The Orange Slate

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Reflections of a Graduate Student

October 19, 2012
As the last semester of my English M.A. program speeds forward, I grow nostalgic. This period is bittersweet. I’m excited to leave behind late nights of homework and to move on to whatever the next phase holds. But I have never regretted my choice to pursue a grad degree in English. (The night before a final paper is due doesn’t count.)


This is not because it will allow to me to make substantially more money. (It won’t.)

This is not because I think a graduate degree will vastly increase my chances of glittering success in the field I chose as an idealistic, optimistic undergrad. (It hasn’t yet.)

This is not because I have some idealistic notion about how current research in English departments everywhere is going to change the world. (Unlikely.)

It’s simply because the things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve garnered during my graduate years have been deeply valuable and truly irreplaceable in more ways than I can count.

This post isn’t meant to be melancholy, though. One of the things I’ve learned, in a program that emphasized writing studies, is how not to teach composition. Students of Writing Studies are hounded, nagged, and lectured until we would die before we would Ever. Teach. Composition. Like. That. 

So chronicled here (with a bit of light-hearted tongue-in-cheek) are some teaching methods that English graduate students, especially those whose programs emphasize composition, are taught to avoid like the plague. I’ve even included some take-aways that writers of all walks can use.

1. In a composition class, a teacher should use lots of literature, especially novels. Students of all majors will naturally be more effective writers if they read a lot of literature, especially poetry from the English Renaissance period.

Take-away for writersNot all reading is good reading. To hone your craft, especially read the kind of writing that you want to master.

2. There is only one good way to teach writing. Hound your students until they master it. Make them practice until they drop. They’ll get it.

Take-away for writers: Someone else’s method may not work for you. If you are frustrated with a method, stop. Drop it. Try something new.

3. Pre-writing is useless. Brainstorming. Looping. Free-writing. Bah Humbug. Make your students write an essay, for crying out loud.

Take-away for writers: Sometimes the long way around is actually the shortest. Stop trying to write the novel, the post, the book and just spend some time doodling or journaling or brainstorming. 

4. Drafts? Excuses. If it’s not there the first time, it won’t be there the second time. Get it right the first time or go home.

Take-away for writers: Write. Then re-write. Then re-write again. Drafts are your friend. The first draft is simply the beginning of a long and painful journey. So get started.

5.A perfect draft, clear as crystal and utterly free from any errors in grammar is the ultimate goal.Get your commas right or stop.

Take-away for writers: Grammar is important. Really important. It aids clear communication and one’s professional image. But grammar is a means, not a goal. Don’t obsess over comma errors at the same time you’re worrying about content. They are different issues. Prioritize accordingly.