Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Style and struggle

2015 marks my sixteenth year teaching college freshman in writing-intensive courses. And not just any freshmen -- the top high school graduates of my state. Here's how the first few assignments of any given semester goes. They write informal reading responses for me that I love -- natural voice, clear presentation. Then I give them their first formal writing assignment. And all of a sudden, they write like space aliens forced to learn English through a 19th century grammar text and a thesaurus. Out of 500 words, fully half will be empty verbiage. Dangling introductory phrases appear out of nowhere. Idiomatic prepositions get mangled. Sentences run on and on, liberally sprinkled with commas -- or curiously devoid of a single pause. Avoidance of first person leads to pretzeled contortions -- or extraneous "I believe thats" and "In my views" pepper every other sentence. There is not a sentence to be found that would ever come out of a human being's mouth.

I find my hardest teaching task is getting these students to see and hear the impracticality of their writing. They are mortified when I point it out; it's obvious upon even a cursory second look. Yet the task of formal writing somehow makes it impossible for them to give that second look to themselves. I labor to get them to turn in clean, simple drafts. They have been rewarded for writing in this way, I suppose, and so that is the spigot that gets turned on whenever paragraphing and word counts are among the expectations. I wish I knew the magic words to get them to approach these formal writes in the natural, conversational, clear way they write informally.


Quilting Nonnie said...

My first year in college, a millennium ago, I was in the required English 1A. I love to write. Since I was in college, I felt like I needed to write like a "college student." I didn't get very good marks. I began to get frustrated. One night, agonizing over another English writing assignment, I thought, "Forget this. I'm going to write how I like to write."

When my teacher handed back my paper, she praised me for my style of writing. She had noted the change and encouraged me to continue on in that way.

I have continued to write "true to my voice." I still love writing today. I have a blog, which gives me an outlet. I also have written "books" for my children, who are now in their 30's, about their childhood and their adventures. I've written my own story. I keep wanting to find a person who was born in the 1930s so I could ghost write their life history.

Hang in there! You probably know all this, but I'm sure some of your students will discover their own voice also.

Jenn said...

Now that I've taught composition for several years (and worked at the writing center), I've come to recognize this problem: it's the "how-to-write-academese" part of their brains turning on. When you have a formal paper, they understand it should be different, but they don't understand how or why.

However, it's all part of the socialization process. Have you read David Bartholomae's "Inventing the University"? There, he talks about this progression. I think by talking to them about it, making them revise, and getting them to understand how to do the writing process, you're enabling them to go forth and be stronger writers. Unfortunately, it's all part of the process!

And you didn't have me as a freshman, but I totally made a C on my first essay. And you saw my writing later in my academic career--pretty damn good. I learned along the way, thanks to good feedback, encouragement, and opportunities to try on a new voice (or voices). And now it's even better... :)