As the Twig Is Bent…

So I spent all day Tuesday explaining to fifty young men and women what a thesis statement is. Explaining how argumentation differs from exposition. Explaining what is special about a thesis statement for an argument. Explaining how an extended definition is a kind of argument.




And again.

Flunking half of them, it must be said, does get their attention. Some of them actually seemed to be listening this time. One or two of them even went so far as to ask an occasional question.

This is what I find most discouraging about teaching composition: our freshmen are not ready for college-level work. This is as true in the university (where I taught for 10 years) as it is in the community college. University freshmen by and large are little stronger in this department than junior college freshmen, and even the juniors and seniors I taught at GDU were not much improved.

What is the point? Why am I wasting my breath? If they haven’t learned this grade-school stuff by the time they graduate from high school, they’re never going to learn it.

And it’s not nuclear physics. If they can’t manage something as simple as organizing a 2½-page essay, how on earth do they learn more complex tasks, like math and science?

Well, of course, the answer is that they don’t.

Do you have any idea how many of these people are headed for jobs in health care? That’s right. One of these days a person who is so dimly educated he can’t even compose a coherent paragraph will be jabbing you with needles, X-raying you, running you through an MRI machine, cleaning your teeth with sharp instruments, trying to get you to breathe after an asthma attack or anaesthesia, attending your own or your daughter’s childbirth, assisting your surgeon in an operating room.

It’s easy to see how rhet-comp people have become so frustrated with this routine that they’ve concluded it doesn’t do any good to teach the principles of grammar and style. One reason our students write as if they grew up in a cave with no writing implements is that they’re no longer taught how to use the basic tools of writing. As a carpenter will create a crooked table if she doesn’t know how to use a hammer and a screwdriver, so a writer creates an ungainly squib when he doesn’t know how to use words and sentences. In my experience, it is not true that learners cannot apply these tools to their writing; teach them what the tools are and how to use them, and they will use them.

The only conclusion one can make is that these deficits have something to do with the culture of the American public school system. Start with the fact that a degree in education is widely regarded as the easiest, most mickeymouse program you can take in college, then move on to the fact that today’s teachers often function more as social workers than as educators, and then take a look at the way recent high-school graduates behave in the classroom, and you get a picture of what must be going on. In my classes, I have students who open computers and sit there chatting to each other while I’m speaking. Kids huddle in the back and yak while class proceeds. The only way you can get them to quit it, literally, is to throw them out of the classroom.

And I’ve been known to do that.

In faculty  meetings, colleagues regularly complain about the same behavior in their classrooms, so evidently it’s not something I personally bring on. It apparently is so commonplace that students expect to be allowed to carry on conversations throughout all their classes.

This suggests they get away with it routinely in the high-school classroom.

What happens in the college classroom is the aftermath of what students have experienced in the K-12 system. And when 80 or 90 percent of our classmates seem unable to function in a college classroom, that should tell us that the K-12 system itself is largely nonfunctional.


  • Budget Glamorous

    February 25, 2012 at 9:27 am Reply

    Things would improve drastically (in my opinion) if students had more lessons in accountability early on. Controlled failures early on prevent bigger disasters later in life. Most of mine have to relearn how to listen — not in a “shut up and listen to me” kind of way, though there are a few of those. But in an active listening kind of way. I’m amazed at the number of sweet, mostly diligent students who miss the most basic of instructions that I put out a) in class, b) on the board, c) in an e-mail and then d) on their online blackboard! They don’t know how to listen effectively.

    Incidentally, I read an interesting piece not so long ago saying the millennial generation often look at things through a video game mentality — as in, reset and try it again until you get to the next level. My students completely agreed with this analogy when we discussed it in class. What’s …interesting…about this, is it seems to imply that there is an acceptable level of failure they’re operating under. The first “life” doesn’t count, just respawn and try it again! Never you mind that this second (or third, or fourth) try might cost you a couple of thousand dollars more a pop! Hmm…I feel a post coming on!

  • wanda

    October 23, 2012 at 9:18 am Reply

    When I was in grad school, I sat in on a high school classroom once where the teacher literally did *nothing.* He was supposed to teach biology. What he actually did was assign a short section of the textbook to read and a few of the textbook questions to answer at the beginning of class and then sit in his chair the rest of the time. There was no lecturing; he didn’t even collect the assignments. It was an ESL classroom, and half the kids didn’t have enough English skills to complete even that easy assignment, and half the kids didn’t really belong there, so the task was trivial for them.

    Of course the classroom was utter chaos. The students walked around and talked to each other. There was nothing else to do! One girl was even on her cellphone. The teacher made a half-hearted attempt to stop her because there were visitors in the classroom, and the girl claimed she was on the phone with her dad.

    Frankly, I was appalled that anyone could get away with this kind of “teaching.” I had some teachers in my own high school that I thought were pretty bad, but they at least tried to impart information to us during class. Of course, I was in the honors and AP track. I’ve gone back home to visit some of my old teachers, and now I think I know what they meant when they’ve said that they “given up” on their lower-track classes.

    And then some of these students end up in community college and have no idea what appropriate classroom behavior is. It’s never been asked of them before.

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