From In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (Professor X; 2011):
Over the years, I have come to think that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms. It is very difficult to make up for gaps in a lifetime of reading and practice over the course of a fifteen-week semester. As Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, says, “Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to college than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.”
I am actually surprised that a larger sprinkling of good students doesn’t turn up in my Huron State classes. I have come to think of two-year colleges as a great bargain. If you are a particular type of good student – someone who is in it for grades and low cost, someone who can sit through rudimentary lectures without falling asleep, who can listen to the rambling and disconnected answers of your fellow students without wanting to bludgeon them, who can listen to your teacher’s repeated attempts to pull answers out of a class without wanting to scream out the bleedingly obvious response – if you are someone who can avoid falling into despair when college classes have high-school-type problems, and the library is so lightly usesd, and no one really ever reads of word of anything, then a place like Huron State is a great buy.
There are many things to love about teaching writing and literature. It happens that I enjoy nothing more than trying to convey to a class something of my passion for a great short story, or the satisfaction a writer can feel upon nailing a point with a phrase that tells.
First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it difficult to fail people. Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity. We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another. So we level the playing field. Slow readers get extra time on tests. Safe harbor laws protect substance abusers. […] Our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.
I understand how we got to such a place. I understand the impulse to make college a welcoming and unthreatening environment. I can’t even say that I think, in theory, it’s a bad idea. Who would endorse the idea of anyone, under any circumstances, being frightened? And I understand the economic factors: that if we’re admitting to college hordes of students who have no business being there, college really has to be welcoming. The effect, though, is to leech all authority from the instructors by having them dance attendance on the students, and to render them impotent.
I find myself viewing the study of literature as one more indignity visited upon the proletariat, like too-frequent traffic stops and shoes with plastic uppers and payday loans.
I had an art teacher in high school who once said something I think is very important. He was teaching us to sculpt clay, and he said as we began, “There are several important things you want your sculpture to do.” I was young at the time, and enraptured with my newly acquired vocabulary of art. I thought he was going to talk about form and function, about depth and resonance. He went on: “Here’s the first one. Your sculpture has to stand up solidly. It can’t wobble.” I was disappointed at the time, but have since come to see his instruction as profound, and the words of not just an art teacher but an artist. Art can’t wobble. We expect our houses to plumb, our tables solid – why not our paragraphs?