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Too Often, English Classes Don't Teach Students What They Really Need to Know


Students talking in class
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I had a student recently in my beginning reporting class. He was a quiet, sensitive kid who had some talent as a writer. But at semester's end he told me he wouldn't be continuing with journalism. "I like the writing but not the reporting," he said.

I teach journalism at a community college, and in one form or another I get this a lot - students with some innate writing ability who are skittish about the hard work of reporting. After a one-semester dalliance with journalism they move on to what they believe will be greener pastures. I'm going to write a novel, they tell me. Or a screenplay.

Of course, they never do. Indeed, it's one of life's truisms: Most people who say they're going to write books or screenplays don't, and those who do are rarely successful at it.

And yet, semester after semester they wander into my classroom, students suffused with the optimism of youth. Fresh from a literature course, they're full of the romance of being a writer with a capital W. When they discover that ink-stained wretches of the sort found in newsrooms must slog through bad weather and knock on strange doors and calculate mill rates, they're gone.

I've written before about my issues with what's taught in English and composition classes. Too often, I believe, they promote a navel-gazing milieu where students are encouraged to pen essays on how they feel about things. One semester I walked into a composition class that was just breaking up. The assigned essay of the day was scrawled on the white board: "Describe how your driver's license photo makes you feel." Ugh.

Gawker's Hamilton Nolan has a nice rejoinder to this mindset. In an essay titled "Journalism Is Not Narcissism," he bemoans those who would encourage journalism students to wallow in the self-absorbed mire of mining one's own life for material:

"...most people's lives are not that interesting. Certainly, simple math will tell you that a 20 year-old has only a limited store of really compelling personal stories to tell. Most people who decide to base their writing careers on stories about themselves end up like bands that used their entire lifetime's worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up."

I see the effects of this mindset all the time in my reporting classes; articles full of unsupported conclusions and ill-informed opinions based on little more than the limited life experience and knowledge of the typical 18-year-old. In short, students write essays when they should be writing news stories. They're inside their own heads when they should be out in the community, learning from others who know more than they do. Reporting, in other words.

But the problem goes deeper. English classes aren't just promoting self-absorption. Too often they teach a style of writing that's all-but useless in most professional settings, while exalting to the heavens a canon of great books that perhaps one in a million students will ever be able to emulate. It's fine to encourage students to appreciate Shakespeare and Chaucer, Hemingway and Faulkner; but I sometimes wonder whether some English teachers, perhaps unwittingly, give students the false hope that they will someday be able to write at that level.

But wait - tell students they can't write like the greats? That sounds counter-intuitive (or just plain grouchy) in an age when we're constantly reaffirming one another's self-esteem. What kind of teacher am I?

A college teacher. And yes, I'm all for praising good work and giving young people confidence. But college students are adults for whom the working world is fast approaching. To give a student an inflated evaluation of his or her ability at this stage of the game is a disservice, nothing more.

Obviously I'm generalizing wildly here, but I've taken plenty of lit and comp classes, and for 15 years have taught students coming out of these courses, so I've seen a pattern emerge. And what I've seen is this: Students with unrealistic expectations about what the writing life, in any form, really involves.

What would I rather see? Students who have a realistic sense of their own strengths and weaknesses as writers; who understand the kinds of writing required for actual, attainable careers in fields like journalism, advertising or public relations; who appreciate that being a scribe, more often than not, is not just about living inside one's own head but about the hard work of mining the wealth of the world outside.

That's what I'd like to see. It's not, by and large, what I'm seeing.

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