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.

 

 

 

 

 

What College Writing Students Get Wrong

Recently, I did a mid-semester check of how things are going in the first year writing seminars. I asked my students to complete the following phrases: I like. . . . I’ve learned. . . . I wish. . . . Things seemed to be going well, so it was nice that most of their feedback was positive.

About one-fifth of them said something to the effect of “I wish it was clearer what you want”. My syllabus is detailed, and I think, quite clear. The writing prompts too. And I teach what my colleagues and I hope to see in student writing. But sometimes I also say, “There’s more than one way to do well on this paper.” And this annoys some of them who want me to cut to the chase and tell them the one way to be successful. You’ve heard of “paint by numbers”, some students want to “write by numbers”.

The students most disappointed with what they earned on their first two papers are the ones most prone to say,”Just tell me what you want so I can give it to you.” The irony is, by thinking that it’s far less likely they’ll succeed on future papers. Why? Because excellent student writers embrace complexity and delve into the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity inherent in most every topic.

I wish every high school teacher in the country taught writing by plastering this equation all over their rooms and schools—subtleties+nuances+ambiguity=complexity. The more complex one’s ideas, the more imperative it is that they communicate them clearly. So the challenge for writers is two-fold—1) to embrace subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity to the point that interesting insights bubble up, and 2) to clearly communicate those complex insights in writing.

The first of those challenges requires repeated close readings of other writers who embrace complexity. Discussing ideas with others equally or slightly more adept at critical thinking helps immensely too. The second challenge requires learning how to illustrate complex insights with specific examples.

Every first year college student struggles with both of these intellectual challenges to widely varying degrees. Some get it very early in the semester, others struggle with both until the semester’s very end. Those who struggle the most think the second challenge is most important and they’re convinced they’d turn their “C’s” into “B’s” if their professors would just describe the required formulas more explicitly.

In actuality though, the first challenge is most important. Until students learn to embrace complexity and communicate complex insights clearly, there’s not an explicit writing formula in the world that will help them engage, inform, or move readers.