Monday, May 16, 2011


"Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (Ezra Pound, ABC, p. 84)

Scott Eric Kaufman has a talent for writing about his encounters with his students. (Or perhaps his talent is simply to attract noteworthy encounters, which then only need to be transcribed. Here's his most famous one.) Last week, the encounter was about the difficulty of abstracting writing skills from writing courses; I guess in a deeper sense it was about the difficulty of teaching students skills that will help them in life rather than merely help them get through the course. (I'm not going to spoil it with a summary. Go read it, then come back.)

This difficulty persists in the acquisition and maintenance of any craft skill. Everything you have learned how to do well, and everything you actually do with some facility (ease) today, you have learned through regular practice. Hard work and dedication. And yet, again and again, when we realize that we are not "good enough" at something we would like to be good at, we look for someone to "make us do" something to improve our abilities. This dependence on the teacher's rules and tricks (and regular kicks in the pants), then, gets in the way of grasping the general lesson. In Scott's story, the fact that the teacher "made" the student revise interferes with the student's grasping the general utility of revision.

Psychology has always baffled me. Students can sometimes be remarkably lucid about their counterproductive ticks and still give the teacher the task of overcoming them. So, for example, one student explained that my repeated insistence on the importance of writing some prose every day just got tiresome and eventually became the reason she was not writing every day. (The class clearly "needed" a weekly reminder, but it didn't help much. Perhaps this was because I was only "suggesting" it to them, not "making" them do it by giving them a weekly assignment.) It is entirely possible that I'm not a very good "motivator", but the weird thing here is that the student knows she is being "demotivated" by something that has nothing to do with the quality of the advice. She knows that she is "resisting", and she still does not overcome it.

I hear this word, "demotivating", too often used by people who really should know better. It's always a way of explaining why someone is not doing something they actually know they should be doing. Someone else (higher up in the hierarchy) has "demotivated" them, by being inattentive, thoughtless, stupid, or even mean. The teacher's indifference, say, "demotivates" the student. The teacher may have made the student feel "stupid", or where did the teacher "get off" implying that the student did not work hard enough? Things like that.

I'm not defending such pedagogy, of course. But I am puzzled by people who recognize (often very accurately) the source of their lack of motivation as someone else's thoughtlessness or simply lack of teaching skills and then still let it "demotivate" them. I like Scott's story because I suspect it locates the problem more precisely.


Andrew Shields said...

Students have to learn that what they are taught in one class can be applied to other classes as well. When professors read seminar papers and are surprised by the students' poor writing skills, it always turns out that the students are not applying what they learned in courses on writing skills.

Thomas said...

I think that's a really good point. In fact, the continuously self-critical academy might be undermining its authority here. We keep granting that we don't teach writing skills enough, or not well enough. Instead, we should simply punish poor writers with low grades (and softer kinds of humiliation).

If you don't write well enough, it's mainly because you don't write often enough. If you work very hard at your writing, and have done so for a long time, but still don't write well, you may be in the wrong program (or simply not suited for university, which is not in itself shameful).

Poor writing can't really be blamed on a lack of writing instruction. It can be blamed on a lack of criticism and tough grading. Of course, if you're going to evaluate the writing of your students you do well to integrate writing explicitly in your teaching. But that's just common sense.

Jonathan said...

I found in a recent graduate course and a separate dissertation proposal defense that students had not thought about writing at all. It wasn't that they just were not able to able skills they had recently learned in another context, but that they hadn't really hadn't thought about any kind of issue relating to prose style at all in recent years. Students did suffer in their grades because of this.