If it’s Wednesday, it’s time for the Fellows’ double feature, i.e. the Bible in English, followed by Post-Civil War U.S. History, two big lectures held in the same classroom, by teachers of polar-opposite teaching styles. It’s a Fellows’ double feature because the attendees include me, two other Fellows and a Fellow spouse, who’s also a journalist and, as far as I’m concerned, a Fellow ex officio. Whatever. It’s a nice two-hour block three times a week, after which we sometimes all go out to lunch.
Anyway, I’m hopeful that the Bible class will get out of Genesis by the end of the term, and hey! We flew today! After spending a month on Genesis 1-4, we zipped ahead, like, five chapters. Noah is now behind us. Job awaits.
But the revelation today was an announcement that preceded history, taught by a whip-smart, no-nonsense professor who is as down-to-earth as the preceding hour’s is all over the place. He began by saying he was presently coping with a dozen grade appeals from the previous term, most or all from people who were making this argument: My paper was fine, but the teacher wants to knock down my grade because it’s badly written. And this is wrong.
“You cannot separate history from writing,” he said, explaining that he’d instructed the grad-student instructors to judge a paper’s prose style “brutally.”
“It’s like separating chemistry from math,” he went on. “You cannot appeal a grade by saying, ‘I understand the chemistry, it’s just that the math gave me problems. Same with history. If you can’t write, you have been done a disservice by your previous teachers. But it’s not my job to help you learn to write.”
I’ve heard a version of this speech several times now, and I wonder what it says. The U of M is an elite university, and these are not stupid kids, I can tell you that; the one bad piece of advice my advisor gave me was to avoid undergrad classes — I’ve enjoyed learning with 19-year-olds as much or more as with grad students. But what the history professor said is true. Sloppiness in written expression is simply a given with too many of these students.
One of my screenwriting study-group classmates last term sent me 40 pages to read, without having even run the spell-check program, which might have alerted him that his favorite word in dialogue — among many others — was misspelled throughout. I don’t know about you, but reading, “Fuck off, deuchebag!” doesn’t incline me toward spending even five minutes preparing a careful criticism of same.
Someone tell the parents of the world, and all the primary-school teachers, and all the high-school teachers, and all the students, too: Writing matters. It matters more the older you get, so start teaching basics early.
Avoid this, in other words: