Month: December 2011

More About the Pilot Course

Clancy responds to my last post by noting that she “completely agree[d] with [me] that it never would have worked without a group of strong students,” and writes that she could “imagine that at a lot of places, upper administration might shut down a project like this if faced with complaints from students and/or parents.” As I prepare to depart this place at the end of this academic year, I’m feeling a little conflicted about the assumptions she makes about my students. Do I think that West Point cadets are that much better than students I might encounter elsewhere? Perhaps in some ways yes: every student I teach is nominated for excellence by a member of Congress, and that’s part of what makes this place magic, and part of what makes it so intensely rewarding to teach here.

But the answer’s more complicated than that, too. Clancy’s comment makes me feel a little awkward, because I don’t think I ever actually said that our pilot course “never would have worked without a group of strong students.” And I want to believe that the approach I’ve developed, with its deep theoretical and pedagogical investment with the notion of the value of work, could work elsewhere.

At the start of the semester, I sold our approach to the cadets with every bit of persuasive enthusiasm I could muster, because I knew they’d be suspicious. Writing every day in class? Writing 750 words every lesson day, just to earn a C?

A funny thing happened. They figured out that writing 750 words is easy. They figured out that they can do it on demand. And the most important thing that has happened — and it only happened recently, for some of them — is that they figured out they can write. For me, that’s huge. That’s the battle I’ve been fighting since I first started teaching composition. Every semester, I had the students who were sure they couldn’t write, and so they didn’t. They didn’t write until it came down to crunch time and they had to write their essays the night before the final drafts of those essays were due, and they did. Until this semester, I got those essays all the time. You know what they look like, because you’ve seen them. They’re essays produced at the last minute by students who are certain that doing so is the only and best way of writing. Those essays are why they hate writing.

What’s happened this semester, though, is that writing has become almost like athletic performance: it’s a matter of getting it done, putting in the practice, and pretty soon, practice translates into improvement. There’s value in the work of doing. In August, I asserted my primary reservations about most university-level writing instruction: that it’s “too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing,” and that

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