- The Visigoth EffectThe Transom
In the fall semester of 1964, I began teaching university students how to write. It was my first class. I was totally responsible for it. And, in a couple of months, I’d be old enough to vote. My qualifications for the job included a degree in journalism, a stint as a reporter and staff writer for a minor metropolitan daily, and the fact that, for a kid, I had published a lot of stuff. As it happened, however, none of that was very helpful in the matter of teaching students to write.
What truly made a difference was my previous experience as an archery instructor for a group of juveniles wrangled by the local parks and recreation department because they were considered perhaps too rough for competitive team sports. Thinking it would be wise to earn their respect from the outset, I proceeded on day one to give an exhibition of my prowess by placing a flight of arrows into the gold from a distance of some thirty yards. Then I did it again, to demonstrate the importance of consistency. The third time, in good Errol Flynn fashion, I split an arrow, to accompanying oohs and ahhs. I thought then that they would surely pay attention when I instructed them in the particulars of how they might do the very same thing. They listened, but their attention frequently wandered. When they had learned to string their bows, nock their arrows, and find their anchor points, I let them have a go at the targets. The results were terrible. If anyone actually hit a target, it was by accident, not design. For the duration of the course, my emphasis was on taking time to aim. But it did no good. Their collective purpose seemed to be to put as many shafts into the air as quickly as possible, as if they were being swarmed by Visigoths intent on taking their sneakers and their lunch money.
What those kids had done with arrows, I later discovered, was exactly what college students did with words in that first writing class of mine. Adverbs and adjectives flew through the air, and those who launched [End Page 401] them hoped against hope that one of those modifiers would stick to something. I marked papers until I was blue in the face. What a year. There were perhaps a half-dozen students out of fifty or so who actually learned enough to write a coherent sentence. Perhaps two dozen managed to achieve mediocrity. The utter failures provide my most vivid memories of that initial teaching experience.
There was the young lady who, upon receiving yet another failing grade, confronted me after class and accused me of hating her because of her ethnicity, religion, heritage, or something—I do not recall exactly, but I was furious because of the nature of the accusation, and so I replied, ‘No, I hate you because you’re stupid.’ That one bought me an interview with a dean, who, though in full sympathy with my reaction, advised me that it was not well to use verbs of emotion when speaking to students, and that it was an even worse idea to suggest defects of intellectual capacity to those whose families paid tuition. In contrast, the beanpole basketball player and his short, orotund girlfriend were easier to handle. She was there to do his work. Or maybe to make two copies of her work. Confronting them with their latest efforts, I said, ‘These papers are identical.’ He looked as if I had complimented his jump shot, and she managed to place a remarkably good ‘Who? Me?’ expression on her face. They departed from the class roll to prevent further difficulties.
When the academic year ended, I abandoned the teaching of writing and concentrated on what would become my field, which is history. If I thought I had encountered ineducable undergraduates in that first writing class, imagine my surprise upon discovering that graduate schools abounded with students who were equally handicapped. How in the world had they been admitted? The question popped into my head frequently during seminars. Was there no one else...