Check out a list of course offerings from just about any college or university and you’re bound to find a few classes in Developmental English; additionally, most English departments have also established Writing Centers. Both courses and centers are designed to help students effectively master the challenges of college-level academic writing.
However, they also reflect a failing high school system that continues to perpetuate the idea that only the chosen few will ever be successful writers. How do they manage to convince students? By continuing to teach English subjectively.
By the time they enter my Freshman Composition classroom, many students have already decided they’ll never be able to pass my class, much less write an acceptable essay. Sometimes it almost feels as though I spend as much time teaching “writing re-hab” as I do teaching essay writing.
Questions that fall into the “writing re-hab” category include:
1. Do you grade with a red pen?
2. Can I really use the word “I” in my essay?
3. How long does the paper have to be in order to pass?
4. Are you a grammar Nazi?
5. How many grammar mistakes are allowed?
Not one of these questions has anything to do with how to write an effective essay; instead, these questions are aimed at finding out what I find acceptable, which tells me my students have gotten very used to writing for one person (ie the teacher) rather than for an audience.
Inevitably, the first formal essay of the semester is usually my students’ worst. It comes as quite a shock to a lot of them when they aren’t rewarded with a top grade for a bland, impersonal essay that fails to take any kind of writing risks whatsoever.
More than once, I’ve looked out into a sea of disappointed faces and said, “Let the healing begin!”
I’m not their favorite teacher for awhile, but by the end of the semester, most of my students view themselves as much improved. And if I’ve done my job, I’ve helped a great deal of them overcome the preconceived notions about writing they developed in high school. At the very least, I’ve taught them that writing well isn’t an inherent quality bestowed by the writing Muses or High School English Teachers’ Secret Society: it’s something they can all achieve.