I asked to teach English 101, the college writing-course many educators avoid. Before computers!
Other faculty members advised: ‘read paragraph one, put the grade on’, ‘use professional guide books’ sample questions’, ‘request a better course next year’. ‘don’t admit extra students pleading it’s the only time-slot available’.
After class-size quota was reached, unplaced freshmen asked if I could make room. I took all who came.
I told them I wanted to have a sense of an individual’s life, expressed on paper, and not just see a classroom of those taking a mandatory subject.
Making up my own essay questions for various categories I had to include, the choices were fun or serious and definitely relatable. The ‘professional’ possibilities listed in faculty manuals were not ones I’d want to write so why might any student? It was a bulky load carrying home that first completed assignment, and I began to read and find something positive for comments as success makes one want to continue to succeed. I hadn’t realized how long each paper was taking until several hours had gone by and I’d barely made a dent in the pile. Determined to both teach and ‘be there’ to listen to each student, in person or via compositions, I knew I had to follow my personal wants and absolutely not follow the already-employed-faculty-advice.
The head of the English Department offered me other courses, even ones I could grade with a Number-Two pencil filling in a circle among possible answers; I asked to stay with English Composition. I read an eighteen year old’s confusion as a first-generation-college attendee and parents’ expectation, pain from breaking up with a boyfriend, why climbing a tree was liberating, ‘real’ words even though not always grammatically correct. I tried, unsuccessfully, to point out grammar errors; what hadn’t been learned for twelve years prior to my class mostly was a given. Eventually, I added Advanced Composition when I realized I’d have many of the English 101 pupils taking English 251 as both were essay courses; it was like a reunion as the growth in confidence came through their typed words. Computers were still infants with only floppy disks and DOS.
Plagiarism. I spent hours using a microfiche machine; flat sheets of data were hard on the eyes, but how else could I find sources to prove a specific student had taken another’s words as her own? Today, few would know this miniaturized form, a machine that stored information for one person-at-a-time use. Sentence by sentence, I searched for absolute proof before approaching the Dean. When other English Department faculty realized what I was doing, they insisted I stop as they never wanted to get into plagiarism and I was going to stir a pot that was better left. Well, it was quite an encounter with the Dean, pupil’s parents ‘why are you doing this to my child’ anger, and me sitting in an office. I pretended to be calm asking the student to write just one paragraph of the question and we’ll all see the chosen words. The almost PhD language of the originally turned-in-paper was so impossible that I couldn’t let this cheating go without standing up for all my students who did their own work. There are life-lessons as well as English.
By the time computer hard drives with 3 ½" floppies came out, I had resigned, so I never did get to see a formatted paper with Times New Roman font and even-margins. But the Pica or Elite fonts from typewriters, with some letters never hitting ink, and corrections made with hand-done tiny arrows pointing to adjustments scribbled in pencil, were part of life.
Today, 2023, Artificial Intelligence can write in formal or conversational style, reach different age groups with choice of words, and comfortably go from technical to silly in minutes just with asking ‘it’ to write a paper on.... It’s able to take the pentameter of a poem and create with the same theme and tempo. Anything asked that it can’t yet do it definitely will quite soon. It’s an amazing tool, as are the smartphones that also didn’t exist when I began to teach college English Composition. I love technology and what it continues to provide.... but.... I’m glad I got to read thoughts, dreams, attitudes, values, fears, frustrations, delights that actually were provided by my students as each typed on a manual machine or occasionally turned in a hand-written paper.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The National Museum of American History selected her photo, skirt, and costume designs to represent all teens from the 1950's;. ‘Girlhood’ exhibit opened 10-2020, closed 12-31- 2022 and began its 2 year tour 1-2023.