Letters to a Teacher: chapter 2

In this chapter of Letters to a Teacher, Pickering says he was to write a two page essay on the purpose of an English major. He wrote two sentences.

What is the purpose of an English class? Myriad.

The college requires that the student be able to write and demonstrate this in multiple modes. They require that the student be able to research and write an argumentative research paper. They require that the student be able to pass a grammar test.

What is my purpose in English class? To get them to read critically, thoughtfully. To expose them to literature I think everyone should have read. To have them be able to express themselves in writing in such a way that others can understand what they mean and enjoy the reading of it.

I don’t always get what I want for my students in the class.

Letters to a Teacher: Small bites

Pickering recommended reading his book “not in one sitting.” I think I know why. It’s because the book is mostly fluff and you’d realize it right away and want to take the book back. It’s a hardback book for only $12, but still…

The character vignettes are unique. The work itself is more a series of ruminations. It doesn’t seem to be deep at all. That could, of course, be because I am not a beginning teacher, but a veteran of a one room schoolhouse, four colleges, three high schools, and two middle schools.

Education Myths

Education Myths by Jay P. Greene was in the “New Books” section of the college library, so I picked it up, started reading it, checked it out, and finished reading it.

It is an interesting book in many ways and I agree with most of his points or, at least, he makes them well enough for me to tend to agree. Sometimes I think he lacksadaisically says, “Oh that won’t wash!” (in more lofty terms) and I caught him at it once or twice where I thought, “Well, whyever not?”

One irritant though. He never refers to himself as “I.” So when he says “Jay Greene at University of Texas” or “Jay Greene with the Whatever Institute,” if you’re not watching, you’ll think he’s talking about someone else’s work. But it’s his.

I was already bothered by it when I read The Constructive Curmudgeon’s post asking if there is such a thing as self-plagiarism and wondering how self-referential academic writing should be. My reading of this book informed my comment on that blog.

It just irritated the thunder out of me. Why couldn’t he just say “I”? Is it because then it would sound as if he were self-plagiarizing because so much of the work is his in another form? I don’t think so. He does sufficient presentation of the other side’s opinion that, even if he does it in his studies (which I can’t frankly imagine unless they were for student papers and set up), I found it novel.

I haven’t read his studies or any of those he referenced. I did stick a bookmark in, though, to remind me to look up the studies he referenced in one chapter to make sure that they actually said what he summarized them as saying.

Grading Joys

Okay, that’s facetious. Grading woes would be better. But this article at Irascible Professor, now on my daily blog read, is by an English teacher at a university dealing with students who think their grades are too low.

I have to admit I have contributed to grade inflation, not willingly, but because of overwhelming pressure from all sides. I don’t hand out As and Bs like candy, the way so many teachers do these days, but I do tend to pull my punches at the lower end of the grade scale. I don’t give as many Ds and Fs as I used to. In fact, I often put a C- on a paper that would have earned a D from me twenty years ago.

I don’t give away As or Bs either. I am not sure about whether I give fewer Ds and Fs. I doubt it. Since I have freshmen who don’t even write, it’s not too hard to justify those grades. The real question would be do I grade as hard as I used to… I do, but I don’t. I grade as hard as I used to but I also give the students a chance to rewrite their work and then I average the original and the rewrite. I didn’t do that earlier. Of course, earlier I had them writing 14 papers a semester instead of 7, and none of us had time for rewrites.

So I guess I have lowered my expectations of the workload rather than my grade expectations.

She wrote this about a student who was in her office for help.

Five minutes into our conference yesterday he snatched the draft of his paper out of my hand, stuffed it into his backpack, and stomped out of my office in disgust. He sent me an email last night saying that the reason he cut our conference short in such a rude way was that no matter how hard he tries I keep criticizing his writing.

I wondered, and asked my son aloud, how it was that she was supposed to teach him to be a better writer if she didn’t criticize his writing?

The author makes that point herself at the end of the article.

Think about his complaint, “You criticize my writing no mater how hard I try.”

How else am I supposed to show him what is wrong with a paper or what isn’t working, so that he will be able to fix it or improve it in his next draft?

Of course I criticize his work when it is not good enough. That’s what teachers do.

Good read.

Interested in an interesting graduation speech? Read this.

Interested in hearing what snooty remarks the fortunate few came up with to address their children’s fellow grad and his parent? Read this. (Same article.)

Interested in knowing more about our military make-up? Read this. (Same article.)

Interested in hearing about some of our great soldiers, including one who has been to Iraq on three tours, injured every time, and is still too young to drink? Read this. (Once again, the same article.)

What I’m saying is it is interesting. Go read it.


While writing the last post I thought, “Chaucer videos!” Going to look, the best the college has is this.

2 videocassettes (30 min. ea.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in.
pt. 1. Leaving London: the nun’s priest’s tale, the knight’s tale, and the wife of Bath’s tale (ca. 30 min.) — pt. 2. Arriving at Canterbury: the merchant’s tale, the pardoner’s tale, and the franklin’s tale (ca. 30 min.)
Animated versions, in a variety of styles, of the stories told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.
Presented in two versions: modern English and Middle English.

So in an hour you can cover most of the Canterbury Tales. Amazing.

Research on journaling

The thing that interested me most in Beach’s work was the summaries of research on journaling.  I do a lot of personal journals, have assigned them to classes over the years, and am presently doing a kind of one for you.  I want to read his work and see if I fit the profile his study came up with on learning styles.  I think it would be particularly interesting for me because my reasons for writing and my styles have changed considerably over the last sixteen years and those changes can be traced over time.  (Wonder if I could make that into a paper?  Probably not.  Although I do have several tests I have taken repeatedly across the last sixteen years, like Myers-Briggs.)


Not sure if it is actually in this, but I have it, so I am guessing yes.

Beach, Richard, and Lillian S. Bridwell, eds.  New Directions in Composition Research. New York:  Guilford, 1984. 

Science writing readings

Huckin’s article … I didn’t know there was a term for it.

 I wonder a little about being able to justify it.  I guess I will go back and look at the other articles he says are done in the same genre.

            “Writers belong to multiple discourse communities…”

is an interesting statement and one that I will be dealing with in my dissertation, if the company I want lets me study their stuff.  All their writers are scientists, working as tech writers.

            “Was this of interest to composition teachers?”

  I wonder that myself sometimes.  But I think that this topic I am looking at will be of interest to tech writing teachers.

            I thought it was interesting that Nate had fewer connectives and demonstratives and article ratios than the scholars.  Even for a formal paper, most people don’t write the same way as they would for a journal article.  I also think it is interesting that Haswell is invoked to corroborate, after the fact, their intuitive response.  Haswell says a competent writer doesn’t need all those things.  They take that to mean that Nate is a competent writer.  That also implies that the ten scholars are not.

            I thought they were silly to say that he was rejecting one community for a new one.  They aren’t members of multiple communities?  Being a member of one doesn’t necessarily reject the others, unless they are philosophically or politically opposed.

            Voice.  Huckin mentions voice, just saying he was using different voices.  Where does that come from?  Where is research on voice?  What is voice?  Why doesn’t anyone talk about this?  Have I missed the literature?

            I didn’t think the two methods, context-sensitive text analysis and rhetorical criticism, were all that different.  I got the idea that rhetorical criticism could easily be part of a context-sensitive text analysis.  Is this true?  If not, could you give me some pointers?  I’

ll go read the book, but I want to know if I am missing something.

Thomas N. Huckin. “Surprise Value in Scientific Discourse.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (38th, Atlanta, GA, March 19-21, 1987).    

I know longer remember which Haswell article I was referencing.  But his vita is available at  http://comppile.tamucc.edu/haswell/vita.htm


            I also appreciated his differentiation between stylistic facts and stylistic rules.  It does help teachers and others articulate reasoning better.  I think though that Strunk and White were getting at what he says, just perhaps being too bold, decisive, forthright 


Monroe Beardsley, “Style and Good Style,” in Contemporary Essays on Style, ed. Blen A. Love and Michael Payne (Glenview. Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1969)