Ten years ago, the scattered members of the classics department — all four of us, dispersed in the departments of history, English, and modern languages — were finally given a distinct physical locus on campus. After eighteen years in the English department, I moved two buildings away to my new office.
Of course, the student pickings these days are slim for specialists in Greek and Latin, so the classics faculty justify their existence by making their department unobtrusive, inexpensive, and useful. In addition to the Latin and Greek and ancient studies, each of us teaches “core” classes of relatively high enrollment. My own repertoire includes the two-course sequence of English composition.
I have taught that sequence now for nearly thirty years — for eighteen years before moving into classics. I’ve used more than a dozen different texts and tried perhaps half a dozen techniques, but the broad outline of each course in my two-course sequence has not changed since I decided what it had to be four or five years into teaching the sequence.
In the first course, we practice three of the four traditional modes of discourse: exposition, description, narration. In the second course, we do the fourth mode, the biggie: argumentation, with the attendant study of material fallacies and research techniques. The traditional (that word again — well, now you know where I’m coming from) point of it all is to disabuse the students of their pet illiteracies and to leave them with some independent critical facility and grace of expression. Rather a noble end, reachable only through much tedium.
There’s just one snag, without which my knowledge of the contemporary debasement of freshman composition would be happily abstract. Owing to a school policy of first-come-first-served enrollment, I don’t get the same students in the second course of the two-course sequence. Rather, at best I get back maybe a third of my English 001 students in English 002. The rest come to me after doing English 001 with other teachers.
The snag was a minor annoyance until a year or so after my move to the classics department, when I started getting students in English 002 who exhibited writing troubles of a sort English 001 would ordinarily have resolved: sloppy misspellings, run-on sentences, pointless fragments, shaky coherence, inept diction, and so forth. For almost a decade now, it’s been the same story, class after class. Most of the students I get from other comp teachers are startlingly deficient in their writing skills.
In the past, a few students with severe writing troubles would finish English 001 and then be tracked into a special two-course sequence called “Guided Writing.” But among several changes in the English department, the sequence was canceled — allegedly to preserve the “self-esteem” of students who might otherwise be tracked into “Bonehead English”; but also, beyond reasonable doubt, because the troubles of Guided Writing students were, by ideological fiat, no longer deemed troublesome.
Still, Guided Writing students were never more than twenty or thirty of an incoming freshman class of about 900. Few of my English 002 students come with crippling troubles in need of “bonehead” remediation. Nearly all those I get from other teachers, however, come with telltale weaknesses and a certain mildly corrupt cynicism.
“All I had to do was tell her what she wanted to hear and I got an A,” one of my C- students in English 002 explained last quarter. His English 001 writing class had been about feminism. I asked him what he had learned about writing.
“Nothing. I mean, not the kind of stuff you’re looking for.”
“What am I looking for?” I asked.
“Oh — you know. Grammar and spelling and organization and word choice and stuff.”
“Well,” I ventured, “has it occurred to you that all you need do is tell me what I want to hear and you’ll get an A?”
The student laughed. “I’d need a lot more time and effort to do that.”
The exchange took place near the end of this past spring quarter, one of ten or fifteen such exchanges I can anticipate every year now, after ten years of evolution in the English department’s personnel and policies.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?