Confessions of a College English Teacher, Part the First

I have a confession to make: I don’t know how to diagram a sentence.

Oh, sure, I used to know how to do it, and in fact spent most of my 8th grade career diagramming sentences.  But I don’t remember how to do it now, and honestly couldn’t have confirmed that I knew how to do it by the time I hit the 9th grade, and I feel like I should be ashamed.  I’m not ashamed of it, but I feel as if I should be.

I do teach introductory writing to college students, after all. 

And there are so many other things about which I know I should feel ashamed but don’t, like the fact that I just started this sentence with ‘and’ and a previous sentence with ‘but,’ which would have thrown my 8th grade English teacher into conniptions only a southern American woman could truly understand and appreciate. (We do things differently in The South, y’all. Everything is bigger, from hissy fits to hair.) I should also be ashamed about not caring if my students can tell a past participle from a present participle, or whether they know more than five or six different transitional words as long as they never use ‘firstly,’ ‘secondly,’ (etc.), and ‘lastly,’ which makes me want to shave my eyeballs with a rusted straight razor. I sometimes, sometimes mind you, not all the time, just almost always, don’t even care if they end a sentence with a preposition.  Most of the time I’m elated if they can tell me what the prepositions in the sentence are.  And did I mention use of second-person pronouns at the same time first- and third-person pronouns are being used? (Pay no attention to that ‘you’ in the above paragraphs! Do as I say, not as I do!)

I’m not very good at following the syllabus, either, to be honest. I hate it, in fact. No one reads it, no one honestly cares that it exists except the corporate academics who spend more time trying to figure out metrics and percentages than they do worrying about whether our students sound stupid in their writing. After all, that’s supposed to be my job, not their job.  I’m the one charged with making writers out of apathetics, whom I would love to call ‘apathletes’ instead, but they tell me that’s not a word, even though ‘mathletes’ seem to have adapted just fine, but I digress.  I digress often, really, and that’s the problem here–not the fact that I don’t remember how to diagram a sentence, or even the fact that I use ‘that’ too often to make the other English teachers in residence comfortable with my abilities as an educator. The problem is really my pedagogical methodology, or the lack thereof, since my pedagogical methodology doesn’t exist. I’m also no good at lying, so my students can tell when I don’t care if they use a passive academic voice or a more personal, first-person narrative approach to a research essay. I prefer the personal approach over the passive, truth be told, and that makes me dangerous, because that isn’t what the academy prefers, and I’ve resigned myself to it. I’m not exactly what the academy prefers, either, with my skinny jeans and hot pink toenail polish, not to mention my lack of give-a-damn regarding whether my students are aware there’s a thing called ‘literary criticism and theory’ beyond the reviews planted on the hallowed websites of Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.  I showed a class my copy of the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, once, and all they said was how pretty the title was in multicolored font. They also thought Foucault looked a bit like Gandhi, and I had to agree.  I once had another student ask if it was alright to have one-word sentences.  Because of the expectations of the other instructors in my department, I had to answer his question in a way not at all conducive to my personal belief system.


And so the saga continues.  The other teachers hand out rules like, “Every paragraph must have at least five but no more than eight sentences,” and, “Essays may not be written about any political or religious subject,” which is baloney, because if you take away faith and politics there’s nothing much left to write about in a compelling way, because at the heart of it we’re politically religious beings.  Even the atheists are politically religious; they recently formed their own church on principle.  This is a country all about equality, after all, and if the Christians and Muslims can gather in the name of their belief system, who are we to exclude the atheists who choose to believe in nothing at all?

Back to the syllabus thing, though… I reiterate that no one cares about its existence, nor do they read it, nor do they listen to me reading it if I sit/stand up front on the first day of class and read it to them word for word. It’s like trying to read War and Peace to an elementary school class in the original Russian.  I could put it to song and do a jig at the refrain and they still wouldn’t care.  And that syllabus makes me the worst kind of hypocrite, because even though it’s basically a form I have to fill out, I wrote it, and it’s boring.  I tell them my number one rule is to never write anything boring, but that’s how we begin–not as we mean to go on, but as we mean to avoid going on. We begin bored.

Another mark against me is my aversion to quizzes and tests.  I hate using tests to measure writing skills, as if fill-in-the-blank and matching, multiple choice and short answer combinations can make the difference between an articulate sentence and a fused sentence. It can’t.  It can tell me if a student knows (or can at least guess accurately) the difference between an articulate and a fused sentence, but just because a student knows the difference between the two doesn’t mean they can write well, nor does it mean said student will remember in two weeks what the difference is.  I like to think of myself as fairly articulate, at least upon occasion, but I didn’t get that way by taking tests and quizzes.  I became articulate because of two things: (1) I read a lot growing up, I read a lot now, and I plan to continue reading, and (2) I had English teachers who made me write almost as much as I read, I still write quite a bit, and I plan to continue writing.  It’s a simple formula, and it seems to be working so far. Teach writing by having students read different types of writing, and then having them write. Other instructors in my department talk about the quizzes they give every week, saying, “We cover so much material, I have to give them a quiz to make sure they’re getting the important information.” I say, if it isn’t all important, stop teaching it to them.  Teach them only the important information to begin with, and then teach them practical application to make sure it sticks.   

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a College English Teacher, Part the First”

  1. As someone who used to love diagramming sentences in high school, and learning all the right ways to, uh, write, I’ve had a blast tossing most of it out the window. I bet you can make the first non-boring syllabus in the history of English teaching. 😉


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