Kim Brooks’ fiction has appeared in Five Chapters, Glimmer Train, One Story, Epoch, and other journals. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches writing at Story Studio Chicago, and is at work on a novel.
Ms. Brooks also bills herself at Salon.com as a teacher of college English, and from her description of what she teaches, I suspect that means freshman composition, something I have also done. As another year of school approaches with ludicrous speed, I thought it worthwhile to comment on Brooks’ concerns. She begins by speaking about her own high school English experiences, which she credits with, more or less, her academic salvation.
So I won’t deny that I owe a debt to the traditional high-school English class, the class in which I first learned to read literature, to write about it and talk about it and recite it and love it. My English teachers were for the most part smart, thoughtful women who loved books and wanted to help other people learn to love them. Nothing, it seemed to me at the time, could make for a better class. Only now, a decade and a half later, after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I’ve begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write.
For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I’ve puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I’ve sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don’t know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.
I’ve stared at the black markings on the page until my vision blurred, chronicling and triaging the maneuvers I will need to teach them in 14 short weeks: how to make sure their sentences contain a subject and a verb, how to organize their paragraphs around a main idea, how to write a working thesis statement or any kind of thesis statement at all. They don’t know how to outline or how to organize a paper before they begin. They don’t know how to edit or proofread it once they’ve finished. They plagiarize, often inadvertently, and I find myself, at least for a moment, relieved by these sentence- or paragraph-long reprieves from their migraine-inducing, quasi-incomprehensible prose.
I must admit to sharing Brooks’ concerns, though hers are the traditional lament of the college teacher these days, and amount to “what the hell is wrong with those high school teachers?!” For the most part: nothing. She hits on the primary problem when she observes that too many high school curriculums consist of mandatory, high-stakes test preparation and “the reading of canonical texts.” What she misses, however, is that for the first time in history, we are, from the President of the United States downward, doing everything possible to encourage everyone and their dog to attend college.
Unfortunately, what this means is we are saddling generations with enormous college debt–well over a trillion dollars thus far–generations, most of which, will not leave college with a degree, but will drop out, disillusioned, bereft of skills that would help them pay their debt, and already behind in the job market in the disastrous Obamaconomy. The truth is that most people don’t belong in college; they just don’t have the intellect to do actual college-level study. In a 2014 article, I quoted Charles Murray’s Education and Intelligence. Charles Murray wrote:
For 40 years, American leaders have been unwilling to discuss the underlying differences in academic ability that children bring to the classroom. Over the same period, federal policy, backed by billions of taxpayer dollars in loans and grants, has aggressively encouraged more and more students to try to obtain a college education. As a result, about half of all high-school graduates now enroll in four-year colleges, despite the ample evidence that just a small minority of American students — about 10-15% — have the academic ability to do well in college.
There is no inconsistency between Kobrin’s results and a 115 mean IQ among white college graduates. The students who make salient points in classroom discussions, who write well-researched term papers, and whose final exams demonstrate that they understood the material are usually well into the upper half of the distribution of academic ability among those who go to college. In other words, they are somewhere in the top 15% of the population — and usually in the top 10%.
If Murray is right, and my experience leads me to believe he is, about 85% of Brooks’ students are having trouble because they don’t belong in college and little or nothing will prepare them for it, least of all, their lack of academic initiative and willingness to work hard. Most people are average or close to it one way or another. A bit less than half of all human beings are below average. Let’s return to Brooks:
And so recently, I’ve started asking them: ‘What exactly did you do in high-school English class?’ And whether I ask them as a group or individually, whether I ask my best students or my worst, the answers I get are less than reassuring. I should add here that my students matriculate from a wide array of schools, everything from expensive prep schools and Midwestern publics, to military academies and boarding schools abroad. But despite this diversity, the answers I get from them about their preparation in the language arts are surprisingly similar.
Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’
‘Sounds fun,’ I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.
I must agree with Brooks here. I know many English teachers who do the kinds of things she mentions. My favorite is the teachers who, as final projects for a work of literature, have students make collages or posters. There is no question such things are fast and easy to grade, but I see little or no academic value in them. What does it matter what a student reads if there is no instruction about its meaning, about how to understand its lessons, about applying that new knowledge, those new neural connections, to what kids know and will learn in the future? And most importantly, how did they write about the literature and the process? Absent substantial writing, how do we know what, if any, progress was made? Grading substantial writings is time-consuming and often frustrating, but that’s why they pay me the big bucks. I’m an English teacher. It’s what I do.
Was it really so essential that these students read Faulkner? Most of them, frankly, seem to struggle with plain old contemporary prose, the level of writing one might find in, say, the New Yorker. Wouldn’t they have been better off, or at least better prepared for the type of college work most will take on (pre-professional, that is), learning to support an argument or use a comma?
Brooks spends several paragraphs observing, wisely, that high school teachers, compared to college teachers, have far more students and far more sections (classes) to teach, so any writing assignment ends up imposing an enormous burden on teachers. I teach, for example, seven separate classes, normally six sections of English 10 and one of Pre-AP English 10. I normally have 125 or so students spread across those seven classes, yet I have a hard and fast rule: if a student hands in their paper on Monday, they’ll get it back, graded and with significant comments, on Tuesday. No papers with nothing but a red checkmark, actual grading that tells them that I read every word they write, and care about it.
That’s one of my frustrations with my fellow teachers. Too many of them in every discipline take weeks, sometimes months, to return student papers. I have trouble with that. If a student is going to actually do the work, I have an obligation to pay attention to it and promptly return it. Otherwise, how can I expect them to care about an assignment they can barely remember? I don’t expect every teacher to do what I do. I read extraordinarily quickly and understand what I read with the same speed. I’ve developed, over the years, techniques that allow me to add significant comments to student papers with equal speed. We’re all different and in teaching, that’s generally a good thing. It prepares kids for life.
I wonder at times, is it even worth it? Do students really need to learn to write?
I bounce the question off another friend, Amelia Shapiro, a longtime writing tutor and composition professor who now directs support services at a university in Hawaii.
‘I hate that fucking question,’ she replies. ‘I hear it all the time and I hate it. No one asks this question about calculus, but who uses calculus besides math majors? If the question’s going to be asked about writing it should be asked about every subject. Even students who aren’t going to stay in college need to know how to write. We’ve all gotten emails or cover letters where we’ve judged people based on the writing. It’s not an essay but it’s still communication and people fail at it all the time in profound and meaningful ways.’
When I ask her why she thinks there’s such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: ‘It’s not fun.
Ah, but it can be! It must be! I tell the kids at the beginning of the year that I’ve had the boring removed from the room, and that any boredom they experience, they bring with them and take with them when they leave. I explain that I’m going to have fun every period, and they may as well come along for the ride. And thereafter, I do.
We study the classics because there are profound lessons, necessary and meaningful lessons, therein. Usually, there is great humor to be found, and nothing–I tell them this–is more fun and satisfying than real accomplishment, which takes work, often hard work, which is fun in and of itself. Nothing is more pleasing than new skills that last forever, that make one more than they were. It really is a matter of attitude and the approach one takes toward life. Kids take their cues from the adults in their lives. If their role models have fun, truly believe in what they’re doing, most kids will learn to do the same. Yes, having fun with academic pursuits is a learned skill–for most, but some kids figure that out very early in life.
I have to take each child as they are and guide them, each year, as far as possible along the path of learning and growth. Some will learn and improve far more than others, but English is–it must be–a skills class. Written and verbal communication, and the ability to comprehend various types of writing, are fundamental human skills that apply to every human endeavor and to every vocation.
This year, I need to renew my dedication to teaching. I need the rejuvenation. I need to once again, regain my love for the process, and burn brightly with enthusiasm for what I do. I’ve burned a bit less brightly than I prefer in recent years, allowing myself to be beaten down by testing, and the political arterial plaque that clogs the arteries of teaching and learning.
To hell with all of that! This year, I’m going to revel in the fact that I am truly doing precisely what I want to do, precisely where I want to do it. I am going to have fun every day, every class.
Kim Brooks is on her own, and I wish her luck.