Evolving thoughts on teaching

Even way back before classes started, I had ideas about how teaching in China was going to be different than teaching in America. I planned to do a lot of cultural translation, and indeed, I have had to do quite a bit. What I didn’t expect, however, not even when thinking specifically about the role of the liberal arts, was the extent to which I’d be talking about the difference between reading and writing.

Reading And/Or Writing

One of my courses is called “Reading and Writing,” it is a writing-intensive, topic non-specific literature course for English majors. The kind of course where you really can make anything you like out of it. Responding to student writing has been a challenge–I know perfectly well that pointing out every error can seriously discourage language learners, and so “choosing my battles” has been something I’ve had to take very seriously. What I hadn’t thought about was the question of modeling.

First, it’s not plagiarism

I had to deal with the question of plagiarism a lot, and right away. The very first writing assignment I gave (a summary of “Bartleby, The Scrivener”) came back with well upwards of 50% of students copying directly from Wikipedia or other easily googlable source. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that if everyone was doing it, there mst be some fundamental misunderstanding, I threw out that assignment and had them all start from scratch. I had several students remark confusedly that their English Language teachers had encouraged them to find good examples of English and copy them to add to their own vocabulary and usage. Giving these past English teachers the benefit of some doubt, I suggested that they had misunderstood their English teachers who were not talking about copying whole paragraphs or whole essays, but individual turns of phrase. And that the goal was not to “copy” them but to take them as a model, learn the nuances of the wording that interested them, and then make that wording their own. Phew! Stage One accomplished, we were ready to move to Stage Two.

On Bartleby, and Scrivening

I assigned Bartleby as the first piece because it is relatively short, and I’ve had good luck discussing a wide variety of issues springing from Bartleby in the past. I confess, I didn’t think all that much about the vocabulary in it except to think that Melville is a great writer and that they would have exposure to a major piece of short American literature.

And then came “imprimis.” Melville uses the word “imprimis” early on in the story. One of my students asked me what it meant, reasonable enough. I replied that it meant “first” or “first of all,” an off the cuff definition not so far from the one Merriam Webster gives. Then my students went home to write some more. Lo and behold when the next batch of writing came in, several students used “imprimis” in their essays. Awkward, in several senses of the word. I hadn’t told them that the usage was antiquated. I hadn’t explained that to revive the usage would not make them sound educated and fluent, but instead, at best, priggish.

A Problem of Orwellian Proportions

Not long after Bartleby, we read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” in part because I was feeling the desire for more shared meta-vocabulary to discuss language and writing. You may recall that Orwell rages against, among other things, “dead metaphors” in this piece. Several of my students complained anxiously that they would have no idea what metaphors were dead and what alive–how could they know what was overused in English? While we discussed some ways they might guess, for example, metaphors involving long dead technology were likely to be dead themselves, the larger point the students made was sound. How could they find out what was standard usage? In answer, I pointed them towards reference works like Garner’s Modern American Usage, and I think that will help, but it has actually changed how I talk about the literature we read a lot. I find myself being freer with value judgements, a la Orwell that I would rarely if ever have made in my American classrooms: “This phrase is eloquent; This one sounds brusque; He is being abrupt/sarcastic/ironic; This is a lovely phrase here but would be antiquated if written now.”

In Literature Classes, we don’t Write as We Read

That seems to be the moral of the story, and not a particularly opaque one at that. There are some forms of writing that we can read and use as a model. But many, indeed most, of the pieces we are inclined to teach in literature classes do not make good models for student essay writing, and teaching the differences between genres of writing seems to be a bigger job in an advanced ESL classroom.

Never was it more clear to me, though, than a few weeks later teaching Edgar Allen Poe. I love Poe’s prose style, adore it. But I was very glad to have had these conversations already by the time the Poe rolled around, lest I had to read tales of their phantasmagorically difficult assignments that crept up on them like fog over a black and lifeless tarn…