On the Other Hand…


Maybe my last post  needs some balance.  Being encouraging is one thing when it comes to teaching, but sometimes, simple encouragement doesn’t always cut it. Sometimes, a good professor has to call students out and be a little bit mean.  In the right way.

I had this experience for the first time several years ago. I had just spent the previous five weeks working with a class. We did activities, they brought drafts, I gave them feedback, I extolled the virtues of office hours, I encouraged, I cajoled, etc., and then the moment of truth came….time to grade their last batch of essays.

They were terrible.  I can’t remember the specifics, but I remember they contained gems along the lines of, “Have u ever wondered why people want to go to the moon?” and “Many people throughout time have argued the pros and cons of internet freedom.”

Indeed. I breathed deeply as I felt all my good will melting away.  I resisted the urge to write snarky comments about people from the middle ages engaged in debates about the internet.

At that moment, any illusions I had that I might be an English-professor-Mr. Miyagi, with my industrious students waxing on and waxing off as they continued along a path to proficient writing melted away. Rather, now I realized that they waxed on an hour before class began and didn’t even bother to wax off. As if I wouldn’t notice.

The next class, I lifted their papers from my folder, and glowered at them.

“Okay guys….let’s talk.”

They sat up in their seats.

“These aren’t all terrible,” I began. “Not all of them.  But MOST of them are.”

They stopped doodling in their notebooks and stared at me.

“It’s like you didn’t even try.  It’s like you wrote them an hour before class started.”

A couple students smiled.  One started a nervous giggle.

“DID you?  Or was it two hours before class began? Maybe three?”

More students laughed and a few started nodding to themselves.

“Three hours?  However long, it wasn’t enough. These are some of the worst essays I have ever read and it’s a shame because I know you are capable of writing better than this nonsense.”

I went on to tell them why they needed to know how to write better than they had on that last assignment. I went on to explain that writing was complex stuff and very few people could write an acceptable essay in the hour before class began and even if they could, if they revised it, it would be even better. Blah, blah, blah, but the ultimate message? Do not insult our class by handing in such crap again.

After scaring them sufficiently, I let every student rewrite their papers if they wanted to, with the only requirement being that the had to meet with me, in my office, to go over each paper. The rewrites were due in one week.

I held my breath as I graded the first one.  I always tried to be encouraging for students and this new tact had the potential to backfire. Would they be equally horrible?  Would lines such as “There are good and bad perspectives on everything” persist?

Much to my pleasure, every single rewrite was not only better, but vastly better.  It wasn’t just because I forced them to meet with me in person–I had done that before–but I believe it was because I had held them accountable. I had made it clear that there IS such a thing as quality when it comes to writing and I had made it equally clear that they had missed the mark.  I let them know that this wasn’t okay because I knew they could do better. 

So, while I still think that being kind is important, sometimes, we also have to hold our students accountable when they aren’t doing their best, when they aren’t helping themselves.  After all, they won’t improve unless they do.

On (Not) Being a Scary Professor


It’s the first day of your college composition class.  You aren’t sure how you got into this, exactly, except you know that getting a college degree will open doors, so here you are.

You grip your schedule in a sweaty hand and wander the campus, searching for the right building. Having located that, you wander the hallways next, looking for your classroom. Everyone seems to know where they are going except for you. They all belong here except for you. You can’t even find your class, let alone succeed in it. What the hell are you doing here?  You think how there is just enough time to find your car and drive home. Say class was canceled. Go to work. Forget this school stuff.

But you don’t. You find your class.  You sit down.  Everyone has a notebook or a computer. Why didn’t you at least bring a notebook?  No one told you you might need a notebook the first day, but duh, of course you should. Maybe you should leave.  The professor isn’t here yet.  You can still make it.

Just as you decide to get up and head to the door to consider your options in the restroom (if you can find it), the door opens and your professor walks in.  You settle back into your seat. Too late to bail.

She asks everyone to get out a piece of paper and you feel like an idiot. Why hadn’t you thought to bring a notebook?  You look around and the girl sitting next to you asks you if you want one of hers.  You nod. And a pen?  She hands you a paper and a pen and you say thanks, feeling both grateful and embarrassed and then, the professor begins.

She tells everyone that there is never an excuse to come to class unprepared–even the first day–and if you didn’t plan to participate fully by being prepared, sharing ideas, and caring about your own education, then you might as well just drop now.

You look down at the blue lines on the notebook paper in front of you. You aren’t prepared today, so this just solidifies what you already thought about your future in this class.  You will absolutely go home and find a notebook to bring next time and you can show up prepared in the future, but you know she will already remember this first day and how you don’t really belong here.  And what’s this about sharing ideas? Does she mean talking?  In front of all of these other students, who clearly belong here more than you do? For that matter, what does it mean to care about your education.? Didn’t you come to class today?  You did care. But obviously not enough.

Again, you consider dropping this class. This college thing isn’t working out. When the professor calls roll a few days later, you aren’t there anymore.

How different would your experience have been if your professor had been just a little more empathetic?  Just a little more welcoming? If your professor had given you the message that you did belong here, that she thought you were capable, that she thought you did care? Would you have stayed in the class?

Maybe not, but the chances would have been greater, I believe.

Today’s blog post doesn’t have to do so much with writing, but teaching writing–teaching period, no matter the subject–and the gentle suggestion at how much more effective a warm, encouraging approach can be for so many students.  The phrase “you catch more bees with honey” applies here.  Those early days of a class set the tone for the entire semester and the tone we want to set for our students is, “I agree this is going to be tough, but I know you can rise to the occasion if you work hard.  I will help you.”

Oh, I know, I know, us academics have all had a hard-ass professor in our pasts whom we have greatly admired. As academics, though, we tended to excel at school, and largely, we knew how to roll when we got a “mean” professor now and again because we already felt competent in school to begin with. In fact, some of us enjoyed a good meany-pants now and then because mean professors make for a good story. With a mean professor,  we wouldn’t dare show up without doing the readings, wouldn’t dare show up looking inept. They were motivating to us–those already good at school–and they reinforced our accountability because they represented the real world, they made it clear that NOT everyone is a winner and as competitive people, we wanted to win.

I had a few professors of that type.

The roughest was my dissertation chair. When I took his class for the first time, he would ask the class a question and when one of us gave the answer—an answer we all agreed on, more or less—he’d growl, “NO! That is NOT even remotely correct. Who wants to give me the CORRECT answer?? Who actually READ this book?”

He’d roll his eyes to let us know he wasn’t sure how he ended up teaching a bunch of morons like us, but alas…

Silence. Most of us well into our professional lives by then and we had read and prepared for class, we wouldn’t dream of showing up without having read the text for the day.

Yet we stared at each other, stymied.

He’d wipe his brow and take a sip of his Diet Dr. Pepper. Then he’d sigh.

“Ah, well, now I went and yelled at you and now none of you will talk….I’m SORRY. And your answer wasn’t terrible—it just wasn’t really very good. Let’s talk about the correct answer….”

And we were back on track.

The few of us insane individuals who dared ask this man to chair our committees? We’d wish each other luck going into a meeting with him via text.

“Remember, he’ll hate everything….but he just wants you to think.”

“He just wants you to know what you’re doing.”

Sure enough, after reading our fourth chapters, he’d say, “So….what is this crap? Tell me what you’re trying to do??”

We’d stammer our defenses for our crap, our professional selves melting into the chair right there in his office.

But in the end? We’d be able to defend our studies. We knew our “crap,” inside and out. As adults with some life experience under our belts, we knew his crankiness came from a deeper place, from a kinder place, so this style worked for us.

So yes, roughness can motivate the right person, and possibly this works for some people in graduate school, but for new and fledgling undergraduate students? Students who feel as if they are imposters, who don’t feel as if they belong in college? Students who feel like they are stupid, or “bad writers,” or so very, very far from their goals they can hardly see them on the horizon? Not so much.

I am not suggesting lowering standards or being a doormat for students who truly don’t try in the classroom.  You’ll always have those in your classes and you can deal with them on a case-by-case basis.  You can lead a horse to water and all that.  For most students, however, there is no reason to paint a wide swath of “you will have a hard time in this class!” on the very first day of class.  They already know that.

After all, the people we teach in our classes are human beings, on the same level as us with regard to humanity.  Each of our students has a fascinating story, each has dreams and hopes and complexities. The main difference between us in our roles as student and professor is that as professors, we happen to be more skilled when it comes to teaching whatever it is we teach–in this case, writing and possibly critical thinking–and it is our job to do that. Sure, we may shape their lives in other ways, ideally in positive ways, but our job is to teach them to write.

Instead, tell them that yes, the class is not easy, but you know they can do it. Yes, they belong here. You are honored to teach them.

They can do it….so can you!

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting a book signing for a group of 4th and 5th graders who had each written novels during last November’s NaNoWriMo as part of their elementary school writing club. There are some great photos from this event, seeing as how their Language Arts teacher (and one of the leaders of the Writing Club) is also a professional photographer, but alas, I can’t just post photos of other people’s kids, so I won’t. Here’s a photo of a cake instead.

We held it in the student center of the college where I work, so there was a fair amount of college-kid foot traffic going past. Most of the college kids stopped to talk to the kids.

“What, ya’ll wrote a book? What, all together?”

“No, we each wrote our own,” one girl said. The others chimed in. They all wrote their own books.

The girls (they were all girls–maybe it was a situation of friends joining the club under the influence of friends?) were outgoing and seemed to be very accomplished marketers of their books as well. This was one of the learning objectives, according to the teacher who designed this program. The girls not only wrote their books and demonstrated perseverance and self-discipline during the month of November, but they also self-published them, and then practiced the soft skills of learning how to talk to people about their books.

“You serious?? How old are you?”

“I’m ten.”



Not only were the kids adorable, but the upshot of that night is this: If a group of fourth and fifth graders can write novels (one of them was even the adult-length 50,000 word goal set for NaNoWriMo), then we all don’t have much excuse for not following our own passions, do we?

Advice to Future English Majors

Earlier this week, I had a student visit with me because she wanted to know whether or not she should become an English major. With no other guidance, I did what any other self-respecting former English-major would do: I began blabbering away, with great enthusiasm, detailing everything from my own experiences with an English degree (yes, it is a degree worth having, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), my own career path (an English degree may not lead to the most linear career path, but it certainly gives you more options than most people realize), and also, because this student seemed to want my advice on how to pursue writing, I blathered on about that, too.

In short, I told her the following:

  • I became an English major because I really liked to read and write, and had since childhood, so it was an easy choice for me. In fact, at the time, it was the only thing I thought I could do. It was the only thing I wanted to do. That may not be the case with her necessarily, but whatever she chose to do, she should ultimately enjoy the crux of whatever it is she chose.
  • The world has a shortage of people who can write well, so if she CAN write well, she will be ahead of most people in the career world. We need people who can write and just being able to do that (and successful English majors generally can) gives a person a tremendous edge.
  • The world also has a shortage of people who can think logically and critically, so if she could do that, too, she would also be ahead of most people in the career world. A degree in English can help prepare students for logical thinking, unpacking of arguments, finding errors in reasoning, and so forth.
  • Given the above, did she like to read and write? Because if not, then she’d be miserable being an English major. English majors do a LOT of reading and writing. Deep reading. “Writing-in-the-margins-after-reading-a-work-four-times” kind of reading, of the like she may have never done before.
  • Given all that, you don’t need to be an English major to learn how to write fiction. Many well-known writers had other careers, too. Just as an FYI.
  • That fear of failure at the blank page? (She nodded). That doesn’t go away. Writers learn to just live with it and find a way to tackle the fear of the blank page.
  • Every day, she should read. Every. Single. Day. It doesn’t really matter what. If she reads great literature, she’d learn how to read critically and write better. If she read crap, she’d learn how to read critically, how not to write crap, and she’d gain confidence that if that nonsense could be published, so could her own work. Ideally, she should read both quality work and crap (with more focus on quality work, of course). She should read anything and everything, so she can learn a confidence with the written word, learn new vocabulary, learn varieties of sentence structure, learn what works and doesn’t work. Writers read. There is no way around that.
  • Every day, she should write. Keep a journal and write down observations and notes on her world. This could be any notebook of her choosing, even on her phone notebook app for that matter, but all self-respecting writers need to jot down their thoughts and ideas on a continual basis so they don’t forget them.
  • Every first draft is crap and she should embrace that idea. This is completely fine and telling herself that will help her get started. But she should also remember that writers revise. A lot.
  • Don’t listen to the nay-sayers who tell you your English degree will be useless. I have never once regretted my English degree, even before graduate school. When I was an undergraduate, marketing majors loved to harass me about my English major and were forever asking me, “WHY are you majoring in English??” Well, guess what my one of my early jobs involved? That’s right: I was a marketing gopher. I wrote ad copy, press releases, and did other marketing-related work for two different marketing departments. When they hired me, they said when that they preferred to hire people with an English degree over a marketing degree (ha!). So, do your research and know what’s out there–don’t just listen to equally uninformed people without thinking critically. That’s not how future English majors roll.
  • Just because you have a degree, this doesn’t mean you will automatically get a job, English degree or other. There are a lot of people wandering around in the world with lots of degrees, but no job. It’s up to you to get the job. To this end, I recommended she make connections early while still in college. Talk to professors, be involved, get to know people in the community.
  • Be prepared to work hard. While it doesn’t involve math (amen!), being an English major is still not an easy degree. Think: 2 books of reading per week. Lots of papers.

In the end, I think I may have left her overwhelmed, clutching a Post-It note where I’d written a list of books to read, but I think it was good advice. I hope it was, anyway.

I wasn’t going to even write this post, but then, like a message from the Great Beyond, I was drinking my coffee this morning and got a good glimpse of my daughter’s laundry bag, which she brought down from her room so she could do her laundry. Check it out at the top. It is cute, unless you look closely and study the words. Then, it burns. Oh, how it burns.

Now, this bag was probably not made in an English-speaking country (one can hope), but still. I think it illustrates my point, future English scholars. If you can write well, the world needs you!

Finding Your Voice


So, I just finished teaching my 5 week summer class–hence my temporary disappearance from this blog. I don’t normally teach anymore in my current role (just one class in the summer) and I find that teaching, while exhilarating on one level, works a part of my mind that leaves me emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I am out of practice, I suppose. Or maybe, because I am not in the trenches every day, not teaching a several-course load anymore, I am even more aware of the challenge I face as an instructor–hyper-aware of the difficulty of reaching students who, largely, don’t want to write, don’t care about writing, and don’t see it as relevant.  Many of them feel that writing is only for budding English majors and for “arty” people, but the rest of the world needs “real” subjects such as math and science.

So, with that in mind, I always begin the term by letting them know that the ability to write–just on a competent level–is relevant to them. I explain why: No one in the work place can escape writing a competent email, for one. Even now, in our video world, we will largely deal with people via the written word. I explain how I come from a family of business folks and all of them write more than I do (a slight exaggeration, but I will say they write almost as much as I do). I get some nods after this sales pitch and once I feel I’ve gotten some buy-in from at least a few folks, I move on. Yes, world, you have to know how to write. It’s not just for us English-y peeps.

The other half of the class, however, doesn’t believe that writing is irrelevant, though. No, these folks feel it is very relevant and hence, they are terrified to do it because they don’t believe they do it well. They don’t believe they can do it well. That’s the other part of the sales pitch. I have to reach those folks as well.  They feel they are “not good writers,” and therefore, they have a deep fear of being in freshman composition, which they have to have to move on with their goals in life.  And yes, some of them are NOT good writers, for whatever reason, mainly a complete lack of practice and training over their entire K-12 educational experience. They CAN be good writers, but they are going to have to work at it and put in some hard work to make up for the fact that they haven’t written an entire paper in years prior to college.  Yet, practice is everything! I once told my older son, when trying to explain to him the importance of writing when he was in high school that just as when he stopped swimming for a few weeks, he gained time and lost the edge, what did he think would happen if he stopped reading and writing often? All skills take practice, including writing. Especially writing, given the complexity of the skill. How on earth can you get better at something if you don’t do it?  I try to sell this concept to the terrified students. You absolutely CAN write, I tell them.  You are just as smart as anyone else here, but writing can be difficult and like anything difficult, you have to practice it.

They haven’t practiced when they get to me. I’m not blaming anyone, mind you.  I am simply noting my experience from what I see as a professor and a mother, both.  Even at the high school where my kids went (a good one, too. We moved to his location because of this school), there is a huge differential between the Pre-AP and AP English classes–where they write essays now and then, although still not enough, in my opinion–and the “Regular” English classes where they hardly read a book and never write one single essay over the course of the semester.  I’m not exaggerating–I saw it first hand. I see it with students who, when writing the very first “diagnostic” essay (and don’t know me yet), will write at the end, “I am sure you aren’t reading this anymore, but if you are….” because they are certain no one actually is reading their work. Someone in their past didn’t read their work–it’s obvious.  And as a parent, I know that it was only once my dyslexic kid (who took “regular” English classes) got into college did he learn how to really write with any kind of compentency, only because he had to write tons of papers and expend a lot of effort doing it. Shocker.

I can tell the students who have a mastery of writing because they are comfortable with their voice. They may make mistakes, but they are calm, relaxed, familiar with writing.

New writers posture. They pretend to sound writerly because they view writing as something foreign, something they can’t claim for themselves. I see this all the time in students who write essays in a stilted voice. Or they can write a fairly-competent essay in first person, but when asked to change the tone to third, they clam up because they have no experience doing this–a skill they will need to finish a college degree. They talk circles around a subject because they are scared of language and because they are scared of language, they are scared to explore and play around in a way that allows them to learn.

My job is to talk them out of doing that. I will meet with them in my office and ask, “What did you mean here?” and point to a convoluted sentence that makes zero sense. The students will hem and haw and then I’ll say, “Just tell me in your own words what you meant.”  They will do this and I’ll say, “Write that down.”

“Write that down?”  They are distrustful. They don’t want a bad grade.

“Yes, write it down. Use your own words.”

“I can do that?”

I tell them yes, they can. They not only can, they should. Write it in your own words.  Use your own voice, just like you speak. Then, if you have to, you can neaten it up later and fix general grammar errors, but over all, your writing needs to be your voice.

I never fail to see relief on their faces when I say this. When I tell them that they can be themselves on paper, with their own ideas, their own words. Writing IS for them.

With luck, they will even write more often, even after they leave Freshman Composition.