Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ten-der is the night

So, today I parked at my desk all day and read and annotated a short, inexpertly written novel.

Well, not literally, but near enough. I graded two sections' worth of English 101 compositions, the revision of the first major paper for this quarter. So, somewhere around 50 papers, somewhere around four pages each, commenting on each one (in-line and summative), and there you go. A paperback, at least.

I say "inexpertly written" because, by the very nature of the class, the writers in English 101 are inexperienced and the writing a bit unpolished. If writers at this stage by and large already knew how to write a competent essay, we wouldn't need a class like this one, but by and large they don't (there are some wonderful exceptions), so we do.

And there's the rub: it's harder to read "bad" writing than it is to read "good" writing. Unless you are an English teacher or an editor, you probably don't think about this for much longer than the time it takes to wince through a particularly inept email or especially unclear instructions. But we think about it all the time.

Reading competently written prose is like driving on a paved, well-lit, and well-marked roadway. Even if you don't know exactly where you are going, even if you've never been down the road before, you can still make pretty good time most of the time. You click along at the speed limit, confident enough in the solid construction of the road, the reflective paint, the color-coded signs, and the clear lines of sight to actually take in the scenery and enjoy the trip. And even when the road winds through rough terrain or it's raining out or you just see something really weird out the window and you have to slow down, you still feel assured that the road will treat you right, that you can rely on the markings and the stripes and the signs to get you through.

On the other hand, reading developing writing is like going off-road, with only a faded map and the description of some landmarks to keep you oriented. You think you are following the blazes correctly, but all of a sudden you find your self in tangleberries; was the map wrong? Did you miss a turn? Or is this supposed to be here? You're not quite sure if it's you or the trail that has gone wrong, so you back up, and have at it again; nope, more tangleberries. Nothing to do but push on. And perish forbid you should come into any really rough terrain! Sometimes the trail disappears completely, and some have just stopped abruptly at a cliff face or even in the middle of the forest, leaving the traveler stranded.

It would be one thing if this imaginary novel I was reading today were just a distraction, one that could be tossed away if traversing the thing became a task too onerous. But these papers are real and aren't diversions; they are important, and I never forget that, I can't forget that. For these students to develop into competent and capable writers, they have to have a safe space to work out the moves, to make their attempts, to grapple with expressing ideas that they may never have tried in any form to express before. I need to create that space, one that is both safe and challenging, where they feel comfortable taking a risk, willing to try and perhaps fail, and where they will get the kind of assessment and response that will help them try again and perhaps succeed.

So I continue to make my way through these corner-stapled traces, trying my best to keep my bearings and make progress so that I can mark the hazards with orange chalk for future reference and take snapshots of the occasional grandeur to cherish and share. And maybe, just maybe, I'll help some of the students learn to build a road that leads us to who knows where.

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