I get one – at least one – every semester. It’s usually a woman, but men cry, too. (Tracy Budd, who sent into my office the most lachrymose individual I’ve ever had the pleasure, knows exactly what I’m talking about.) Usually it’s someone who’s well indoctrinated into the educational system, enough anyway to regard my pronouncements as not only authoritative but somehow bearing on her or his respective worth or character, has been receiving therefore high marks throughout high school, and has been performing well below level of the typical Rutgers student. And yes, the typical Rutgers student is, while often obnoxious and possessing of a stunning sense of self-entitlement, actually capable of a very high degree of critical intelligence and expression.
They show up in my office mid-semester or a little before because I’ve been giving them poor grades, and they’re trying and trying, but they’re still not getting the grades that would validate them as worthy individuals. And it’s not like I don’t know who they are: usually have been trying to get them into my office so we can figure out what they can do to improve, but this type of student is eager to please and therefore somewhat intimidated by the idea of speaking one-on-one with the person who dispenses knowledge and judgment. But finally they muster up the courage, they come to my office during office hours, and the combination of the humiliation of the poor grades, the habitus of respect for educators and higher education, and the shock of finding themselves in a chair in my office engaged in a conversation with their tormentor reduces them to tears.
Yesterday it was a young woman who is struggling in a basic composition class I’m teaching. She’s very personable and a little bit of a wild child. She’s farm-raised in western New Jersey, which means that I’m almost instantly sympathetic, and from what she tells me in class spends her time hunting, riding, and camping. She’s failed two papers and a midterm exam, and is distraught. She’s an attentive student with perfect attendance and is reasonably helpful in class participation – though I often find myself having tactfully to divert class discussion away from her comments because her reading comprehension isn’t secure. Her papers have been a frightful mess: they’re rife with grammar and punctuation errors, to the point that vast swaths make no sense. She’s also been having trouble working in the skills that we concentrate on in the class, using effective textual support and building strong, complex, and independent points. It’s difficult, after all, to build sentence on sentence if the sentence itself is the shifting sand of confusion.
We talked about her exam, which was an improvement in that the amount of error had significantly decreased, but it had taken her seven weeks of work to reduce that haze of error, and she’d hadn’t yet been able to make much progress in the key compositional skills I was testing her on. My comments about her progress didn’t seem to register, though, so I showed her the density of correction I’d made on one of the pages of her recent paper and compared that to the relative lack of correction in her exam, and that seemed to prod assent. I asked her if she had the paragraph that I had the class draft up that day, and she did, so we looked at it. She had managed to produce what had the appearance of a paragraph, and it actually advanced what I would consider to be a relatively sophisticated point (for a first-year college student) that one’s beliefs and ethics determine the range of ideas and actions that are possible for that individual. But there was not a single coherent sentence, and my interpretation of what she wrote, which I reconstructed for her word by word, had to work across the face of the entire page, isolating elements and using them to normalize the surrounding diction and grammar.
It was a conflicting experience, both revealing the high degree of mental sophistication of the student and the low degree of expressive capability – and this is a student who while unsophisticated and tomboyish doesn’t display any social or learning disabilities. It was also frustrating to get her to realize how the observation she was making could be used to connect two different writers: she was able to extract her point from one reading, but had difficulty seeing how a point drawn from one could be applied to another. But the significant moment for me was when we went back to the page of prose she’d written while in class that day. I pointed out that writing consists of putting raw thought down on the page, what we sometimes call “first process” or, outside the classroom, “the vomit draft,” and then going back to organize, structure, and correct what’s written into a more polished version. Most students of her age and level write their first process in clumsy, vague, but relatively grammatically correct English. She does not, and I wanted to emphasize to her the need to rely on careful and consistent revision.
She broke down again, and she said – and remember this is someone who’s been getting sufficiently good grades throughout her grammar school education to get into Rutgers, “I’m thinking now that none of my teachers ever really read any of my papers.” Hey, I let that pass – I’m not about to get caught up in a conversation with a student about who is or is not to blame, and in any case, what I need to be doing there in that moment is getting her to where she can start remedying some of those deficiencies. But what she said is glaringly true. While she’s personable, well behaved, and clearly intelligent in person, on the page she makes the vaguest of sense, and apparently does not organize even the simplest thought into grammatical coherence. While this might be food for thought in the consideration of the relationship of grammar to relative levels of sophistication in abstract thought, the fact that I have a distraught person speaking face-to-face insists on a more personal and even moral consideration: this is an eager and disciplined individual who has not been trained in some very rudimentary language skills. She’s right. No one was reading her papers, or if they were, they weren’t talking to her about it.
Nobody sat down for a little while with this woman who is highly intelligent, dedicated, and actually forthcoming and solicitous of advice and assistance to tell her that she could not write a grammatically coherent sentence in the English language and that this might be a problem. What the fuck is wrong with you people? You encouraged her ability to conform herself to classroom discipline; you applauded her native intelligence; you indulged her creative bent and free spirit. But you didn’t teach her.