English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Hold The Line:
Putting the Brakes on Under-Education

by Nick Weiss

I suppose there is something to be said for a good solid routine. First of all, when one establishes a routine, he or she needn’t think too much; everything just seems to fall into place day after day after day. Once we have our routine down, it simply becomes a matter of setting it in motion and watching everything unfold just as it did the time before and the time before that. Not only do we avoid thinking too much, but we also eliminate that cursed need to demonstrate creativity. Who needs that hassle? In grammar school, teachers taught us the importance of memorization and strict adherence to the order of events. In history, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” In music, “Every-good-boy-does-fine.” In writing, “Put ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’”. By the time we made it to junior high school we had been convinced that there was one way to do something, and to try something new was out of the question. Is this still our attitude toward education and life in general? I carried this point of view with me through elementary school, junior high, high school, and through five years in the Army. Writing, especially, had been tedious for me. Called upon to write anything, I began with an outline. I used the same format I had been taught in seventh grade, and I adhered to it. I used the basic rules of grammar I had learned-never realizing that grammar was evolving nor realizing the purpose of what I was doing. I wrote using words that I recalled from vocabulary lists. And, I never dared be creative. My writing was dull, dry, and as uninteresting to read as it had been to compose. So there it was; I hated writing.

A freshman at 23 years old, I was required to take the traditional English 101 course along with my younger classmates. I recall how intimidated I felt when the teacher passed out the course syllabus. We would be required to turn in four 5-page papers followed by an 8-page final paper-28 pages in fifteen weeks. It would be impossible. I immediately began making plans for dropping out of college.

Before having us begin our first written assignment, Professor Pekoe read to us from Homer’s Iliad. She read passages about Akhilleus’ and Agamémnon’s frivolous arguing over a slave girl, Hera’s negotiations with Zeus concerning the outcome of the Trojan war, and the humorous but ultimately tragic chase between Akhilleus and Hektor around the walls of Troy. Then, she told us to write our own chapter to Homer’s epic. It could begin and end wherever we chose, and it could include established characters or ones we invented ourselves. “Go crazy,” she told us. The concept was entirely new to me. I had never been told to “go crazy.” I had been told to “devise an outline, and have it approved before beginning writing,” but I had never been told to “go crazy.” Was I about to write creatively?

Admittedly, at first I was still intimidated by the 5-page length requirement, but I was about to learn something about myself: I enjoy writing. Before I knew it, I had completed the first page, and the next four pages followed as easily. When I had completed five pages, I realized I still had more to say. In fact, I was eager to write more. I recall feeling upset that the assignment had been so short. I was so proud of what I had written that I made an appointment to have Professor Pekoe look over my work before I handed it in. It seems a little silly now, but I was not as concerned about her criticism of my composition skills as I was anxious to hear her response to what I had written. As it turned out, I received both. She was impressed with my imaginative narrative but a little concerned about my grammar and punctuation. For the next hour, Professor Pekoe combined kudos with constructive criticism and helped me correct misunderstandings about the English language I had maintained throughout thirteen years of schooling. I left her office that afternoon with an entirely renewed understanding of what it was to write. I also realized that to be a teacher is to do more than bark out an assignment, wait for it to be turned in, and then decorate it with red ink. Teaching is collaborative; it requires communication beyond a red pen and a report card.

I have come to understand the importance of structure in writing. Without structure, language can easily become nonsensical. I believe, however, that creativity is equally as important in keeping language from becoming stale. Perhaps a scientist can tolerate monotonous writing-the kind found in the pages of jargon-filled scientific journals-because it is the substance that he or she finds engaging. And, in their way, scientific journalists are free to be as creative as the novelist can. I also respect the integrity of a proper bibliography, when one is called for. As writers we are responsible to give credit to our sources. What I do not understand is how so many students graduate high school not knowing why structure and integrity is so important to writing, and how to maintain them while being creative at the same time.

Perhaps I would not be so cynical if the lack of communication between teachers and students were not so easy to overcome. Despite the restraints teachers often face, there are more than enough minutes in the school day to engage students. I recall many of my teachers spending entire class periods in their chair behind their desk-not once emerging to ask us if we had questions. Many times, teachers brought newspapers to class and read them while we did our work. I received assignments back with red X’s but no explanations for why. Written assignments were generally graded for punctuation with no concern for content or creativity; in fact, once, my paper was graded-down for my failed attempt at adding humor to an otherwise dull subject. Schoolwork, as it appeared to me, fit a template-a mold created years ago when students were forced to sit straight, face forward, and speak when spoken to. Fifteen years after graduating high school, I am able to translate these observances; though, I cannot change them. I can, however, attempt to improve the current system by emulating teachers like Professor Pekoe and others. Nonetheless, students should not have to wait until their freshman year of college to realize that writing can be fun and rewarding.

I suppose that it is as easy to fall into a routine while teaching as it is while working an assembly line. I mean, for crying out loud, who is a teacher but a worker on an assembly line who gets to touch a student for a relatively short time before he or she moves along the educational conveyer belt to the next teacher in line. Some teachers recognize that things may not be as they should, but rather than slow down the flow of the line, they watch as misinformed and under-educated students are conveyed in front of their eyes. As educators, it is our responsibility to recognize when the line should be slowed down or even stopped. It might seem as though we are taking up the slack for other workers who have not done their jobs properly, but teaching is a challenge, which cannot be evenly distributed. A teacher not up to challenge, perhaps, has chosen the wrong occupation.

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