Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Now and then I consider “teaching” or “coaching” or “tutoring” writing.  Sort of a “share the wealth” idea.  I have to use so many quotes because I realize how out of sync I am with the culture.  I don’t even mean the same thing by “writing,” much less “good writing.”   These days one writes to sell and that means writing to order, as patterned as a pie.  Then, of course, the publishers will tell you that it is a status thing: good writing means being a “published writer,” sort of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Once I was asked to judge a high school speech contest and completely bolixed up the process because my idea of a good speech was so different from what was being taught and so counter to the expectations of the sponsors.  I thought originality, intelligence and passion should count more than anything else.  They did not.  
A related problem is that so many people think that teaching is something imposed on a yielding but passive student, rather than an energetic pursuit BY the student with the teacher panting to keep up.  At the same time students prize their own personal ideas so much that they resent any kind of judgment from the teacher as a denial of their identity and possibly an affront to their religious position.  They will not accept discipline (I mean self-control, not punishment) or alternatives.  Most of them are dominated by the group to which they belong, whether demographic or through some kind of affinity or simply income level.  This has been deadly for some groups, since the circle of people who are willing to be consumers gets tighter and tighter.  There seems to be a sociopolitical complex arising as a monster from what was once well-intentioned “creativity” and “independence” and “self-respect.” 
Among the ordinarily resisted disciplines is that of grammar.  In some ways I’m not surprised because grammar is taught as an end when it is simply a means to clarity.  In fact, most people confuse grammar and standard usage -- not saying “ain’t” is not a matter of grammar -- it’s usage.  Using a double negative IS bad grammar if you’re speaking English.  Usage is convention within a community.   Grammar is the structural pattern of the sentences that guides the sense.  Unless one can at will change a participle to a prepositional phrase, a gerund to a noun-adjective combination, keep parallel structure and connect participles to their antecedents, the poor reader may have to reread and reread to get sense out of the passage. 
Nowadays we get forced out of one set of “writing” conventions into another because of technology, adding signals to conventional punctuation.  A good example is the automated formatting of print on an eReader, which can make hash of such elements as lines, stanzas and verses in poetry.  Many poets now use a slash mark to end a line.  If the program is nimble enough and one’s techie chops are up to it, colored fonts, completely different fonts, strange  alphabets, drawings, videos and even music can be introduced.  This is hard to teach -- standards are not worked out yet -- and it’s way too complex for a conformity-based culture (like ours) to support so far.  We sit scratching our heads.  But the kids, maybe through games and maybe through music, ARE willing to exert themselves to learn in those contexts.  Does it follow that we should use games and music to teach writing?  I hope not.  But surely teachers can learn. 
Teachers study students in order to bridge the subject with the students.  But it is not lesson plans nor standardized tests that make it happen.  The main instrument is the personhood of the teacher.  I was just looking at the website of a self-declared writer who in fact teaches English at the college level and writes about it on her website.   Her writing is full of high school level errors.  Does she compensate for this with insight, analysis, tenderness, epiphanies or bravery?  Who says she should?  I can’t tell you who she is without giving you her name and that would expose her too much.  She’s a Westerner, runs with the right crowd, and is beautiful.  She evidently does not believe in proofing.  No one seems to mind.
A teaching friend finds it unnerving that his students demand all the time,  “what must I do to get an A?”  -- “what do you want from me?”  As though they were whores bargaining a price.  They have no sense of possibility, no intentions of their own except to get certified for prosperity.  What enormous irony this is, since no one can teach prosperity -- it’s like the Holy Ghost, totally dependent on forces way beyond one’s transcript.  But they have no sense of irony either, because irony bounces off reality and they have no commonsense grip on reality.  Learning can be fun and learning together should be intimate, but in our culture fun is frivolity and intimacy is sex. 
What’s to be done?  No need to do anything.  This problem is self-correcting, painful as correction may be, maybe like an economic “correction.”  No government, institution or even family can keep people from learning.  The world is different enough now that the original plan of universal county/state tax-supported education for citizenship and literacy is not working.  The schools have become the tools of corporations -- but they were always meant to make us factory workers.  Mega-cities are pyramidal puzzles.
It may be that the new schools will be online or take libraries as their nucleus.  Here you go:  http://www.youtube.com/education.  Maybe charter schools,  Churches?  Writing is really about thinking and thinking is about what matters in the world which is feeling.  How do you teach that to people?
Somehow I stumbled onto a path into the future.  In seminary for my thesis I was reading Suzanne Langer, who spent a lot of time thinking about what she called “felt concepts.”  They are the things that are pre-verbal, subverbal, even subconscious, inhabitants of dreams.  Today we would say they were the sensory elements that compose thinking and identity.  This is the level kids seem to be on, especially the ones worldwide who have escaped all formal schooling, who do not sit at desks, but spend their days foraging for food and their nights hiding from predators.  The gizmos that are only Gameboys to our suburban kids, smartphones to our professionals, are spaceships for those kids, a leap into hyperdrive where they can actually show us what they know through video, painting, song and dance, the eloquence of the senses calling us.  
That’s liturgy, NOT writing.  It precedes and underlies writing, but many people writing today do not have this level of being in their lives.  It has been replaced by media.  In the meantime, if anyone wants to know how the little teeter-totter of the sentence works and how meaning dangles from it in dependent clauses like a chandelier, a mobile, a candleabra -- I could show you.  It’s not the most important thing, but it’s useful.


Ray Wade said...

I love the way you think and teach and write. We cannot have fun or experience intimacy if we can create clear statements upon which to build our relationships to other people, beings or the world around us.

This entry jumped out as I scanned others. Now I will carefully read and consider your other offerings.


prairie mary said...

I have a hunch Ray meant to say "if we can NOT".

Prairie Mary