Why I try not to be too hard on students:

I was going through some old boxes from my parents’ house and found papers and stories I’d written as a freshman and sophomore in college; while the papers weren’t bad, the stories were terrible. The kind of terrible that gets justifiably mocked in academic novels like Blue Angel. The kind that would make many instructors throw up their hands in dismay and their lunch thanks in nausea. The kind that make me wonder what the hell could’ve made me want to keep going. Actually, I don’t wonder, because the answer is probably ignorance—the sort of ignorance I’ve been trying to cure, probably futilely, ever since.

Reading Eileen Pollack’s “Flannery O’Connor and the New Criticism: A Response to Mark McGurl” reminded me of those early experiences (the article is behind a bullshit paywall, by the way):

The careless inclusion of random details or digressions or the unintentional revelation of aspects of one’s own character are precisely what gets beaten out of a student even in the nicest, most tactful workshop (let alone the considerably more venomous workshops that tend to be the norm at Iowa). Even if novice writers are not narcissists in the therapeutic sense, they have rarely had the experience of writing for a disinterested audience (i.e., readers other than their mothers and doting high school English teachers). This means that a story’s prose must be coherent, the plot comprehensible, the characters (and the world they live in) believable and consistent (even if the story isn’t meant to be realistic). Writers soon learn that their classmates do not want to read a 20-page digression about a character’s fight with her parents because they did not buy her a BMW for her sixteenth birthday, or the endless details of a championship high school football game, or an angry fantasy about raping and mutilating a beautiful woman who rejects the main character’s amorous advances, or a sermon against abortion or nuclear war. A student may never receive a lecture on craft or the tenets of the New Criticism, but by handing out drafts of a story and listening to detailed responses from readers of all sorts, he or she will learn how best to convey the ideas and emotions he or she intends to convey and not include anything that reveals aspects of his or her psyche or autobiography that are irrelevant and/or embarrassing.

I gave and got criticism that was designed to beat out the merely random, and the class’s response was certainly a useful, if “venomous” and vitriolic, way of imparting important messages about audience reaction. If I teach fiction writing classes, I might include Pollack’s paragraph in the syllabus, even if the experience of attempting to write about not receiving a BMW or football games will probably still be necessary for students to get the lesson.

Looking at that old work shows me that, if I didn’t have the particular problems Pollack enumerates, I still had one analogous to them. When I’m looking at student work, I should remember my own development at an equivalent age.

The academic papers, fortunately, were much better, and I’d see a couple of them relatively recently. As a first-year grad student, I split a two-bedroom apartment with another first-year, and one night we found and traded papers from when we were freshmen, mostly out of curiosity: would we have lived up to the standards we imposed on others? The answer, fortunately, was yes, but I wouldn’t rank the papers I wrote as a freshman as among the best that my students have written over the last three and a half years.

Beyond critiquing it, however, the writing is itself a window on the old person I used to be, who has become a stranger to me over time, kept alive only through the random bits of writing that he chose to commit to paper or hard drive and drag around.

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