The endless, perplexing, and ultimately essential question of whether writing can be taught

by David Alm on October 8, 2012

In this month’s Atlantic, Peg Tyre writes about a school on Staten Island that has “revolutionized” writing pedagogy: by going back to basics. Judith Hochman, who originally developed the very old-fashioned approach to writing pedagogy that New Dorp High School is now using, told Tyre that “kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”

This seems like sound advice, but it’s not easy to implement. And it gets harder the older the students get.

I’ve taught writing to college students for nearly a decade, and in that time, a great many of them have told me they want to be professional writers. This makes sense: I teach journalism — reporting, magazine writing, cultural criticism — so the people who take my classes are a self-selected lot. Still, many of them lack the fundamentals that professional writing demands: a firm grasp on subject-verb agreement, how to structure a piece so that it leads the reader through and feels complete at the end, where to best place an attribution in a given quote. You might say they don’t have “the knack.”

And that’s the question: where does this “knack” come from, and can it be developed? Conventional wisdom would say no to the latter — that’s why it’s a “knack” — but without a satisfying answer to the former, it’s hard to accept that “no” as fact.

I always say that I learned writing during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade, when my parents struck a deal with my elementary school that if they spent the summer working through a year’s worth of reading and writing material, the school would bump me up to the highest reading group. I still don’t know why I wasn’t in the highest reading group before this, but I assume it had to do with some test that I took when I was six years old.

Other people would have different stories, some radically different. The crime writer James Ellroy writes in his memoir, My Dark Places, that he didn’t begin writing until he was in his 30s, after spending most of his life up until then either drunk, high on drugs, or eating takeout in front of the TV while his father was out carousing. But damn, he can write now.

Back to that unsatisfying “no, you can’t teach someone the knack for being a good writer.” Whether writing can be taught at all has long confounded educators and politicians alike. If a student doesn’t read, how can I teach them to hear the music of a beautifully crafted piece of prose? What’s the best strategy, Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind? Should schools do away with tenure, or offer it to more teachers? Can I make real strides with someone who doesn’t understand what a paragraph is?

Some time back, I asked in another post if “thoughtful” writing can be taught — essay-style, intellectually engaged work like that of Christopher Hitchens or David Brooks. That question is a luxurious one to ponder, both for a teacher and a student. The question I’m posing now is broader, and far more pressing: Can we teach writing to those who have little to no foundation from which to build? Think: immigrants whose grasp on the language is tenuous at best, college students who grew up in houses without a single book and parents who don’t read, people who are too distracted by work or lack of privacy to ever immerse themselves completely in a work of literature. (See Ginia Bellafonte’s excellent article from this weekend’s New York Times, “For Poor Schoolchildren, a Poverty of Words.”)

When I was in college, I read books upon books, essay after essay, en route to my bachelor’s degree. Now, 20 years later, I hesitate to assign readings much longer than a magazine feature, for fear no one will actually find enough time (or peace and quiet) to read them. With technology as ubiquitous as it is today — a distraction that most people can’t seem to wrest themselves from, no matter how hard they try — it’s certain that we’re never going back to a quieter, more contemplative time. But that’s another matter.

Back to adult learning: Can the so-called Hochman Program, however effective at New Dorp High School it might be, also be implemented in colleges and ESL programs, where adult students — often in their 30s, 40s, and beyond — have the same deficiencies as high school students in addition to the layers of time and age that make learning anything so much harder as we grow older?

That, as Hamlet might say, is the rub. But I have no intention of giving up on the effort, despite the ironic fact that the longer I try, the harder it seems to get. In many ways, the struggle is not unlike writing itself. I always tell my students that no one will ever be a perfect writer, and that the best we can do is to inch our way closer, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph until we die.

In this sense, the writing life is not unlike that of Sisyphus, consigned as he was to push a boulder up a hill for all time. But this should neither dispirit nor daunt a student any more than it should a writer. As Albert Camus writes in the final line of his famous retelling of that fable: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

 

DeAne October 8, 2012 at 7:54 am

David,

This is very thoughtful and thought provoking. One thought that it provoked in me is sharp awareness that the more I work at helping my students learn to write, the more I am aware of my own writing as composed.

DeAne

David Alm October 9, 2012 at 6:09 am

Thanks, DeAne. I agree; teaching writing has made me far more aware of the intricacies of what *feels* like second nature to me. In trying to explain what a sentence is, or how to determine when to break a paragraph, or even just when to know a piece is “finished,” I realize just how difficult these things are to explain, and also how deliberate my own constructions are.

But also, in realizing that, I realize that writing is a very difficult thing to do, even for professional or lifelong writers. Just because we may do certain things intuitively now does not mean they’re any less complex. One of the classes I teach is called Basic Reporting, and I always begin the class by saying that it’s one of the worst-named classes at the college, because there’s nothing basic about it.

Neil October 8, 2012 at 9:19 am

David,

Thanks for your discussion of this important and confounding topic. As a community college instructor who teaches reading as well as writing (mostly to immigrants, 1.5 generation Americans, and native-born Americans), I wrestle with this question every day. And I believe that it is absolutely possible to teach “the knack” – but it takes a very long time, it’s a tediously incremental climb for students, and yes, it must be complemented at every step by reading instruction.

You’ll never know what good writing is if you haven’t seen it before. Therefore, you cannot teach a student who has never read a book to write, because they have no model to work from. The task is too abstract, and the product becomes a giant dog’s breakfast of random, unconnected thoughts. Writing instruction at very low levels, I have found, is much more of an exercise in simply organizing your thoughts on paper than anything else. And yes, we need models, and yes, we need a formula. That’s how we all learned to write, even if we can’t recall how it specifically happened. It’s also how we learned math (even if many of we English-types have forgotten most of it), which also calls on us to organize our thoughts in an unfamiliar way if we want to move to the next level.

I have no doubt that many of my students could become good (maybe not great, but good) writers with enough practice. Now, by this I don’t mean a class or two at college taught by a top-notch professor – I mean spending as much time learning to write as an immigrant, diplomat or intelligence operative spends learning a foreign language to native fluency. Because for lots of students, native speakers included, writing is a foreign language that is difficult and overwhelming and confusing and frustrating, so they must learn it step by step. It may take a long time, but so be it.

There’s also the question of expectations. Kids getting out of high school can’t write worth a damn for the same reason I couldn’t speak Spanish worth a damn when I graduated. I wasn’t challenged to do, I didn’t have much opportunity to do it, and no one really cared if I could do it or not. I’m glad that these people in Staten Island have made the choice to prioritize writing, because I truly believe that 1) they will not learn it otherwise, and will struggle in college as a result, and 2) Writing is an essential part of almost any subject, not just English – you can’t do well in History, Business, Psychology, or many other classes if you cannot demonstrate your knowledge of the subject through your writing. We need to just as intolerant of bad writing as we are of illiteracy.

But what to do about adults who spent so many years in school not learning to to write? Without a doubt, they’re a tougher population, because not only are they learning to speak a new language, they are unlearning an old one. The older a person gets, the tougher it becomes to take on tasks like this with the kind of seriousness and attention they require. Learning to write well is possible, but the time and effort required are far more than most people are willing to devote to it.

I continue to be an optimist, and I hold out hope that one day writing will be given its due in our schools, and that more schools will follow the example of New Dorp.

-neil

David Alm October 9, 2012 at 6:11 am

Neil, thank you for this excellent response to my post. Your response is one I’ll read more than once, and no doubt return to for ideas over the years.

Diana October 8, 2012 at 9:33 am

An editorial in our local newspaper recently explored the idea of why students have such a hard time learning a foreign language. I suggest that writing well in English is related to this foreign language problem. In high school language classes students are expected to conjugate verbs. What’s that mean? They never had to do that in English. Of course they probably know to write “he thinks” but “they think.” …or from what David writes maybe they don’t. There’s also the problem of tense. In a foreign language the students learn how to form certain tenses, what to call them, and when to use them. In English they don’t know the difference between “is” and “was.” By studying a foreign language English usage usually improves. If it doesn’t, I believe it’s because students still don’t make the connection. Foreign language teaching is being based more and more on vocabulary usefulness within situations — to the detriment of learning the grammar of the language. Maybe the two fields of study should be combined… Call it: French to improve your English 101. Or better yet, use Latin.

Jeff McMahon October 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I love this post and this conversation. I just want to raise a question about our assumptions:

What if the standard of good writing is also changing?

Consider how much that standard changed between the 19th and 20th Centuries. To a writing teacher in 19th Century England, how would Hemingway’s prose look? Yet to a late 20th Century (or early 21st) writing teacher, clarity is a virtue.

People tend to deplore the evolution of writing in the digital age as degradation, but I think that’s folly. Language adapts to its users. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t work.

Do we have the knack, may be the vital question, for teaching a good tweet?

David Alm October 9, 2012 at 6:19 am

Yes, I agree — rules change, needs change. But I don’t agree that learning to write a good tweet is sufficient, no matter what defines the era or the culture we may inhabit. The fact is that a good tweet is kind of like a good poem: tight, provocative, compelling, informative, or simply entertaining. It requires enormous attention to craft and words to be able to write them well, abilities I believe I have but not on the level that good tweeting requires: I was once given a trial run writing tweets and Facebook updates for the Economist and I didn’t get the job.

Still, I believe that a good tweet should be the fruit on a strong vine of skill, with roots that run deep and which will survive year after year. Fruit that can be made into wine, jelly, juice, or just eaten as-is for a burst of pure, unadulterated flavor. But the grape cannot exist without the vine.

evelyn lisi October 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Well, this miserable Sisyphus just got done teaching freshman comp. I agree, Jeff, that the standard is changing. Its ok, I think, that we are not teaching the same students that we were. I DO think writing can be taught, but I think students at any level from any background will learn best through models. They have to see, heat, etc. The conventions.

I also think students have to understand writing is situated, maybe there is no one standard of GOOD (sorry, Plato), rather, writing achieves effect depending on purpose and audience.

This conversation is so important as I think we have to act as though we believe even if we do not. So this Sisyphus will keep trying and will need a lot of coffee.

David Alm October 9, 2012 at 6:28 am

I agree with this entirely, though I’d add that it’s still worthwhile for students to understand contexts and purposes they may not find inherently interesting. An unfortunate byproduct of the relativist approach to education, I think, is that students can misinterpret the idea that “there is no normative standard” to mean “I don’t have to do or study anything I don’t want to, because what I think and find useful has just as much merit as what the ‘canon’ and ‘history’ tell me I ‘should’ find useful. So I’m just going to ignore all that boring stuff I don’t care about and write rap songs.” (Or poems about my cat, a Hubert Selby Jr. -esque story without any punctuation or paragraph breaks, or whatever.)

I always use the example of Jackson Pollock in class. Everyone knows his work, so he’s an easy artist to make this point: The big splatter paintings you all know of Pollock’s only came late in his career. If you go back and look at his earlier work, he was an extremely proficient figure painter. He had the conventions down pat, and only then did he venture into abstraction. Moreover, if you really study his splatter paintings, you can see rhythms and patterns in them; they’re not just messes of paint.

I don’t get the sense that you’re saying the students should be allowed to write however they want, about whatever they want. Your comment just spurred those thoughts in me, so thank you!

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