Most semesters I teach at least a few freshmen writing students. And every semester I do I am dismayed that somewhere out there high school English teachers are teaching them to do very dumb things. I'm hoping a few high school English teachers will read this and change their ways. Or maybe I just want to complain.


1. Stop telling students it's smart to start essays with dictionary definitions. Since the beginning of time and rhetoric writers have known that openings must be attention-getting and intriguing, and there are few things in this world less attention-getting and intriguing than a dictionary definition. Teaching this technique is teaching them to suck. Stop it.

2. Stop telling students they're "not allowed" to write questions. Rhetorical questions are a powerful technique. They're trying to do something good, and probably failing at it, so you tell them not to try at all. You're retarding their growth as writers and preventing them from using every technique in the writer's toolbox. Stop it.

3. Stop telling students that you can't use "you" or "I" or "us" or "we" or "me" in academic writing. Have you ever read a piece of real academic writing? With few exceptions, everyone, from physicists to anthropologists to economists, uses these pronouns. And every essay we assign them to read uses these pronouns. So what you're teaching them is that they're never expected to model the good writing they see; they're supposed to produce another creature: lifeless gutless bullshit guaranteed to bore. Stop it.

4. Stop telling students "commas go where you take a breath." There are seven fucking ways that a comma can be used in a typical English sentence. Seven. Go look them up you lazy bastard. Then teach your students to use them. Seven for fuck's sake: they fit on ONE powerpoint slide.

5. Stop telling students not to use contractions. I know why you're doing this: you're doing this because writers who don't use contractions can't possibly confuse "it's" with "its" or "you're" with "your" or "there" with "they're" or "can't" with "cant" or "we're" with "were" (and I could go on): you're tired of marking those errors. I get it. But what you're really doing is making someone else have to teach them the difference between those words later, when they're of legal age to own a home and marry. Or perhaps you're making it so they never learn them at all, and will simply look like fools for the rest of their lives. How nice of you.

6. Stop telling students that concluding paragraphs just reiterate the essay's points. If that's all a conclusion does, there's no point in reading it. Conclusions bring the essay's emotions full circle and emphasize the importance of the topic; they tell the reader why she should care about the subject. If you make your students think about this, the idea that it's their job to persuade the reader that their topic matters, they will become better writers. If you ask them only to reiterate, they learn that writing is a pointless exercise in repetitious bullshit, whose main purpose is to fill blank spots on the page even if that means saying things they've already said.

I hate to get down on high school English teachers. I know it's a really hard job. I know they've got too many students and too few hours in the day. I know that education has been highjacked by standardized testing. And I know that people who choose to become teachers are good souls who mean well and want only good things for the future of their students and their country.

But what gets me is that none of the problems I encounter are about the students falling short: it's not that students are coming to me only understanding 3 of the 7 ways to use commas, or are still confusing a few contractions with similar words; no, it's that they've been actively taught these weird "rules" (that they follow religiously), and these "rules" prevent them from progressing as writers. It's not that they're attempting to write well and failing, it's that they've been taught to write badly and are succeeding.

Rhetoric is one of the Western World's oldest, most firmly-established, most well-developed disciplines. We have thousands of years of examples of great writing, and thousands of years of examples of lesson plans, going back to the ancient Progymnasmata. And there is nothing more important to the students' individual fortunes and the success of their society than their ability to communicate clearly. Yet English teachers are out there distributing "folk wisdom" like the witch doctors in Africa who tell the HIV-positive that sex with a virgin will cure them. Sure, it's a little harder to get your hands on AZT than a virgin, and it's a little harder to teach the seven uses of a comma than it is to say, "where you take a breath." But there could not be a greater gulf between the quality of the results.

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