Monthly Archives: October, 2009

Books + Video = Bad News

One’s opinions on books and writing evolves when one becomes an English teacher. At least mine have. For example, when I read this NYT article on hybrid books, I was scandalized. Books are meant to stay in their static, text-based format. Part of the charm of a book is that it is portable, requires no electricity, and only sometimes has pictures. I love the narrative nature of movies as much as the next lit specialist, but if a book demanded that I log on to find out what happens, I would honestly return it (and who returns books?). I think that if such texts were designed for online publication, then interspersing videos would be ideal. They came up with that idea already; it’s called hypertext. But please, leave my four-by-six mass-market editions alone.

One of my favorite things about the NCTE Inbox is that it works for me like a selective lit and ed news aggregator. This week, in addition to the aforementioned “book” article, it brought me an essay about teaching writing: another of my primary interests at the moment because I teach sophomore composition. (A stack of essays is waiting to avalanche me in just a few minutes.) The author, a former writing instructor, shares his experiences teaching college students and adults about how to write. These perspectives always interest me because one of the reasons I became a high school teacher was to help create better adult writers. It is a classic teacher fallback to blame previous instructors’ inadequacies and failings for your students’ missing abilities. (You, a tenth-grader, can’t spell? Your third-grade teacher must have sucked.) As a sophomore, I nearly drooled from my dropped jaw when an English major classmate couldn’t punctuate dialogue. (Of course you need quotation marks around things the characters said!) With every grammar lesson I teach, I take one small step toward fighting the disintegration of writing skills that has plagued Generation IM.

On Writing Less

I’ve come across some interesting points to chew on in my recreational reading lately. (Despite all odds, I just barely manage to squeeze non-academic reading in on top of all my schoolwork.) The first relates to my work, actually, so it seems like a noble use of my scant time. From the NCTE Inbox newsletter came a link to an Inside Higher Ed essay by Scott Jaschick on the trend of less writing on college application essays. Jaschick writes that some colleges, particularly those that use the Common Application, are de-emphasizing or eliminating the traditional long application essay in favor of shorter questions. Admissions staff say that the short questions tend to have more direct answers and show fewer signs of coaching, so they can get a better picture of the applicant through fewer words. Several commenters suggest that the true benefit is to the admissions officers, since they simply don’t have to read as much when applicants don’t write as much.

I find myself torn on the issue. I teach essay writing, so I know that students can express themselves a lot more fully when they are “allowed” (read: required) to write more. However, though some of my students are crack hands at writing paragraphs, they are struggling greatly with essay writing. They simply can’t break free of the strictly defined format of a good paragraph enough to expand it into an essay. I coach them as best I can, but simultaneously find myself drowning in the volume of writing that sixty students can produce in twenty to forty minutes a day. In that respect, I prefer the paragraph to the essay, but I know the essays are essential as well.

Thinking back to my own college applications, I used an essay I’d written for my AP English Literature class on as many applications as possible. The cookie-cutter “choose your own topic” long essay question invited that tactic. However, on the short questions (I think Maryland called them “Finding Your Niche”), I had to compose answers specific to the information needs of the school. Those questions ultimately led me to join Honors Humanities: a decision I have yet to regret.

Are college application essays walking the path toward extinction? I don’t think so; if you can’t write an essay by the time you’re a senior, you have no business in college, and even coached essays will help you realize that (or demonstrate the lack of that skill). But I can see short questions becoming more popular. I prefer them on my tests. Getting into college is, in some ways, just another test.

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