Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A little untruth in service of learning

I don't generally lie to students--and I didn't really lie to them this morning, technically. Okay, I may have allowed them to believe an untruth, but I did it in the service of a noble cause: banishing horrible opening lines.

We've all seen them: papers on interesting topics that start with uninteresting lines, like "Poetry means different things to different people" or "Since the dawn of time, people have wondered about abortion" or "In today's society, many people believe different things about different topics." 


When I get a pile of papers that start off that way, I copy and paste a bunch of opening lines from the papers to a handout and then ask students to choose which line would make them most likely to keep reading the paper. They gravitate toward one or two good lines, which gives us a chance to talk about what makes them good: vivid language, specific details, a compelling idea that arouses curiosity, and so on. And then I tell them to go and do likewise, and some of them do.

But this week one pile of papers had a problem: I found a bunch of vague, boring, meaningless opening lines--and nothing else. Not a single wonderful sentence. 

So I wrote my own. In fact, I wrote three opening lines, trying to keep them within the stylistic and vocabulary range of a first-year college student, and then I sprinkled my three pretty good sentences among the mass of mediocrity on the handout. 

When I asked the class which opening lines would keep them reading, of course they chose mine. And after we'd discussed what made these lines work, I said, "If you wrote one of these sentences, you should feel really proud of yourself." 

Well, they should. If they wrote them. Which they didn't.

I'm sure I've violated some important pedagogical principle, but how evil am I, really? I could have told them I wrote the sentences, but then they would think, "Well of course I can't write like a Ph.D.!" My goal was to persuade them that they are capable of writing compelling opening lines like the ones I wrote, and if that requires withholding a little information, I'll do it. 

Will it work? I'll let you know when the revisions come it.


Stop all the Complaining said...

I've always wondered- do your students ever mention your blog. I assume some of them must read it and try to use the information to perhaps tailor their writing to some of your obvious likes and dislikes. I really enjoy your insights and hope the students appreciate the wisdom you are offering them.

Bev said...

Yeah, no, they don't read it, and even if I told them to read it, most of them wouldn't. I tell them over and over how to improve their writing, both in writing and orally, and I reinforce those principles with class writing exercises, but even then, sometimes it's like talking to the wall. But then someone gets it, and there's nothing better than that moment.