduate work in English at SUNY Albany, I registered as a non-matriculated student for an upper level English summer course entitled Eng 447/The Historical Imagination. Reading the syllabus on the first day of class, my heart pounded as I saw the fifteen-page paper requirement. Driving home that evening following class in a queasy and overly anxious state, I wanted to immediately withdraw and just pretend that Iíd never attended the class. I clearly didnít belong there. Iíd tell my family the class was cancelled, or over-enrolled. How could I compete with other students? How could I submit a paper when I couldnít write? How could I face receiving less than satisfactory comments on a paper I submitted for a grade? How could anyone possibly value my writing at such a large and impersonal institution? All of my old feelings of insecurity and intimidation returned as if I were back in high school. The ghost of that teacher was heading down the aisle toward me ready to hand back another piece of failed writing. And I wasnít ready or willing to subject myself to that kind of humiliation again.
But Iíve never been subjected to that type of humiliation since that day long ago in high school. And thanks to a professional, supportive, and encouraging teacher who uttered four small words of comment that more than compensated for my high school experience, that ghost has all but disappeared. The exorcism began the day I approached the office door of Professor Jeffrey Berman. The closer I came to his third floor office door in the Humanities Building clutching a draft of the fifteen-page essay due for Eng. 447 in my hand, the more I wanted to turn around and bolt from the building. I took a deep breath and timidly knocked on the door. But I could tell right away he was a kind person.
He invited me to come in his office and take a seat. As I nearly sank to the floor in a chair with a deceiving cushion, I prayed for my pulse to stop racing. I was so nervous as he read my draft that I found myself holding my breath. I watched his eyes move across my paper and his face showed very little expression as he read. Anticipating and bracing myself for a negative comment, every muscle in my neck and shoulders was taut. But nothing bad happened. In a very gentle and calm voice, he looked over at me and said, ďYouíre a good writer.Ē A rush of surprise and then relief washed over me. Not quite believing what I had heard, I repeated his words back to him. ďIím a good writer?Ē I quizzically inquired. And he nodded affirmatively. Four kind words and a nod were all that I needed. He went on to advise me to keep sentences free of unnecessary words, split infinitives, and comma splices. But it didnít matter at that point what else he had to say. He had affirmed me as a person who could write. I had regained the ability to imagine my potential as a writer.
From that point on, I approached my writing assignments with enthusiasm. I applied to the University to be enrolled as a full-time student. I felt that I did belong in his classroom with other undergraduates and even graduate students. I flourished as a student. I have been writing ever since. Several of my student essays have been included in Professor Bermanís latest book entitled Risky Writing, which is based on the semester work of an undergraduate writing course English 300Z.
It would not be enough to simply say that Professor Bermanís positive comments shaped me as a writer and a student. Had I not had the terrible experience in high school, Professor Bermanís comments would not have been so significant to me. My high school teacher did a tremendous amount of damage to my self-confidence at a critical point in my development. Her inability or unwillingness to find ways to convey constructive criticism caused harm to at least one of her students, and most likely to more students over her long tenure as a high school teacher. And yet it was because those negative remarks caused such a bad reaction that I am able to appreciate how powerful positive comments about student writing can be. It is through this experience that I can appreciate how crucial it is to always have an understanding of how to value the work of a student.
The difference in teaching strategies and attitude between these two teachers made all the difference in the world for me. It is not necessarily the words a writing teacher can offer a student that will have an impact, but it is also the way in which the message is carried which can be critical for the student. With my high school teacher, she was always rushed, breathless and hyperactive as she flew around the classroom. She was most unapproachable and always gave the appearance of being too busy for students. She was distracted with union duties and complained loudly of being overburdened. Her moods were unpredictable and she was at times overly emotional. This is not to say many students did not consider her a good teacher. She was also described as energetic, artistic, inventive and creative. However, from my own experience, Iíve recognized that a more positive way to foster and encourage good writing is to first value studentsí writing and then to offer constructive criticism if necessary. Negative comments made about student writing are best made privately either in written communication or a conference outside the classroom.
My relationship with both Ms. Batchelor and Professor Berman has changed over the years from that initial student/teacher dichotomy. Ms. Batchelor is still teaching English at my old high school and I have served with her on various committees. And three years ago when she needed to have emergency surgery, she specifically asked the principal to twist my arm to be her long-term substitute teacher. I obliged. By allowing me the opportunity to teach her classes for an extended period of time, she more than made up for her critical comment about my writing so many years ago. I not only got to walk in her path for eight weeks, but I had a chance to see what was taking place in high school curriculums. I also realized how demanding the job is of teaching six classes of high school English. I now understand how easy it would be for a teacher to be rushed and impatient with high school students.
As for Professor Berman, he still reads essays and articles of mine. He makes constructive comments and suggestions, and I return the favor by proofreading his manuscripts. And although he insists that I should offer him constructive criticism as well, it is difficult for me to do so. Perhaps it is his never-failing encouragement and my appreciation of his teaching methods that wonít allow me to take the role of an English teacher when reading his work.
It has been my experience that young student writers can be very vulnerable to harsh criticism from a teacher or person in authority. And in my own case, that criticism didnít disappear at the end of the semester but in fact, stayed with me for many years. I still have to push that ghost of criticism out of my head when I sometimes have difficulty with my writing. For the most part, the wounds from the red pen have healed and the scaring has been greatly reduced. Since the process of writing is difficult enough without discouraging words from teachers, it is imperative that harsh criticism be chased out of the writing classroom for the good of all students.
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