Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"I know good writing when I see it yet I can't explain to students how to do it"

That's the premise of this essay entitled "Feeling Fake in the Classroom" from the Chronicle of Higher Ed in which an undergraduate English instructor admits that the ability to recognize "bad" student writing from "good" doesn't always mean one can explain how to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.

Here's my biggest problem with teaching composition: I have no idea where good sentences come from. Most of the time, strings of words just appear in my noggin. When I'm stuck for a word, phrase, or clause, I wait awhile, and what I need floats up from my subconscious. I don't know what's happening while I wait for words. Somewhere, scads of neurons are working hard, but I can't see that work going on. The genesis of sentences remains a perfect mystery to me.

I don't have a writing process, unless we count Mark Twain's advice: "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction." I've done a lot of composing while driving and some while pushing a lawn mower. Sure, I sometimes make crude outlines, sentence fragments slapped on a page lest I forget them. In class, I call that brainstorming and make a big deal out of it. But the real storm happens in a place I cannot see; all I can do is record the results.

I work a little more consciously when I fix the stuff I write, but only a little. I recognize that flaws exist before I can name them. Most of the time, solutions and fixes come from the same mysterious place that produced the original sentences.

Clunky sentence, I think. What are the criteria by which I determine clunkiness? Beats me. I just know it when I see it.

Swap the clauses around, I think. Put the subordinate clause first. Where did that solution come from? Dunno.

"Corpulent" doesn't work, I think. So which word rings true? The neurons kick words around, and I recognize "pudgy" as the right one when it floats up out of the mysterious place.

Sound familiar?  If you want more reassurance that you're not alone, you can read the rest of the essay here.

I am the scholarship dude (and you can read my other posts at The Law Librarian Blog and The Adjunct Law Prof Blog). 

(jbl)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legalwriting/2009/09/i-know-good-writing-when-i-see-it-yet-i-cant-explain-to-students-how-to-do-it.html

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