Friday, December 30, 2011

Philip Gove on student writing

Before turning to dictionary work with the G. & C. Merriam Company, Philip Gove spent fifteen years directing freshman English at New York University. In the mid-1950s, he was at work with Merriam, editing Webster’s Third. The Dartmouth News Service wrote to offer Gove (a Dartmouth graduate) samples of student writing to illustrate current usage. He declined and explained why in a letter:

There’s an almost invariable rule that writing prepared under assignment and therefore artificially under pressure has certain forced awkwardnesses that make it quite different from genuine human utterances. Most of these writers, you will remember, didn’t want to write the theme in the first place, didn’t have anything they wanted to say in the second, and cared only about satisfying some artificial and quite likely false standards set up by their instructor. I know because I have read thousands of them.

Quoted in Herbert C. Morton’s The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
How to challenge the “almost invariable rule”? One way is to ask students to write critically about “college”: what it’s for, what’s wrong with it, how it can be improved. It’s exciting to see students become critical observers of their own experience.

Related reading
Paul McHenry Roberts, “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words”

comments: 4

Daughter Number Three said...

I love that quote, and your idea about how to get past it in student writing.

Michael Leddy said...

The next time I teach a writing course, all the reading (and writing) will be about college. I don’t think I’ve ever seen livelier discussions of assigned essays.

Elaine said...

What I found interesting--or amusing--was that Grove somewhat damns himself here; so, why was he using 'artificial and...false standards' if he wanted to see better writing?

Your choice of a topic in which the students are immersed fulfills the enjoinder to 'write what you know.' The subject is 'good to think with.'

SpellCheck does not like 'enjoinder.' Tsk.

Michael Leddy said...

That’s a good question about Gove.

“Good to think with” is what makes college-related stuff different from much “personal experience” writing. I always ask students to write about matters that are not purely personal but that address some issue of larger interest.