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Summer Postmortem – Or, Maybe I Should Teach Fewer Things For Longer

July 27, 2012

I’ve just finished teaching an intensive five-week remedial college reading and writing course, part of an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) summer institute: intense schedule, four hours of teaching a day, four days a week, a full semester’s coursework. I rather enjoyed it, and I think they learned a lot in a short time, but I wonder if I might have served them better by teaching them less–much less–with a laser-beam intensity of focus.

I’ve just finished grading their final project, very short, very simple research papers, and it doesn’t look good. Despite all the progress they made, progress I could see on their penultimate assignment, their final essays mostly fell apart. Sentences spiraled senselessly in on themselves, paragraphs devolved into jungles of words, grammar collapsed, punctuation vanished, and only occasionally could I trace anything like an overarching point.

And I should have expected this. Their basic skills are too weak for any other result.  They cannot simultaneously

  • discuss three academic sources while maintaining and developing their own distinct ideas
  • maintain awareness of their entire essay
  • structure and organize that essay so that the reader can follow it
  • communicate in clear, fluent sentences

They would struggle with any one of those tasks. When they attempt all four at the same time, their skills implode.

Partly this is because novices don’t think like experts; they do everything at once, lack systematic plans, have no idea that they can construct plans. By contrast, experts plan effortlessly–often so easily that they don’t appear to plan at all, relying instead on long-internalized procedures and time-tested abilities, canned plans.

Partly, however, novices simply lack the skill to automate routine tasks. They don’t automatically form mental maps of their essays; they can’t model a reader’s reactions; they can’t assume that their sentences scan or their punctuation works. Reading and writing are complex skills made up of simpler skills; any weakness in the lower-order skills will strain the higher-order processes. Whereas the expert focuses entirely on the rhetorical problem of the piece, on fitting form to content to make a point, the poor novice really can’t.

It seems to me that skill acquisition in writing must resemble like skill acquisition in sports or music or any technical field–it’s just that writing is a particularly complicated skill, much trickier than, say, basketball. Maybe most students can’t master writing globally by drilling ten demanding tasks all at once, just as they wouldn’t learn to play guitar by playing whole songs over and over. Maybe I can help them learn more by teaching fewer skills in a much more focused way–scales, arpeggios, the annoying but vital stuff.

A semester is fifteen weeks; maybe a remedial semester could be reduced to three equal, and equally important, parts. Perhaps a remedial student should spend five weeks learning to explain their views in crisp, fluent, grammatically-valid, well-punctuated prose, then five weeks learning to read, comprehend, summarize, and explicate other people’s writing, then five weeks extending that basic fluency to a simple but fully-developed response argument. As long as I pursued this focus on fundamentals with glee and passion–“Let me unlock mastery of the language!”–and never let it lapse into dull remedial drudgery, maybe they’d exit my course better-prepared not to fall to pieces under the pressure of complexity.

Thoughts? Techniques I might apply? I’m a great fan of problem-solving and modeling in the classroom, so I would probably want students to compose responses to prompts, then spend a lot of time showing them how to line-edit, building their prose skills by constant accretion. It would be painstaking and intense in-class work, though in the plus column I could probably cut down on pre-class planning.

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