I teach writing, which means I’m charged with assessing and instructing in a discipline often viewed as hazy or mystical. The underlying standard—the ideal essay—is more elusive than the value assigned to ‘x’, the date of the Confederate surrender, the atomic weight of cesium.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. The Greeks, the Romans, and—later—the educators of the Renaissance understood writing as a precise rhetorical opportunity that called for the deployment of finite, transmittable forms. Shakespeare most probably learned by memory the several hundred syntactical constructions of a metaphor.
But rote learning of formal principles has fallen out of fashion. Our collective revulsion to that which we deem ‘cold’ or ‘technical’, while well intended, has swung the pendulum toward writing as primarily (and, might I add, merely) about self-expression.
Take, for example, poetry. If it is taught to children at all, it is almost always introduced as the literary equivalent of playdough. Children write acrostics of their names, haiku, limericks. In middle and high school, any study of poetry is usually divided between thematic study of classical texts and composition of confessional or slam poetry. You certainly can’t evaluate the quality of a poem—it’s the expression of the soul, after all.
Analytical writing suffers a similar fate, falling from the careful inspection of a text into a reflective response. A journal prompt responding to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address reads, “If you were in the audience that day, how would you have felt hearing Lincoln’s words?”
My hand-wringing here is both moral and pedagogical. The inherent solipsism of such instruction is troubling. Just this week, I was asked to help judge a student poetry contest. At least half of the entries centered around depression, self-mutilation or other deeply personal crises. Yes, of course, this dark introspection is native to teenagers, but it’s exacerbated by instruction that implies that is the sole utility of the art form. Writing is about encountering an experience external to the self and wrangling it into meaning through language.
But it’s the assessment of this sort of work that makes me queasy. Because that’s what I’m confronting, looking at the quizzical expression of a seventeen year-old as she asks why her timed essay received ‘only’ six out of nine points. To her, six points out of nine isn’t how I’ve assessed her mastery of compositional skills. No. To her, I’ve just assigned her six points of soul—out of a possible nine.
It isn’t the subjectivity of grading that’s causing the problem; rather, it’s the vulnerability. By tangling up the craft of writing with the disclosure of a self, we tacitly imply that a bad or shallow writer must also be a bad or shallow person. Combine this implication with the pressures of maintaining a GPA and class rank, and there’s almost no possibility for a productive writer’s workshop in which criticism is given and revisions are made.
A few years ago, I had a struggling writer with whom I would conference before every final draft was due. Before I could finish a thought about her draft, she would begin nodding and saying, “Ok. Yes. I see. Ok.” It was a pre-emptive defense mechanism, the verbal equivalent of a dog shying away from a rolled-up newspaper. Much of my commentary was focused on the positives—where she was showing good progress. But she couldn’t tolerate a comment about comma usage, a suggestion about paragraph ordering.
The sadness of such a case is complex—who knows what hidden and tragic experiences lay behind such wounds? But the sense of writing as an existential risk certainly contributed.
Ratcheting down the high school environment of high stakes testing and grading may be futile so long as university admission standards rely so heavily on small snapshots of a student’s profile. But we can change the way we frame writing as a discipline. We probably won’t convince kids to revel in the struggle of composition and revision, but we can an at least take away the paralyzing pressure of presenting a perfect self.