I teach rudimentary composition to college freshmen. My class is the one student’s must take before they even qualify for the required composition course, so they usually aren’t thrilled to meet me on the first day of school. Then we go over the syllabus, and they really groan: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and basic essay development. I’ve come to accept that my deep and abiding love of semicolons, the Oxford comma, and subordinating conjunctions is largely lost on a generation that writes in 140 characters or less on very, very tiny screens.
But this is exactly why I love them so much.
I often hear writers who teach freshman composition (especially those who adjunct like I do) complain about what this work takes from their writing. They have less time and energy; they are exhausted by the endless reading and grading. They feel under-appreciated by their students and institutions. They are uninspired and fatigued. They have little to give to their own writing. They don’t read anything they haven’t assigned; they don’t write anything other than margin comments.
I definitely feel this way at times. But a lot of times I don’t. Because I’ve come to appreciate that working to reach my students makes me more creative, sharper, more tuned in.
My students’ disinterest is a gauntlet thrown down every August. If I want to meet their challenge, I have to tap new reserves as a writer, poet, teacher, and citizen of the world. I have to be willing to meet them in places that make me uncomfortable — sports, pop culture, the latest technology — because, honestly, it’s only fair. They have been placed in a position of extreme discomfort. Many of my students have been told repeatedly throughout their school years that they are not good writers, so essay writing class feels like torture. On the other hand, those who do consider themselves good writers — or who have been told as much by misguided high school teachers — don’t understand why they are in my class; they feel bitter and better. Either way, most of my students start out thinking there is nothing I can teach them that they haven’t covered before.
And that may be; but teaching writing is just like writing itself. There is no new ground. We are rewriting Romeo & Juliet or Eve’s betrayal over and over again. When I sit down to write a poem, I don’t think about all the other poems; but I know they are there. I know there are a million different, maybe better, poems out in the world. At the same time I am writing my poem, someone else is writing one. But that can’t stop me. I don’t write because I invented writing. I write because there is a force that compels me to write, to tell my story in my way. And that is why I teach. I know there are a million other teachers. I know someone has explained commas to my students before, but I still hope that I will find a way that reaches them. I hope I can spin the story of subordinators so that it sings to them. Okay, I’m not that naive. I honestly just hope that they’ll care to get it right, and they’ll remember to look it up. When they do that, I’m satisfied.