Education and Experience

I think that I have made it clear through my previous post and comments in class that I am highly skeptical of many of the teaching ideas of the Third Way as they are represented in Uptaught. I remain skeptical that strategies which entail a departure from the teaching of more formal forms of English or the attribution of letter grades are in the best interests of students as they leave school and begin a career. Nevertheless, one of Ken Macrorie’s strategies which emerges during the second half Uptaught does hold special significance for me; I feel that the integration of experience into college curriculums is a necessary and vital part of education. Students all live in and experience the world around them, and I think writing majors in particular benefit greatly from attempts to allow them to connect their compositions to their experiences.

I have long believed that one of the most demeaning and potentially damaging comments that many people tend to make is that students do not live in the “real world.” This “real world” fallacy is so common that a great number of representations have appeared in popular culture to help express it. The concept of some kind of emergence into a world that is more legitimate because those allowed inside it are older and not students is absurd. First, it erroneously suggests that students are not dealing with many of the same problem that full-time employees are facing. Second, it suggests that there is one true world that only real adults (i.e. just about everyone but students and people who live with their moms’ basements) can inhabit. The result is an illogical and demeaning polarization constructed between students and the rest of society. However, Macrorie argues that students do live in a real world and have real experiences. He writes, “The university need not devise ways of engaging students in the problems of this world. They live in it” (101). Since we actually do live in and experience the real world, I think we need to write like it. For me, writing that is alive is writing that has a reason to exist beyond fulfilling the requirements on a syllabus. It is writing that says something about the world and has a purpose within it.

Macrorie gives his readers a few valuable recommendations about how students can connect their writing to the world around them; the essential ingredients are focus, discipline, and planning combined with a freedom which allows each student to find what matters for him or her and incorporate it into a composition (179). I think problems naturally emerge when professors try to tell their students what should matter instead of allowing them to find what matters to them. Who among us wants to write about a subject that seems uninteresting using a textbook format that leaves no margin for creation or experimentation? Luckily, I feel that many members of Montana State’s English faculty have already realized that good writing comes from students who are allowed to integrate their worldly interests into their creations. The freedom for each writer to pursue what matters to him or her is, I think, the most essential element of the Third Way of teaching so ardently admired by Macrorie.

Universities also have the potential to encourage students to expand upon their previous experiences through coursework that requires primary research and internships that incorporate the interests of students. Macrorie describes such experiences as journeys (170). If good writing comes from experience, a journey of experience would almost certainly be a boon for writers who hope to make new connections and broaden the scope of their writing. I think this is probably one of the reasons why internships are mandatory for writing majors at Montana State.

I am not suggesting that experience programs always come without a price for students, nor do I maintain that such programs are always fun. Going alone to a place you have never been before to beg for an interview from someone you have never met so that you have background information for a journalism course paper that only twenty people will read is about as fun as wisdom teeth removal. The rather significant downside of internships is that many student interns are unpaid, which means that some students who can hardly afford to buy groceries and have significant debt from loans often do the same work as paid employees without financial compensation. These indignities, however, may not be too great of a price to pay to add to the treasure trove of experience that so often characterizes the way a person writes. My writing and thinking expand as my experiences do. It is a form of learning that will not and cannot end.

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The Promises and Perils of Macrorie’s Third Way

Ken Macrorie’s Uptaught informs readers that education in the United States has been broken for a long time. Most teachers, suggests Macrorie, have either stifled their students or provided them with so much freedom that near anarchy ensues (27). The whole of Uptaught so far has been peppered with examples and anecdotes suggesting that a Third Way exists. This method presumably allows students to “operate with freedom and discipline” (27). In some ways, I feel that Macrorie has established a new and effective method of teaching. Some of his points, however, seem extreme and potentially destructive for students.

I have personally been exposed to many of the hardships that Macrorie describes and know few students who have not been exposed similarly. I have been taught by many professors who seemed convinced that the ultimate knowledge was theirs and that the thoughts of students, including those backed by evidence, were inferior or unsound. Some classes have entailed little discussion or student involvement in anything but tests and homework assignments. I used to love reading, but now I almost always view it as another task to be done. It is difficult to enjoy a novel when you have to journal every chapter or stop every few paragraphs to take notes for a paper. Sometimes, I feel as imprisoned by my education as the student pictured above.

I think the greatest strength of the Third Way is its potential to make students feel as though they are valuable members of a class. Free writes like those assigned by Macrorie seem like an invaluable way to stimulate student interest (21). Unsurprisingly, it seems that compositions comes alive when students can write about something that is emotionally alive in them. I am a strong advocate of constructive group writing reviews as well and have often found them very effective. Throughout Uptaught, I feel that Macrorie has advocated for writing in a way that is similar to how many linguists advocate for descriptivism. He wants writing that is effective and does not necessarily conform to the limitations imposed by Standard English. I think such freedom has the potential to teach students to write in a way that is powerful instead of a way that satisfies academic expectations while imposing strict limitations on intellectual productivity.

While I applaud some of Macrorie’s notions, I have a great deal of trouble understanding some of his methods. In some ways, I feel as though the examples he gives of his teaching actually depart from the principles he describes while explaining the Third Way. The writing samples provided in Uptaught are entertaining and sometimes even emotionally moving, but do the students seem “encouraged to learn the way of experts” ( Macrorie 27)? Unfortunately, I do not feel that much of the writing displayed would be highly esteemed anywhere but in communities focused on creative writing.

In my experience in places of employment, supervisors want you to produce compositions that display mastery of Standard English (which at times seems very similar to Macrorie’s hated Engfish). For example, my experience suggests that a standard operating procedure document containing as many sentence fragments and other grammatical issues as many of the writing samples in Uptaught would never be circulated. Macrorie writes that he allows students to make errors like all humans are likely to do (74). However, is this more lenient approach the most conducive to the production of professional documents on which a writer’s job may eventually depend? The pass-fail grading system described by Macrorie also sounds excellent to me as a student (94). However, will graduate schools and corporations really take an applicant seriously if his or her transcript in peppered with notations indicating a pass grade instead of letter grades? How could one responsibly calculate GPA totals comparable to those produced by other departments or institutions? Do grades really indicate very little about a student, or are they reflections of work ethic and an ability to understand instructions? These are just a few of the questions that I believe arise in respect to the Third Way advocated so staunchly by Macrorie.