Favoring My Private Self

I learned to write at UCLA. In the early 80s. First in a small Remedial English composition class filled with future professional athletes, and later, in history course after history course. One of the myths we erroneously tell ourselves at places like my employer, a smallish private liberal arts university, is that personalized learning can’t happen at large public universities. I’m living proof that’s not true. Sure, often, those history course discussion sections were lead by doctoral students, but they were outstanding and demanding beginning teachers.

Like marathon training, there are no short cuts in learning to write. Defying conventional wisdom about large, public university professors, my teachers and their assistants bled all over my papers. I paid close attention to their feedback and quickly caught up to my peers. And then continued improving quarter by quarter.

One memorable day in my sophomore year, in a large class on Central America, my professor, E. Bradford Burns, read my name and the title of my essay and said it was one of the three most outstanding in the class.

Stunned is putting it mildly. Wish my dad had been there.

After watching me skate through high school the first eighteen years of my life, he thought I should skip college and go to work for him sweeping floors in the Los Angeles factory he ran. Or join the military. If those harangues were reverse psychology, they worked. To succeed I knew I had to apply myself, and I did.

Another leap forward as a writer came exactly one decade later when, thanks to the encouragement of a young innovative mentor from Stanford, I wrote a 324 page doctoral dissertation in novel-like form. In it, I told the story of an International Studies magnet high school in Southern California. I was the very rare doctoral student who enjoyed the vast majority of the dissertation research and writing process.

As a professor, I’ve published quite a bit, but have not found academic writing gratifying. The whole tree in the forest thing. If only a handful of other egghead professors read it, is it worth it? For better or worse, a decade ago, I cut back and started the humble blog.

Which brings us to the present. My E. Bradford Burns booster shot of confidence has faded a bit. Sometimes I think, if I was a good writer, the humble blog would have a larger readership. In fact, I might have to stop referring to it as the humble blog. More important than assessing how well I write or not is the incontrovertible fact that I enjoy it.

One thing I like about it is that it’s difficult. In particular, I struggle with how to engage people without revealing at least some of my inner landscape. For example, right now, apart from writing a semi-autobiographical novel, I can’t figure out how to meaningfully explore and explain what I’ve been thinking most about—motivation, or what causes us to do the things we do, or more to the point, what causes me to do the things I do, without compromising other people’s and my privacy. I’ve struggled with that since the beginning, and doubt I’ll ever master it. I error on the side of maintaining others’ and my privacy.

That means there’s way more unspoken content between blog posts than within them. When I go four or five days without posting, sometimes I’m out of interesting ideas, but other times, I’m just favoring my private self.

I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Isn’t there more to your thinking than you typically let on? Aren’t you semi-transparent at best? Don’t you struggle with being vulnerable? With trusting others with your innermost thoughts? Aren’t we all icebergs of sorts, with much more going on below the surface than anyone realizes?

Or maybe with you, what you see, is what you get. In which case, I am unique.

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to High School Teachers Continued

With last post’s “struggling first year college writer” typology in mind, here are five suggestions—from the abstract to the more specific—for helping increase the odds that high schoolers will succeed in writing-intensive college courses.

1) Talk with students about why writing well matters. There’s an ongoing debate in education between business first people who believe schooling is about equipping students with marketable job skills and business skeptics who prioritize things like self understanding, multicultural understanding, and human betterment writ large. Writing is a skill that both groups find valuable for different reasons—one mostly utilitarian, the other humanitarian. I implore high school teachers of all subjects to impress upon students that we’re more than mindless consumers passively participating in a global economic race. We’re social beings for whom human intimacy and friendship make life worth living. I want my first year college writing students to understand and appreciate the potential of writing to connect with others and create community. I want them to understand that writing well is imminently helpful in the job market, but can also foster greater self understanding. It can help one earn a living and live well.

2) Teach students to fixate on continuous improvement, not grades. I want my first year writing students to embrace writing as a process and fixate on continuous improvement, not grades. Many things conspire against this including scholarship eligibility requirements, graduate school anxiety, and years of family and school socialization. Students who repeatedly receive poor grades often throw in the towel on ever being competent writers. The flip-side problem is never talked about, students who routinely receive “A’s” on papers understandably come to think “A” stands for “I’ve Arrived.” Every writer likes having their strengths highlighted. Even when earning “A’s”, my most accomplished writers greatly appreciate having their “next steps” identified sometimes for the first time. As writers we exist on a continuum. We never arrive. The goal isn’t to get “A’s” on every paper, it’s to improve and take steps towards becoming more “accomplished.

3) Teach substantive, challenging content. The more deeply students have to think, the greater their momentum as writers.

4) Assign writing regularly and provide as much feedback as possible. To improve as writers, students have to write, and not just in English Composition classes. Think of writing as “organized, public thinking,” an activity best done across the curriculum. My college-aged daughter’s favorite high school teacher was the one who assigned the most writing and provided the most detailed feedback. My daughter deeply appreciated the fact that her teacher was putting in considerably more time than average helping her classmates and her become more capable writers. Teacher leaders should help others with time-saving strategies including rubric-based self-assessment, peer editing, and providing detailed feedback on a rotating subsection of the total number of students.

5) Provide and teach exemplary models of excellent writing. Criticism of the five-paragraph essay masks the fact that published writing within each genre has identifiable patterns and themes. Put differently, readers within genres come to expect certain forms. A writer’s creativity and voice are most evident at the phrase, sentence, and paragraph level. Students benefit greatly from seeing and studying especially clear writing, whether a peer’s or a professional’s. The most basic question to ask when analyzing positive examples of writing is, “Why does this piece work so well?” And then, once the elements have been identified, provide students with time to practice incorporating them into their writing.

Hope something here is motivating. Thanks for all you do and for reading.