There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
– Douglas Adams
I won’t pretend to be philosophical tonight. My eyes hurt to much from grading and commenting on my first batch of freshman comp papers. Some of them are quite good. Some could stand another rewrite. A few others make me want to hunt down their previous school districts and have a talk with someone in charge of curriculum.
This is nothing new. Freshman composition is the great levelizer. Students come from subdivisions and trailer parks, farm roads and apartments to push hopefully toward some larger imagining of themselves. They’re scared. They’re pressured. They’re free. Regardless of their previous schooling, they all need to clear the same bar by Christmas.
It’s not an easy thing to go from big ‘ol catfish to minnow in a pond where you can’t quite see the bottom. Sometimes my students write about this transition and I can tell that the act of writing it is part of the larger process of growing. I like those papers. They’re spring from a variety of topics, but all of them center around an awareness of change.
Write your way through it, I tell them, find out where you’re going and the essay will follow you there. Here, try this.
There are other papers, the ones students think they’re supposed to write about topics too distant from their experience. In high school they wrote research papers with titles like “World War II” and received glowing scores. Some only want to write about my Forbidden Topics – cloning, abortion, gay marriage, global warming, any war – because they assume all writing is a large undertaking suitable only for weighty subjects. They want to begin with answers instead of questions.
Some argue that eighteen year-olds don’t have enough personal experiences to write about. It’s true, some don’t. They will, though, and soon enough. In the meantime, we weigh out the miracle and frustration of the everyday.
As I sit here with this half-graded pile of papers, there seems to be a sort of developmental rite of passage either crossed or not. Some are ready for what comes next, others need more time to cook.
For our second paper, I’ll adjust the temperature a bit.