Friday, December 26, 2008

Very interesting ...

... In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.

Many years ago I taught the very same subjects Professor X teaches, though I can't say I was in the ivory tower basement. But I found that trying to teach people to write by following a curriculum grounded in abstract notions was a bad idea. So I told my students one day that there must be plenty of things they thought about all the time, things they wanted to tell the world, maybe things they wanted to tell me. And then I gave them an assignment: Write me a letter. Say anything you want. If you don't like me or the class or both, say so - but remember to say why.
The result was not that they suddenly fell in love with grammar and usage, but rather that they discovered something about why grammar and usage were worth knowing. More importantly, they discovered that they wanted to learn how to say what was on their minds. Since their attempts to do that were there in front of us in the letters they wrote, we now how something we could work together on. I became more their editor than their teacher. By the end of the semester they had all learned pretty much how to organize their thoughts well enough to present them respectably on paper. Most of all, they had come to enjoy the challenge of doing so.
By the way, if I had cops in my class I wouldn't be assigning them "Araby." I'd have them read some Joseph Wambaugh. People are much more likely to read with interest and enjoyment something they can connect to. James Joyce can come later.


  1. Anonymous12:04 PM

    I bet you were an excellent teacher of composition. That is, indeed, the hardest course to teach for people who have grown up watching rather than reading. At least now e-mail and Facebook encourage communication in writing (however ill-spelled or punctuated).

    I wouldn't have the cops in the class read Wambaugh, I'd have 'em read that guy whose book you reviewed a year or two ago: "Blue Blood." The NYC cop whose whole family was in the police force. What was his name? I remember reading the chapters as essays in The New Yorker and being *so* impressed. Hope that young cop is still alive and thriving ... and writing.

  2. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Hardest course to teach TO people...

  3. Edward Conlon's Blue Blood. I thought of that, too. Great book - and a great guy.
    By the way, Susan, Merry Christmas.

  4. Anonymous8:35 PM

    Merry Christmas and Happy Boxing Day to you, Frank. I wish you'd get a Facebook acc't. Everyone from the Inky is on there these days, and chatting with each other. More interactive than blogs in that respect, and we've got pix too!