Thursday, December 10, 2015


S. stepped up to the teaching station to read his draft of the final paper aloud to the class. His assignment was to reflect on the writing he had done this semester and to focus on one of the previous essays as an example, to identify what he would do to better meet the assignment.

He pulled his paper up from the course web site, projected it onto the screen and began to read.

Within a few lines, the class was giggling, then chuckling, then all-out guffawing at his take on his writing. I, sitting off to the side, trying to keep a straight face, was laughing all the harder for resisting the urge.

On one hand, he had no clue about what he was supposed to be doing, but on the other, he was grappling with the assignment where he was in terms of his abilities and understanding of the course. His draft was a sincere effort to re-consider, re-see, and re-work his essay. His take on the project was just so clunky and clueless.

He wrote something like "My intro just sucks. It gives readers no idea what my focus is and I wonder [sic] all over the place with no idea of where to go or what to do."

His observation was on target, I thought, and his self-assessment was frank and hilarious. He really had been out of sync all semester, asking the most obvious of questions when papers came due. "Just what are we supposed to do?" he would ask the day before a deadline. "We're supposed to do an interview??" he asked one time about a profile assignment.

Outside of class, S. was a busy guy. He had fraternity duties, social obligation, and, I gathered, many romantic interests. He wasn't resistant to the work of the course; he just didn't see the point of it. He had other priorities.

He was not alone. Other students wrote about their writing in ways that revealed where they were in relation to the work of the course.

We were in very different places.

But we were talking to each other, and they were sincerely writing about where they were and how they understood the assignments and the revising of those assignments to better fulfill the requirements, goals, an objectives of the course.

The gap between where they were and where I was pitching the content was one that was unbreachable without a bridge of baby steps.

I had to be open to them and they to me to make it work. I had to work from where they were, what they came in with, and they had to stretch to understand what I was trying get across. Most of that had to with language, it's levels of abstraction or precision, conventions, strategies of the assignments, and making the work done in their long-term best interest, i.e. motivation.

Only then could they stand back and have something to reflect on. And I have teaching to reflect on. How did I learn from them?

We are at cross-purposes in many ways. I am old school, language-based, craft-driven, text-centered, working from process to product. The new school is more big picture: context, rhetorical situation, purpose, audience.

As S. continued to read his draft, the laughter continued until he quoted some thoughtful passages that he had crafted with real insight. Then the comedy turned poignant. His thoughts came across and the class quieted. His writing resonated with the group. We heard him reaching across the chasm of misunderstanding. His openness connected with out own.

We were trying, awkward thought the attempts might have been, to reach each other.

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