This semester, I am teaching two courses at a local community college: English I and what I jocularly refer to (but not in the presence of students) as English Minus I. The college, of course, has a different numerical system by which English I has been denominated ENG 105 and “English Minus I” is ENG 100. There is also, by the way, yet another course—English Minus II—even lower, which the college calls ENG 099. I am greatly enjoying teaching these two courses, strange though they are to me who has been used to teaching philosophy, Poetry Writing with the British Romantics, Renaissance music composition, Advanced Readings in the Inklings, and other excitingly narrow and sophisticated courses.
I love being useful to these students. They are small heroes struggling through school, fighting to pay tuition, and most likely working full-time jobs while caring for children, elderly relatives, or both. Most of them come from indigent circumstances and harrowing backgrounds. And so, by an impressive leap of imagination, these students reach for a future. For a future, they need an education. For an education, they need to learn to write. They need to learn how to write a sentence, then a paragraph, then an essay, and finally a research paper. It’s an enormous challenge.
They don’t know what a subject or a verb is. They can’t find prepositional phrases. They don’t know how to reason from a premise to a conclusion. The younger ones are not aware of current events or history; the older ones don’t know how to save a Word document or send an email. Then again, neither do the younger ones. They can text faster than a speeding bullet, but can’t figure out how to get their last names into the header.
But none of that is what makes this course hard for me to teach. I am glad to offer these valiant people a chance to learn a valuable skill: setting their thoughts down in an articulate and organized fashion. That’s great.
My problem is that these courses have no content.
These courses teach the skill of writing in a formulaic fashion, step-by-step. It is not liberal education in the sense of shaping the mind; it is physical education in the sense of training in a skill. And so, week to week, I am stymied and don’t know what to do.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration: I do know what to do in many ways. I do powerpoints on grammar. I have sentence diagramming and paragraph drill competitions. I am developing a really exciting unit on basic logic that will be about ¼ of the course in English I. But I’m frustrated, class after class, with how banal and repetitive it all seems. How many times can we practice thesis statements? How many times can we dissect model essays? How many times can we rewrite topic sentences and transitions? How many ways can we make our introductions and conclusions interesting? How many sample MLA entries does it take before our Works Cited pages look nice?
Give me some poetry, lest I die.
See, I long to be that transformative teacher like the Hillary Swank character in “Freedom Writers” or (with reservations) the Robin Williams character in “Dead Poets’ Society.” Don’t we all. More realistically, and, actually, even better: I long to be like my most influential professors from undergrad and grad school. So when I’m planning a lesson I think about how they would do it; after a lesson, I evaluate how it compared to their classes. But the major difference (besides differences in force of character, quality of training, and excellence in work habits!) is that they had content to teach. My most influential professors (from a pedagogical point of view, and some from an interpersonal point of view, too) taught Music History, Romantic Poetry, The Twentieth-century Novel, Greek and Roman Classics, Old Testament Survey, and Decision-Making and the Will of God. Now, that’s content. That’s stuff to teach.
When I have either a huge survey course or an fascinating literature elective to teach, I’m usually pretty confident that I presented the vast breadth or depth of material in engaging, lively, life-changing ways. With this class, it’s totally different.
Again, it’s teaching a skill; it’s not teaching content. It feels more like back when I taught piano lessons: Now, put your thumbs here; that’s right, that’s Middle C. Curve your fingers; loosen your wrists. Now, describe your topic in arguable terms; that’s right, now list your three main points. Or it feels like teaching somebody how to do stomach crunches, or how to plant a garden, or how to cook, or how to—how to anything, rather than how to think. Or rather than how to enjoy. I’d rather serve them a meal of great literature than keep telling them, over and over, how to chop carrots.
But even chopping carrots is a start towards making a feast. And that’s where we are right now: chopping carrots. Over and over and over.