I WAS grading papers in the waiting room of my doctor's office the other day, and he said, ``It must be pretty eye-opening reading, that stuff. Can you believe those students had four years high school and still can't write?'' I've heard that before. I hear it almost every time I tell a stranger that I teach writing at a university.
I also hear it from colleagues brandishing red pens who hover over their students' papers like Huey helicopters waiting to flush the enemy from the tall grass, waiting for a comma splice or a vague pronoun reference or a misspelled word to break cover.
And I heard it this morning from the commentator on my public radio station who publishes snickering books about how students' abuse the sacred language.
I have another problem: getting students to write badly.
Most of us have lurking in our past some high priest of good grammar whose angry scribbling occupied the margins of our papers. Mine was Mrs. O'Neill, an eighth grade teacher with a good heart but no patience for the bad sentence. Her favorite comment on my writing was ``awk,'' which now sounds to me like the grunt of a large bird, but back then meant ``awkward.'' She didn't think much of my sentences.
I find some people who reminisce fondly about their own Mrs. O'Neill, usually an English teacher who terrorized them into worshiping the error-free sentence. In some cases that terror paid off when it was finally transformed into an appreciation for the music a well-made sentence can make.
But it didn't work that way with me. I was driven into silence, losing faith that I could ever pick up the pen without breaking the rules or drawing another ``awk'' from a doubting reader. For years I wrote only when forced to, and when I did it was never good enough.
Many of my students come to me similarly voiceless, dreading the first writing assignment because they mistakenly believe that how they say it matters more than discovering what they have to say.
The night before the essay is due they pace their rooms like expectant fathers, waiting to deliver that perfect beginning. They wait and they wait and they wait. It's no wonder the waiting often turns to hating what they have written when they finally get it down. Many pledge to steer clear of English classes, or any class that demands much writing.
My doctor would say my students' failure to make words march down the page with military precision is another dreary example of a failed educational system. The criticism sometimes takes on political overtones. On my campus, for example, the right-wing student newspaper demanded an entire semester of Freshman English be devoted to teaching students the rules of punctuation.
There is, I think, a hint of elitism among those who are so quick to decry the sorry state of the sentence in the hands of student writers. A colleague of mine, an Ivy League graduate, is among the self-appointed grammar police, complaining often about the dumb mistakes his students make in their papers. I don't remember him ever talking about what his students are trying to say in those papers. I have a feeling he's really not all that interested.
Concise, clear writing matters, of course, and I have a responsibility to demand it from my students. But first I am far more interested in encouraging thinking than error-free sentence. That's where bad writing comes in.
When I give my students permission to write badly, to suspend their compulsive need to find the ``perfect way of saying it,'' often something miraculous happens: words that used to trickle forth come gushing to the page. The students quickly find their voices again, and even more important, they are surprised by what they have to say. They can worry later about fixing awkward sentences. First they need to make a mess.
It's harder to write badly than you might think. Haunted by their own Mrs. O'Neill, some students can't overlook the sloppiness of their sentences or their lack of eloquence, and quickly stall out and stop writing. When the writing stops, so does the thinking.
The greatest reward in allowing students to write badly is that they learn that language can lead them to meaning, that words can be a means for finding out what they didn't know they knew. It usually happens when the words rush to the page, however awkwardly.
I don't mean to excuse bad grammar. But I cringe at conservative educational reformers who believe writing instruction should return to primarily teaching how to punctuate a sentence and use Roget's Thesaurus. If policing student papers for mistakes means alienating young writers from the language we expect them to master, then the exercise is self-defeating.
It is more important to allow students to first experience how language can be a vehicle for discovering how they see the world. And what matters in this journey - at least initially - is not what kind of car you're driving, but where you end up.