Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Quiet Rant, Just to Get It out of the System

My 3-year-old son sees me and my wife typing at keyboards. Both of us are writers. Both of us type quickly. When he wants the computer to do something, he smacks his hands against the keyboard, flattening dozens of keys at a time. He probably thinks he’s doing the same thing we are.

In much the same way, novices often misunderstand what experts are doing, and in trying to imitate them do so too bluntly to achieve the same results. I am not infantilizing novices here. Everyone's a novice at something. When I attempt new activities, I make the same kind of error.

But when it comes to teaching writing, a subject I am good at, I often do feel as I observe students like I am watching my toddler pound on the keyboard. I give the typing students high grades and the key-flattening students low grades. The key-flattening students look alarmed: “But I slapped the keys just like those other guys did!” They don’t see the differences, and chalk up the different grades to brown-nosing, or other students using big words, or me playing favorites.

Nothing I say makes a difference: If you can’t tell typing and key-flattening apart, no explanation will illuminate the situation. If you can’t tell the difference between posses and possess, or between idea and ideology, or between the verbs question and ask, or between a rhetorical question and an actual question, or between satire and a point meant earnestly, or between a run-on derailing sentence and a complicated sentence using parallel subordination, or between a Wikipedia article and a scholarly publication, or between figurative and literal language, or between summary of an opponent’s position and the summarizer’s own position, then you’re a bit like the caterwauling dreamers who can’t get on to American Idol -- you just don’t know how bad off you are, even though everyone else can tell.

There. Rant over. Deep breath, and back to work.