STARTING FROM THE BEGINNING

The first time I attempted to teach writing was as a TA in my second year of grad school at Stanford, in the winter or spring of 1969. We TA’s had a minimal training, about which I remember nothing except the advice “Love your students,” which sounds very 1969 forty years later. I think this advice could be very good or very dangerous, depending on how it’s applied, but I don’t think I had much guidance on how to teach them. I remember making the typical rookie mistake of trying to teach the freshmen what I was learning in grad school, because of feeling under-qualified, not trusting my own authority, and above all because I felt I didn’t have enough material for class. I was trying to fill up the time as opposed to trying to get a conversation going. I didn’t yet know that what I should do in class was have students discuss their writing. I spent way too much time rewriting their sentences, presumably because I didn’t know what else to do with their papers. At the end of the quarter, the students seemed to give me credit for effort, but I doubt I taught them anything.

In the fall of 1971, I was living in Columbia, Missouri, having finished two years working in a physiology lab at the University of Missouri, which was my alternative service as a conscientious objector. I had my M.A. from Stanford and decided to look for a job teaching freshman English, as it was then universally called. I got an interview at Stephens College (a small women’s college not too unlike Simmons), and though I didn’t get the job – the funding for more sections evaporated – in the interview I did hear about Ken Macrorie’s book Telling Writing. It was a new book (published in 1970), and one of the Stephens instructors was very excited about it. I read it, and I got excited too.

Macrorie’s preface to Telling Writing starts this way:

In boldface type in this book, along with the usual examples of bad student writing, appear dozens and dozens of striking, delightful, moving pieces of writing.

They were written in classes using the writing program presented here.

Incredible. How could they have been written in the courses where those deadly things called themes come from, and those affected sentimental stories that end up in the student literary magazine no one reads?

The answer is that a New English movement has begun.

The second chapter, in which he introduces free writing, begins with this sentence: “All good writers speak in honest voices and tell the truth.” It’s harder to imagine that sentence being written with such lack of qualification today. We’re too sophisticated and ironic for that, aren’t we? Too postmodern? This stark and bold statement of principle was probably the root of my practice as a teacher of writing. Macrorie gave me the place to start: writing, and a writing class, is about telling truths. They may be far from universal truths; I’ll probably never get to the truth; but I can still strive for my truth. That is the ethic and the reason why doing this is worth it. I imagined myself making an inspiring speech to a class: Don’t we have enough lies, enough half-truths, enough euphemistic, deliberately vague, evasive bullshit in this world already? Don’t we have enough bad, dead, boring, bureaucratic writing? So damn it, let’s not have any of it here! Write something alive, unapologetically real. Want to know the secret? You’re interesting, life as we live it – really live it – is interesting. Actual people like reading about it. Let’s cut the crap and write things a person would actually want to read: that was the spirit of the enterprise Macrorie proposed.

When I landed a job teaching freshman and sophomore English courses at the University of Missouri, I said something to Willoughby Johnson, the program’s director, about wanting to use Telling Writing in my classes. Will Johnson was a crusty old-school character who kept a probably not loaded revolver in his desk drawer and claimed to use it to win arguments about grades. He dismissed Telling Writing out of hand, saying he had heard of somebody using it in 8th grade somewhere. But this didn’t keep me from getting and reading two other Macrorie books, Writing to Be Read and Uptaught, during that school year. In the spring of 1972, after the school year had ended, Ken Macrorie himself came to campus and gave a week-long workshop for teachers that I attended. That consolidated his permanent influence on my thinking and my practice as a teacher.

Before the fall semester started, Wini Horner, the assistant director of the writing program and Will Johnson’s philosophical opposite, gave a training for the new instructors which I remember as definitely superior to what I got at Stanford. She gave us some kind of useful guidelines about syllabi and critiqued the ones we created. I turned in an attempted syllabus influenced by Macrorie’s ideas as well as hers; I basically felt I wanted to teach à la Macrorie as much as I could get away with. To my surprise, she copied it and handed it out to the group. It became clear right away that she and I were on the same wavelength, whatever Will Johnson might think.

A scene sticks in my mind of sitting in my little rented house trying to figure out how to cook up a writing assignment that would be any good. I suspect that what I had for a conceptual framework at the time was rhetorical modes, the then conventional repertory of description, narration, exposition, argument. Exposition could be broken down into definition, comparison and contrast, process analysis, classification . . . and whatever else I’ve left out. These weren’t completely empty notions in themselves, but the way they were manifested in comp classes was dead on the page, artificial, completely desiccated and hopeless. In the preface to Writing to Be Read Macrorie heaps on conventional composition textbooks scorn that was not undeserved:

Out of hundreds of texts I’ve examined in the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen no others which present a solid body of good writing done by persons who followed the program in the books.

Yet all such books are supposed to improve the writing of their users. Improve it! Most of the phony, pretentious, dead sentences “composed” in “English” courses do not need improvement, but embalming.

This was 1971; it was still “the 60’s.” The Vietnam War was at its height. In 1970, students at Kent State and Jackson State had been shot and killed while protesting Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, which set off massive demonstrations across the country – even at Missouri. I knew when I saw an antiwar sign hanging out of a frat house that a turning-point had been reached. Meanwhile, the conventional pieties and ritual obeisances of freshman comp existed in a total disconnect from the emerging Zeitgeist. I remember thinking about “compare and contrast,” and asking myself why I had such a visceral reaction against assigning it. It took me a while to reach the thought that in real life, no one ever sets out to compare and contrast for its own sake. There is no such real piece of writing. That’s an artificial exercise, or busy work, the last thing anyone wanted to be accused of in 1971. Education needed to be relevant, authentic, real.Why would somebody compare and contrast? That was the question, I realized. If I could come up with a real reason to do it – if it needed doing – then it might not be empty. This, I thought, would be true of any decent assignment; the person doing the writing needed some authentic motive for it. Telling truths was certainly such a motive.

Macrorie’s rhetoric of writing truths for a real reader was the key to my getting off the ground as a teacher of writing. That and the revelation in terms of technique: free writing. Truth and free writing, it seemed, went hand in hand. The student writing in Macrorie’s books spoke for itself the way he claimed it would. The stuff was alive, exciting; clearly the potential for terrific work was there in real students. He made me believe in the students, and I took that belief (which I think was all-important) into the classroom. I got my students to do free writing, I got them to write personal narrative, and it started working. I didn’t turn back. I had one class that really took off, and that was probably all it took to set me on a course as a teacher, but I had good writers in other classes, too, even when those weren’t so terrific overall. I learned to trust that the students’ writing would sooner or later be something other than, and better than, I could predict. Somehow or other I came to understand that the course was about their writing in the sense that that was what we were really studying. I believe all this came from Macrorie, though I must have been ready to get it. Like countless young teachers at the time, I felt I was on a mission to remake school, to make it real, truthful, honest.

I definitely took the chance of relying on the students, betting on them, on their work, to make the class worthwhile. I went into the classroom knowing that if there wasn’t enough learningful substance in their work and our discussion of it, I was out of luck. I was really counting on them, not just saying I was but having a backup plan in my pocket. Students responded to this treatment. The context was all to my advantage, because in general a required writing class at Moo U was predictable, unimaginative, and deadening. Students no doubt knew this, so when I came in with a subversive agenda, quite a few took to it. Of course I didn’t succeed with everybody, but my successes were convincing and I had no intention of changing direction.

That, roughly, is how I came at the task of teaching writing, and still do, more or less. I’m not 25 anymore, and I’ve had over thirty years in the classroom to elaborate my ideas of what I’m doing as a teacher, but the fundamental values remain the same.

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Later on in the evolution of writing pedagogy in this country, an approach like Macrorie’s came to be labeled “touchy-feely” or, somewhat more politely, “expressivism.” Many teachers dismissed it, by either name; some of us, like me, kept on in the same direction. There was more to “expressivism” than self-expression, or simple rebellion. What was going on wasn’t only a critique and rejection of academic language,  of the many stultifying qualities of the academic enterprise, though those were things that needed to be rejected. It had a positive side as well. Macrorie had a lot to say about what good writing was, as well as what it wasn’t. That was the whole point of the good student writing he included in his textbooks. Moreover, he kept pointing out where it came from: live language was already in people, available, able to be tapped into. As a teacher, I’ve operated on that assumption since 1971, and it has proved reliable. And this assumption is more than stylistic, as Macrorie’s emphasis on truth-telling shows. It isn’t just that people are capable of surprising and lively word choices or metaphors if they learn to pay attention honestly – what also can come from within them is new, sharper, more accurate, more inventive thinking.

As a teacher of Freshman Writing (or Expos, or Writing & Thinking, or MCC) I kept trusting that good work lurks somewhere within the student. This seems obvious enough – where else would it be? – but I am not convinced that all writing teachers believed it when I started, or believe it now. The alternative view would seem to be that students, except for the talented few, can reliably be expected to produce hackneyed language and sloppy thinking until we teachers supply them with better language and better thinking. I see at least two things wrong with that assumption. One, it’s pragmatically a bad strategy because it’s demoralizing for both teacher and student. Two, I have too much respect for the complexity of the mind to imagine that I really know how human beings, including myself, produce language or thoughts. The process is both powerful and mysterious – mysterious within myself, let alone someone else. I don’t believe any of us can peer inside someone else’s thinking, much less reach into it and change how it works. If my teaching does change someone else’s thinking in some way, I never know exactly how that change comes about. I am operating in relationship to the student’s thinking, rather than upon the student’s thinking. And for the good of this relationship, the best thing I can do is trust that good work lurks somewhere within the student. I’ve seen that view confirmed so many times that now I view it not as a prophecy but as a fact.

The obvious, fundamental, but apparently not always fully appreciated fact is that the student is an autonomous being. It’s possible for human beings to give up their autonomy voluntarily, or be deprived of it by coercion. But education in a democracy aims in exactly the opposite direction; it is education toward liberty. When a student does better-than-mediocre work, its quality rests on the student’s own ideas, the student’s own initiative and creativity. One may scrape along in school by repeating the ideas of others, but good work is about the last 1% that the student adds on, the encounter of the student’s own mind with the material, with experience in the world.

I am an autonomous being, and so is the student; in light of that fact, our relationship must be one of equality, no matter how unequal it also is in light of other facts like difference in age and maturity, difference in education and experience, difference in power. That fundamental equality is grounds for a certain respect.

Learning is something the student does, not something the teacher causes. I might want to believe I can make learning happen, but I can’t. I might not like that degree of helplessness, but I need to learn to live with it and forgive myself for it. The lesson here is humility.

Maybe writing teachers are destined to take these things seriously because they have no choice. We know that we cannot cause the student’s writing. We can rewrite it (a waste of time), but that isn’t our job. Our job is somehow to have the student leave our course with the ability to do her own writing differently. Her autonomous work, a year later or ten years later, independent of us, is always the final measure of our success – which isn’t our own but the student’s. Our success endures when it disappears from view. The capability was the student’s in the first place, and remains hers. Our relationship with it was not that we put the capability there; if we succeeded, we set up a situation in which that capability started to be released, and then we gave some guidance. But the thing that was to be released, or guided – that we did not create, and never could have created. Any more than we could create life itself.

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You can download this as a Word document here: Starting from the Beginning