A Few Confessions of an English Teacher

Alexandra Glynn

Preparing for classes rouses up the guilt again. I teach writing, but I don’t do what I tell my students to do. I plagiarize, in a sense, all the time. I don’t read articles; I skim them enough to make them seem read. And when I write, I really don’t consider any of the items that my textbook says to consider when considering audience.

Scorn not the plagiarist. If you are not plagiarizing, you are not reading; you are not bringing ancient music to our modern hearts. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself, as I browse through books looking for something someone wrote that I can put in my sentence, to cast the glory into it and dart a kind of luster into it that I could never fabricate on my own. I tell my students not to plagiarize, but I do it. If I haven’t knitted in some of the poets, the way the psalmist weaved through some of Moses (Botha 1) into Psalm 119, [1] I haven’t really said anything, and certainly haven’t said anything that is commonly thought but never so well expressed.

And I have a two hundred second rule for reading articles. I allow myself two hundred seconds per article and look for what argument the writer is making (fortunately, this is almost always in the beginning of the paper), then for what kinds of words they use, and based on those two data points, I decide whether or not I will look for any good quotes in the article. Then I cast almost all the articles aside, like lords lain low. And yet I tell my students to do diligent research, not to be lazy, and to carefully consider what they are reading. I console myself with Hegel, whose words I skew to mean that one should read “prefaces and first paragraphs” (43), and only those. [2]

And finally, I ignore large segments of my textbook, which right now is Bullock, Brody, and Weinberg’s Little Seagull Handbook. For example, they suggest that in considering audience, we consider which audience we want to reach, their background, their interests, demographic information, what they “already know—or believe—about [my] topic,” and the like. I skip all this, and only take the last suggestion: “How can you best appeal to your audience?” (W-1c 3). And I answer it the same for everything I write: I can best appeal “by patterning of sounds.” Everything else about my audience, which I am always telling my students to consider—faithfully referring them to the second book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric—I ignore it all. I only care that the members of my audience have a “Dr. Seuss gene” and they are caught by patterns of sound.

And of course, I would never advise my students to do anything like this. How would I dare? For what am I doing? Teaching them to chant the music like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong? Or training them all to be Shakespeare, who “was not a genius” but rather “he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well” (Forsyth 1). It often seems like I am lazily and lotus-like laboring to bleed out all the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” that Orwell feuded with. But meanwhile, I know that “the will to produce citizenship through the teaching of writing is strong” (Wan 28) and that since it is probably also true that “the teaching of writing involves the teaching of ethics and ethical language practices” (Duffy 230), I ought to spend all my time ensconcing my students in citizenship and ethics, or at least grammar. So I do this. I do this for their practicing of writing what I would not ever do for myself. And meanwhile, at a few moments during the sixteen weeks, like attempted flashes onto the inward eye, I slip unconscious crooks into the psyches of my students, hoping they will be enchanted into the poets, and after class, turn to them. For don’t they already do this in their music? Isn’t it true that a human being “is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody” (Shelley)?

Unresolved on this, I go to prepare for classes again, a hypocrite, pondering all these things weak and weary. And I consider that I am a poser, consoled only by the thought that not all my colleagues are such actors. That I am in a noble profession, in a place where, as the poet says, “walls come down, / valleys rise, / bridges stretch outward” (Kurtti 9).

Notes

[1] The full quote: “By alluding to, borrowing from, rephrasing, and reinterpreting segments of the Torah, Prophets, wisdom literature, and Psalms, the author of Psalm 119 created a new authoritative text by replicating and re-contextualising what must have been considered to be authoritative texts in his day” (Botha 1).

[2] The full quote: “Should anyone ask for a royal road to Science, there is no more easy-going way than to rely on sound common sense and for the rest, in order to keep up with the times, and with advances in philosophy, to read reviews of philosophical works, perhaps even to read their prefaces and first paragraphs” (Hegel 43).

Works Cited

Botha, Philippus. “Interpreting ‘Torah’ in Psalm 1 in the light of Psalm 119” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 68.1 (2012).

Bullock, Richard, and Michal Brody and Francine Weinberg. “Writing Contexts” in The Little Seagull Handbook. Norton 2017, pp. W1-5.

Duffy, John. “The good writer: Virtue ethics and the teaching of writing” College English, vol. 79, no. 3, 2017, pp. 229-250.

Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. Penguin, 2013.

Hegel, G. F. W. Phenomenology of Spirit [1807]. A. V. Miller (transl). Oxford U Press, 1997.

Kurtti Pylvainen, Sandra. “Close Reading.English Journal, vol. 104, no. 4, 2015, p. 9.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language [1946]” orwell.ru. Retrieved from http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/.

Shelley, Percy. “A defense of poetry [1840]” PoetryFoundation.org https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry.

Wan, Amy. “In the name of citizenship: The writing classroom and the promise of citizenship” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 28-49.

Works Plagiarized

Addison, Joseph. “The Spectator No 421. Thursday, July 3, 1712.” The Spectator. Retrieved from http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/addison421.htm.

McKay, Claude. “Invocation” in Selected Poems. Dover, 1999, p. 23.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven” in The Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. G. R. Thompson (ed). Norton, 2004, pp. 58-61.

Pope, Alexander. “An essay on criticism.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the men of England” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, pp. 149-150.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lotus-eaters [1832]” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45364/the-lotos-eaters.

Wordsworth, William “I wandered lonely.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud.

Wordsworth, William. “Scorn not the sonnet” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, p. 58.

 

Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.

Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.

Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.

The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.

In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper. Continue reading