Educational Philosophy

Note: The following is a partial summary of my views on language teaching. If interested, you might want to read my recent paper on the subject, titled: The apprenticeship approach to writing instruction.

If you plan to live in a remote French village for the rest of your life, you'd better learn French. If you are going to take diving as a hobby, you'd better know how to swim. If you plan to spend a few years in college, and if you plan to spend the rest of your life in an English-speaking country or as a scholar, you'd better learn to read and write well. In college, in the academic world, and in America, reading and writing English are survival skills. And just like French and swimming, it's a skill that can be acquired by anyone.

What does it take to improve your reading and writing skills?

1. You must want to become a reasonably good reader and writer. This is the key requirement: if you think college classes are just busy work, if you are here just for a piece of paper, you will get almost nothing out of this class. On the other hand, if you grasp that it's your most cherished possession--your mind--that we are trying to improve, then you will do well, sooner or later.

2. Keep the grammarians at arm's length. You learned to speak English by speaking and listening, not by memorizing formal rules or silly diagrams. The same goes for writing: you learn to read and write well by writing and reading.

3. To write good English, you must read good English. So in this class, you will be reading a great deal. Reading takes time, so start thinking about covering your TV with a blanket for the duration of this term. If family members protest, divorce them, lock them up, move out for a few months, or send them to an addiction specialist. If they are beyond cure, every time they watch their soaps, go commune with your Reader and computer. If you are beyond cure, why not drop this class and take a TV class instead?

4. You can only learn to write by actually practicing the art of reading and writing. You can't learn to speak, ride a bicycle, or paint by pontificating: these skills call for actions, not armchair speculations. The same goes for writing. You will be typing so much in this class, you will need to replace your keyboard every other week.

5. You must realize that writing is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. There is no magic here. Most professionals put something on paper: this is the creative part. But their first draft is typically below par. The nice stuff you see in books and magazines is the result of REVISION. Writers write, and then they edit, and then they put the piece away for a few days, coming back to it later to edit some more. And then they give it to their friends, asking them to edit the manuscript. They get the comments, curse their friends, and revise again. Then they give the piece to their editor, who sometimes says some awful things about it; sometimes even telling them to trash it. Sometimes they are lucky, and the piece is accepted on the first shot. But most often the editor's response is: "it's not all that bad, really, but you need to revise it." Writing, you see, is hard work.

So to be a good writer you must be a good editor, not only of someone's else's work, but of your own. "I work as a writer," says James Dickey, "on the principle of refining low-grade ore." James Michner: "I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's greatest revisers." Ellen Goodman: "What makes me happy is rewriting. . . . It's like cleaning house, getting rid of all the junk, getting things in the right order, straightening things up." Ernest Hemingway: "I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied."

6. If you are like most people I know, you are more sensitive about your writing than you are about most other things. You accept the fact that you are not going to be as good a basketball player as Smithy Abdulayev, nor as good a chess player as Rodney Simple. But you find it hard to forgive anyone saying that you don't write as well as Johhny Funnycake--let alone anyone saying that, if you could swim twice as well as you can write, you would have long ago drowned in the bathtub. Now, all kidding aside, it's agonizing to have our writing berated. Some Ph.D.s of my acquaintance have not yet forgiven me my editorial sins. Because they asked me to edit their stuff, I naively assumed that they wanted to make it as good as gold. But they didn't; they only wanted a reassuring pat on the back. This is sad, for the editor to whom their paper is sent will see the problems I saw. And even if their piece is published, it would not be as good as it could have been. As writers, these people are unfortunately at a dead end. How can they improve if they are unwilling to learn from their mistakes? You too have a choice. You can be like them; but then why take this class in the first place? Or you can try to get something valuable from this course. To do so, you will have to accept--to eagerly solicit---criticisms of your work.

I am not saying this is easy. It is easier to swim across the Detroit River in midsummer than to look objectively at our own writing. Remember this when you pick apart a classmate's paper. And remember this when it's your turn to face the music. Keep telling yourself that what is really on line here (pun intended) is not your writing but your open-mindedness. I don't despair when I come across a bad writer; I despair when I come across a pigheaded writer. Open-minded D writers are more fun to work with, and they are more likely to reach an A level, than are defensive B writers.