The Boredom Machine

When I was younger, newer to teaching, and more foolish, I imposed structural and rhetorical formulae on my students’ writing. Doing so turned out to be a mistake. My less secure students made some unremarkable gains, but my more accomplished ones had no outlet for their urge to let their writing be shaped by their topic and its ad hoc demands. At one point I shared a good essay by one of my students with the class. A bright and contentious student asserted that it was ‘a bit heavy on its feet’. His own writing was lively but amorphous, and I had criticized him for that latter quality.

This student decided to produce as his next essay a satire of the plodding sort of essay he disapproved of. Everything followed the formula, but it was the most boring piece he had ever written for me. I am (somewhat grudgingly) grateful to him for a lesson learned.

Some years later I had another student, JM, one of the best writers I had ever taught. In those halcyon days before bogus ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ we used a home-grown writing assessment to judge (not measure) our students’ writing (but not their teachers’ teaching). It gave a once-off reading of each student, which we shared with students and parents hedged about with qualifiers[1]. Now, JM was the only student to whom we had ever given full marks on his writing assessment, and he got full marks every time he took it.

Our class was studying Moby-Dick, and so I shared with my students an extract from D H Lawrence’s brilliant but idiosyncratic essay on the book—an essay widely said to have (re)established its literary reputation. JM was enchanted, so much so that for his next writing assignment he tried imitating Lawrence’s manner. The result was first-rate. Then came the inevitable question: ‘What would happen if I wrote like this for the IB exam?’ I told him that he ought to write more conventionally for the exam but that he was welcome to make stylistic experimentations when he wrote for me. That was the point at which I think he was lost to literature.

It is in light of experiences like these that I began to resist formulaic instruction in writing. Fortification of that resistance came, as it often did for me, from Jacques Barzun. In an interview of him conducted near the end of his very long life, he asserted, in connection with the ‘writing process’, that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake’. While I could see an exception to Barzun’s dictum made for young students who do not know how to think consecutively or argue persuasively, such devices should be cast off like training wheels from a bicycle or a cast from a broken arm.

What should replace such devices is what Barzun called ‘perpetual discretion’, the power of constantly discerning where the individual student is and what he or she needs. Unfortunately, the conditions in which an institution can support teachers in the exercise of this power are growing harder to find: small classes, support of good writing across the curriculum, and freedom from baleful systematic and bureaucratic requirements. It also helps to hire and support teachers who are intellectually agile.

A moment’s thought will show that this kind of subtlety is beyond systematic and ‘algorithmic’ handling.

But subtlety and discretion are not where we are going. On the contrary, many schools are adopting such writing ‘aids’ as the Jane Schaffer Method, whose strictures are likely to produce essays like my subtle student’s parody and to forestall any student like JM. Now, it is possible that in some middle-school or remedial settings, that parody would be a non-parodic step forward, but it is hard to see how such rigidity could characterize the teaching of writing in secondary schools whose students are said to be approaching college-readiness.

Some of my ToK students will shortly be reading chapter 8 of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb. (I should say before discussing that reading that Gould’s writing is exceptionally good, as the IB program recognizes by placing him on the Prescribed List of Authors for its two English courses, including the literature course.) In this chapter Gould examines the question of the level at which natural selection works, offering his own thesis and rejecting two others.  He ends with a synthesis in which he condemns the ‘scientific’ doctrines of atomism and reductionism—the belief that ‘wholes should be understood by decomposition into “basic” units [and] the idea that the properties of microscopic units can generate and explain the behavior of macroscopic results.’

In connection with the subject of this posting the first thing to be said about this excellent chapter is that it in no way and at no point conforms to the requirements of the Jane Schaffer Method, or indeed any method, including methods propounded for the reporting of education research. It is agile and limber, adapting itself to the needs of each part of the argument as they come up, subtly laying the groundwork for his concluding synthesis.

But the second is that atomism and reductionism are dangerous to the teaching of writing too, and for reasons that are not too dissimilar to what makes them objectionable in science. The very model of atomistic and reductionist instruction in writing turns out to be the Jane Schaffer Method, together with other ‘formulaic’ patterns and ‘systematic devices’.

We don’t expect seventeen-year-olds to be dependent on training wheels on their bicycles. Why should we allow them such aids in their writing?

[1] One year one of the classes threw the test because of a grievance. Did that make them bad writers or us bad teachers? VAM has an answer, and it is wrong.

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