Why Other English Teachers Sometimes Annoy Me

I added the glasses; I usually wear contacts.
Reprise! This post was originally published in 2010. I'm going to be posting a series of posts on teaching English; I decided to start the series with this one.

Like they do with any profession or educator, people make assumptions about English teachers. As I remark on my introduction page, in some ways, I am proof of these assumptions: I'm female; I own two cats, I like to read. But in some fairly fundamental ways, I am nothing like these assumptions.

And I get thoroughly annoyed when other English/Humanities instructors not only live up to some of the more irritating assumptions but support them. It's even worse when they are proud of them!

For all you English teachers who are sick of the following assumptions (stereotypes), this post is for you!

Assumption #1: English teachers are unorganized, but that's okay because they're being spontaneous.

I worked for 10 years as a secretary before I went back to college and became an English instructor. The administrative side to teaching is annoying but not terribly difficult. Possibly, my experience makes it easier for me than it does for other English-types.

But there's really no excuse for handing essays back late, not following the syllabus, not having a syllabus, showing up late to class, using the class to discuss one's personal life/excuse one's lack of preparation, or spending the class "getting to know each other." English class is about learning to communicate, not about becoming pals with the teacher.

Face-it: "spontaneous" is just code for "lazy."

Assumption #2: English teachers like to pontificate about LIFE and LITERATURE.

This is sort of true. I'm guilty of it. But I do draw the line. For example . . .

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I have an hour between two of my classes. I spend that hour in the math department. It's great! The other adjuncts there are funny and practical, and I can talk and get work done at the same time.

Just this past Friday, I ran downstairs to the English Department to put student essays in my box. Five instructors were sitting in the English Department listening seriously while one guy pontificated about . . .

I don't know. I hightailed it out of there as quickly as possible. I felt the way you do when you almost get hit by a bus. "Whew! That was close."

Back upstairs, we had a hilarious conversation about grading methods and how students behave the last week of the semester. I don't mind a good conversation about LIFE and LITERATURE, but I tend to have those conversations with people who are way more entertaining that pontificating intellectuals.

Assumption #3: English teachers are liberal.

Not only do other English instructors assume this about me, my students assume it as well.

I do not discuss either my political persuasion (conservative libertarian) or my religion (LDS) in my composition classes. I occasionally mention these biographical tidbits in my more history-based classes. In NONE of my classes, do I use my position to soapbox about politics or religion.

(I will use the classroom to soapbox about the purpose of writing: see below).

Consequently, my students have zero data with which to assess my politics or religious beliefs. Nevertheless, most of them (who care) will assume that I'm liberal and non-religious (the latter is more understandable than the former). Every now and again, while discussing research projects, I'll say something like, "Well, you could try Forbes magazine to back up the argument you want to make. My dad really likes Forbes, and he says this about taxes . . ."

The student will do a double-take. One student told me, "I didn't think you would ever say something like that."

Partly, the students make this assumption based on THAT image of English teachers that exists in our culture. But partly, I think, they make the assumption based on the number of soapboxing, liberal English teachers they have had.

This annoys me. When I teach argument/persuasion, I teach the students to make strong arguments whatever their perspectives, NOT to make arguments based on the "right way of thinking."

I have, in fact, reached the point where I perceive both my conservatism and my religion as teaching strengths. I can make the liberal arguments when it comes to health care or taxation or abortion or the environment: I hear them all the time. But I can also supply rebuttals to those arguments, help the more conservative students strengthen their arguments (yes, I do challenge the conservative students with rebuttals as well), and I take the religious arguments seriously.

Sadly enough, I have witnessed English teachers practically having nervous breakdowns because some student made a conservative or *gasp* religious argument in a paper. "How do I grade it!?" "He used the Bible as a defense!" (As a rational tutor pointed out on Smarthinking, the Bible may not be an appropriate defense in certain venues, but it may be an appropriate defense in other venues. It depends on the audience and context. It isn't automatically wrong to use it.)

Not to beat my own soapbox to death, but no wonder students trust popular culture gurus more than Humanities professors. If the Humanities professors can't think outside the box . . .

Assumption #4: Writing is all about sounding poetical and profound.

I spend the beginning half of every semester trying to get my students to understand that I DON'T want a bunch of pseudo-profundities in passive voice that never actually tell me anything:
The explanation was by the scientists made for the clarification of how alkalis and acids intermingle to cause a reaction due to carbon dioxide.
Compare that ridiculous sentence to this:
When I mix an alkali, such as baking soda, and an acid, such as orange juice, the mixture creates carbon dioxide and bubbles.
No one could possibly think that the first sentence tells anyone anything. But I think my students honestly believe that it sounds better. And they think this because too many silly English teachers told them to not use "I" and to not state problems directly and to avoid being too obvious and to be sure to sound analytical or something.

This is what I want from all my students: an essay that clearly states what it will prove, presents well-organized and appropriate evidence, and ends with a summary of what the essay just proved. That, to me, is not only an "A" paper, it is the way I was required to write in every single job I had as a secretary (law, medicine, escrow, sales, counseling, programming).

As I tell them over and over and over, "Writing is about communication. If it doesn't communicate, it isn't doing its job. It doesn't matter how good it sounds."

There are times when I feel the odd-woman out in my English departments. Every now and again, I meet an English instructor who thinks as I do, and we commiserate [since I became a member of a curriculum committee, about three years ago, I have met more instructors who think like me!].

But most of the time . . .

Where's the math department?

July 28, 2014


Jennifer said...

"to not use "I" and to not state problems directly and to avoid being too obvious and to be sure to sound analytical"

Reminds me of one of my high school English teachers. Once I got out of high school I threw out almost everything she ever taught me about how to structure an essay. Writing that way just didn't get my point across and worse, sounded stupid. :D

Honestly, I have learned the most about good writing by reading large quantities of it.

Joe said...

Can I make a plea to English teachers everywhere? Forget all this creative reading and writing; could you teach your students how to read technical manuals and how to read and write declarative sentences?

Seriously; I work with a guy about to get his BS in CS and he can't write worth beans (can't spell either.) Enough already. How about requiring any candidate for a college degree to actually be able to write a simple, grammatically correct, memo?

a calvinist preacher said...

I have similar issues when people know I'm a pastor. The people at the church I serve have learned over the last 7 years, but others... To own the truth, I take a great deal of delight in countering the stereotypes as shockingly as my wife can stand.