Thursday, May 10, 2007

Things Students Should Know before Entering the College Composition Classroom

My friend Michelle Potter, who teaches English at Thornton Fractional North High School in Calumet City, Illinois, recently made a request of me: “Can you give me a short list of ‘things you wish your writing students knew before they entered your writing class’?” I have long enjoyed making lists—and have taken it to extremes: my brother, friends, and I used to write the occasional “Top 100 Professional Wrestlers” list in the late ‘80s—so that part of the request wasn’t going to be a problem. It was the “short” part that had me worried. I am a loquacious sort by nature, and, really, there’s no fun to a short list. Nonetheless, I’ll try to keep the list as painless and as informative a read as possible. I may even throw in a professional wrestling reference in somewhere.

1. In Order to Look Sharp, You Must Have a Point: I am so intent on impressing upon students the importance of having a main point—a specific, significant take on a subject, issue, experience—that I’m willing to result to poor puns. Nothing is so frustrating for a teacher whose class is bent on student expression and dialectic than the words “I don’t know.” There are certainly things students don’t know about composition, rhetoric, and communication (and it’s my job to help you grasp those concepts), and most of the time when a student tells me that she doesn’t know how she feels about a situation, I believe her. However, “I don’t know” offers no absolution. I believe that schooling exists in large part to challenge you to think about things you haven’t thought about before. In writing courses you are encouraged to think about things political, social, and cultural so that you may work on how to best respond to these exigent stimuli (that is to say, stuff that needs to be addressed). I’m not looking for the right answer, but I am looking you to dip your oars in the water and attempt to make some sense of things. Remember always that the root meaning of the word “essay” is “trial” or “attempt.”

2. “All Right, Mr. Boczkowski, I'm Ready for My Close-up” or Narrow Your Focus: One way to make sure you have a point is by following a principal rule of the board game Risk: don’t try to cover too much territory in one fell swoop. Chances are there are books—or at least long scholarly articles—written about the topic you chose. Trying to cover a book’s worth of material in three to five pages will get you a D quicker than you can say “You sunk my battleship!” (Sorry, but there are no comparable pat phrases shouted out in games of Risk.) However, unlike the hubris that thwarts the overextended Risk player, most students keep their focuses broad because they feel they can’t flesh out a narrow topic. Trust me on the crazy composition economics of this one; it’s easier to write more about less.

3. What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Pilcrow: I tend to think of paragraphs to be like the little minions of the Snow Miser and Heat Miser in the holiday special A Year without a Santa Claus: mini-versions of the bigger unit (whether an essay or a weather god),The Heat Miser and his little paragraphs and at the bigger unit’s service. This is not a perfect metaphor, as the little minions would need to assemble in Voltron-like fashion to compose the larger body, and let’s face it; that would just be ridiculous. But back to paragraphs, it’s important to remember that each paragraph is trying to prove its own main point. Whereas on an essay level this point is the essay’s thesis, at the paragraph level, these points take the form of topic sentences. And sometimes little Claymation dudes with flaming hair. Whatever—if you have either more than one main point or none whatsoever in your paragraphs, you should consider revising. Or at least laying off the Rankin-Bass specials for a while.

4. T.S. Eliot Was No Wuss: A respected poet, Eliot has written many influential works. However, he wasn’t above being influenced himself; he sought the advice of fellow poet Ezra Pound on much of his writing. Getting help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, I find students who come to me to discuss their essays or who take advantage of their school’s tutoring services to be attentive practitioners of writing. It keeps their prose from becoming, ahem, a vast wasteland.

5. Whether or Not You Like It, You’re a Writer: You write papers for class, blogs, e-mails, and lyrics about tragically unrequited teenage love (I’ll show you my journal if you show me yours). Face it: you’re a writer. As a writer, it is your duty to pay attention to your strengths and weaknesses. I can individualize my comments to you sooner in the term if you alert me to what you’ve done well and what you’ve struggled with in the past. So pay attention to what teachers are telling you now, and work at the areas that need it. This is true for the individual essay level too. When handing in a draft, send along comments describing things you want me to look for. You’ll be surprised how often you’re right about the paper’s stronger and weaker areas.

6. Nodding Your Head Doth Not Participation Make: I understand that not everyone is the extroverted type. And no one (except maybe the instructor) likes the class know-it-all who just has to answer every question. But you wanna know the best way to cut down on the chatter from the class know-it-all? It’s to make some meaningful chatter of your own. If you’re the shy, silently-simmering-in-your-brilliant-juices type, fret not: simply note a couple things you may say to contribute to the class discussion (mark passages from the classroom text that caught your eye) before you come to class and share your ideas early, before your thunder is stolen from you-know-who. I want to hear everyone’s voice in class in roundtable fashion, not just a dialogue with the intensely caffeinated smarty-pants.

7. Be an Active Reader; Heck, Be a Full-Contact Reader: Engage in classroom texts with questions, suppositions, and opinions. Challenge the text; hold the author’s observations and experiences up to your own. Scrutinize the logic. Look for deeper meaning. Write your responses in the margins. Trust me; the bookstore will never give you close to what you paid for the book. Don’t just read the printed word actively, but apply it to all media. Apply it to events and landscapes. Engage in textual play, but be safe: always wear your thinking cap.

8. I Know When You Haven’t Been Active: Here’s a neat trick: Student A fails to do the reading, so during class discussion he waits until Student B makes a comment about the text and then latches on to the last thing she said, commenting on how “he can relate” with the issue the subject of the text is experiencing “because one time. . . .” And he’s off. He finishes, smug in the belief that he has earned his participation credit for the day. Hmm, did I say “neat trick”? Because what I meant to say was “lame maneuver.” The fact is that I can tell that Student A hasn’t done the reading, despite his attempts at synergy. How can I tell? Cuz I’m Santa Claus. Well, really, it’s just an old trick, just like, say, slumping down in your seat and averting your gaze to try to avoid getting called on. I do appreciate when students relate the text to their own life, but only when they establish that they know what the heck the text was about first.

9. The Lyrics from the Grammar Rock Shorts: A sure way to ferret out a Word Nerd (someone who really enjoys writing or the teaching of writing) is to start singing “Conjunction Junction” or “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly. Get Your Adverbs Here” and encourage the suspected W.N. to finish the lyrics. If he or she gets through the chorus and starts into the first verse, you’ve probably got a Word Nerd on your hands (mind you, this works best on people currently in their thirties). Now I’m not out to convert the cool or the blissfully uninitiated to my chosen lifestyle, and I’m not arguing that because you are able to sing all the way through “Unpack Your Adjectives,” you’ll never misplace a modifier. But I DO need you to come in with a working knowledge of the basic parts of speech so that you can best understand the comments I leave in your drafts’ margins. When I write “noun,” you should understand it to mean “a person, place or thing.” And if you immediately afterward hear an upbeat, folk-stylized “doo doo doo doo doo,” all the better.

10. Don’t Sell Back Your Handbook: Yes, it’s an intimidating collection of composition and grammar convention, and, yes, its heft can lead you to believe that you’ll get a pretty penny for it at thee bookstore (see item #7). But within that book are the—often-arbitrary—answers to the greatest riddles of drafting, usage, documentation, and style. If the handbook is a map to good writing, then I am your sherpa. Maybe the payoff isn’t always the top of the mountain or the mines of King Solomon, but at the very least, together, referencing the map, we should be able to direct your paper to some treat-promising destination, perhaps the essay equivalent of a Dairy Queen. And who doesn’t like soft-serve?

11. When Aiming for Good Research Writing, Be Sure to Turn on Your Cite: Another crummy pun, influenced by the hunting culture in which I find myself immersed here in Central Ohio, but it is really important to give proper credit for the concepts you are sharing in the paper. A lot of plagiarism—most that I have encountered—is done unknowingly. Nonetheless, you should strive to understand what constitutes plagiarism and what does not as soon as possible. Unsure? Come talk to me or a writing tutor. And while I may be willing to differentiate between intentional and unintentional plagiarism, there are probably instructors at the school who won’t bother with such distinctions. If you think the worst punishment you can get for proven plagiarism is being put in a twelve-step program where you are forced to give credit for any outside influence in every significant moment in your life (“Thanks, Coach Kostner, for teaching me sex education in my seventh-grade health class”), think again: plagiarism can be grounds for suspension or even expulsion (usually after a second proven offense).

12. Writing for College Does Not Necessarily Mean Writing More Words: Sure, the papers get longer and you’ll learn some new terms. You’ll probably even be encouraged to combine shorter sentences to embed clauses, which often makes for strong, sophisticated writing. However, teachers usually laud grace and economy in writing, and oftentimes lengthening words (for example, nominalizing verbs) and sentences (adding words for no apparent reason, writing in passive voice) will work against these concepts. I call such attempts to sound more hoity-toity “college speak.” Sentences like “The suggestion that in actuality they should be released from class was made by the students” tend to make my brain melt. Instead, try something like the following: “The students suggested that the teacher release them from class.” If you’re worried about word count, add concrete detail I can sink my teeth into, not the quicksand of abstraction, into which I, teeth and all, would sink.

13. You Must Sample from the Smorgasbord of Language: Railing against abstractions aside, I don’t want to discourage any attempt to write beyond your comfort zone, not at all. In fact, I want you try on new words like they were Skechers, seeing how they fit and what kind of reaction they get. Try using a new word in conversation each week. When writing, experiment with alternate styles of punctuation (it is college, after all). Look for examples of symbolism on your commute to class. Create an appropriate metaphor for the cafeteria’s blue plate special. Move beyond the cliché. Okay, I’m going to stop before this begins to sound like one of those “life is swell” feel-good books you get as a birthday gift from people who don’t like you enough to figure out what you really want.

14. I Don’t Get My Jollies Giving an F Grade: I have met the occasional instructor who I felt was a little too eager to exact revenge on a student, but even these cases were often specific to an individual student (who had somehow become a particular thorn in the instructor’s side), and I’m happy to say that many of these folk are getting up in years and going the way of the dodo. Honestly, most teachers I know fret slightly over failing students (unless the students make it easy, like by never showing up—which reminds me: be sure to show up) or at least meet the prospect of failing a student with solemnThe always-dancing Koko B. Ware and his 'pet' Frankie evaluative resignation.  Please note that I don’t really “give you” an F in my class; you earn it. But, boy, I much prefer when students earn As and Bs. And when I give copious high grades, I have been known to dance The Bird like the flamboyant World Wrestling Federation grappler Koko B. Ware. (It took until the last item, but I snuck a wrestling reference in there!)

So there you are, Michelle. Or, Mrs. Potter, for when your students read this. There is a list of 14 things I’d like my students to know before they set foot in my college composition class. There still is plenty for us to cover in the courses themselves. I’m sure there is more sage advice that colleagues of mine could offer, or perhaps some may suggest amendments to an item or two listed here. I’ll find out by inviting them to share. I also am going to ask my students from my current class to weigh in with something they wish they knew before they started taking college English courses. I am hopeful that we can perhaps create a first-year writer Survivor’s Guide of some sort, although I would be fearful that if we succeeded, it would get published and mass-produced. And then my grandma would give it to me as a birthday present.


Czyzniejewski said...

Two things to start off with:

Learn as much about MLA as you can, and how to use your handbook to look up tricky MLA questions. DON'T just guess, e.g., put something like this for the parenthetical note: (pg. 48). Nowwhere in MLA (or APA) does it call for the page number to be preceded by a "pg." or a "p." or anything else. Again, know your citation rules, or at least how to easily look them up and get them exactly right.

The second is to know the difference between an inductive and deductive paper. Do you have your thesis in the beginning, with proof to follow, or are you posing a question right away, leading up to a conclusion/thesis at the end? From my experience, most teachers, especially in freshmen comp, want a thesis right away--the inductive stuff is for grad students, usually.

That's all for now. I'll think of more.

Czyzniejewski said...

Another easy fix for papers, something to do right before you turn it in:

Eliminate as many "be" verbs as possible. Not all, but most. Word has a neat function where you can not only search for words, but all their forms. So if you type "be" into the search, you will find all forms of the word.

Then you can go through the list and see what you can replace. Writing, of all types, is about imagery, what you can make your audience see, hear, feel, etc. Be verbs are just that, the state of being. If you can go through your paper and eliminate 75 percent of be verbs and replace them with better vocab words, words that incite the senses, your paper will be much improved without much effort.

Warning: Keep the vocab real. No need to show off your thesaurus skills with silly words no one every uses. Be smart, not confusing.

NYPRINCESS88* said...

I wish that I knew how fast pace english class is. And how much you have to read on a daily basis. By missing one or two readings, you can end up being lost. Now I know to keep up with my reading assignments no matter how boring they are. Well this class readings are not boring. And the more you write the better you get at writing.

Shannon said...

I wish I could of learned how to write and use commas better. My school never really told us how to use commas in the right spot. Our teacher only gave us 2 essays to write my senior year and they were about what we wanted to do after high school and one was over a book we read.
I wish I knew how much reading would be involved in each of the classes. We would read in our school be it was nothing to big. My senior year we only read like 2 books and they were short. The only major reading I had to do was in my government class, but that was only for half a year.

David said...

Going into college as a freshman in beginning writing was a big step for me. I learned fast that you have to do the readings and make sure you understand it. When it comes to papers, It took me some time to get in the swing of things. Going into college writing I wish I knew more about the structure of writing. Along with this is organization with not only the paper but on my own time. If you are organized with the information you are about to write, then the paper can write itself. Without organization of your time, you wont be able to write the paper you would want to write. To me these are the few things that I tend to consentrate my time on the most.

JanelleTravels said...

I wish that before I got into my college english class I knew how fast everything goes. It can be good, but most of the time it is really stressful. My last english class had so many things due on one day, it was insane. To add on top of it all we had some much reading to do. Also in my last class the books were very boring. I did not enjoy the reading, and wish that I would have none a way to get some sparknotes on the books we read, because I really needed them. Not only were the books boring, but they also seemed confusing. It was hard to keep up with everything going on, and even harder when the teacher did not tell you what was due to next time you came to class. It was unorganized.

Nadine said...

Before I entered my first english course in college I did not know much about citing other peoples work when I used the information from their work. I did not have to do much of that when I was in high shcool so when I was told to summarize a paper or go to use a quote from a text that would back up something that I had said was difficult to do on my own. You don't talk much about it in class and are expected to know how to to so when you go write your own papers. Out of the many papers i have written I have not had to do much of this but for the ones i did it is very important becasue your not allowed to use someone else's work without giving them credit.

The Nurse All Dressed In White said...

I wish I knew more about MLA style of writing. I wasn't taught MLA in high school that I could remember. I wish I knew a lot better grammar. I seem to have trouble on sentence fragments. I want to change that! I also wish that I had better writing skills. Just being able to write well with any topic given to me.

Elizabeth Gehres said...

The one thing that I wish I would have known going into college English is that participation is a huge deal. For some reason I know that I need to participate more for my grades and just because I don't speak up hardly at all. But I just can't for some reason or another. During my first quarter English class I didn't start off as a very talkative person and as the quarter went on it was harder to make myself participate in class just becuase I was so use to not saying anything most of the time. I wish I would have known how critical participation is and how it is hard to start participating if you've been quite for most of the quarter.

Amanda Gehres said...

Keep up the reading so you are able to talk in class about the topic. I've had days when I haven't read and I had wish I had because I was lost on what the class was talking about. Also keep up on you're papers because that is a very important part of English and by working ahead you are able to write a good paper instead of wirting an ok one during crunch time.

Use the help teachers offer you. It may seem at the time that you won't need help or are to shy to ask for it, but really use it. I wish that I would have used the Writing Lab more often in my first quarter, but I was too scared to go in their and ask for help. Don't be scared because it will really help you out in the end.

Always proof you're papers well because it wasn't until this quarter that I realized that I add "really" in my paper way to much. By having someone else proof you're paper, you are able to find out those little habits that can break a paper.

adesulu said...

The first thing that I wished that I knew while coming into this writing class is that we do so much writing. I thought three paper and three drafts for each paper was going to be enough. He went all the way as to make us do an invention plan. First we write about what we want to write about. Then we write the paper. Then we talk about what we could do better in the paper. Then we write another paper followed up by another paper on correcting our mistakes, and doing the last paper. On top of that we have to blog on our website every week. Then we have to make comments on everyone else paper. There is a lot going on. It all good though. He keeps the class loose and keeps it fun so it seams to be moving pretty fast.

Patrick Sullivan said...

When first coming in to your first college writting course, make sure you have all your books and materials needed for the course on the first day. You dont want to get behind on work because you havent yet purchases the materials. Also before coming in to the class know that your papers will have to be typed in MLA format, it helped me alot knowing how to use the format before i started. Another program you may want to be familuar with is Power Point, its not used that much but is occasionly used for a project.

Tiffany Davis said...

I wish I knew the fundamentals of MLA format, and how to correctly construct an essay. I would usually just write and hope that it was a good essay without proofreading it, or even making sure it had a main point to it. As long as the essay had a introduction and a conclusion, I thought it was a good paper.

I wish they had taught us ethos and pathos in high school because that is a big part of writting.I also wish that I would have known the correct way to use commas and semi-colons. I think that is the main problem I have in writting and essay.

Nodie said...

i wish i knew about all of the writing we had to do. how we had a certain amount of words we had to write. Also i wish i knew about all the readings as well. i think that once you are in a english class, all of that is pretty much expected. I wish i knew that we would have to start blogging, cause then i would have started blogging a little bit on other web pages, so that i would get the hang of it once we began doing that in class. lastly i wish i knew how to write a good thesis statement when writing a essay, cause then i would know how to write the rest of the essay, instead of thinking about it for an hour.

Tabby said...

When I first entered freshman English I found it a bit intimidating because in high school I was never taught the correct way to MLA formula, commas, or even how to write a good paper. English is probably one of my least favorite subjects but I'm starting to enjoy writing because it’s a way to get my feelings of my chest. I also feel much more confident with my writing. So, don't be afraid to write because it doesn't kill you; I'm still alive and just be sure to keep up on your readings.

Val said...

Thanks for writing this.