As was my practice on the first day of class, I handed out the course syllabus and my personal rules for success in English 101. Each student was to sign an affidavit acknowledging they had received said materials and understood each and every possible facet of the syllabus and other documents. At best, the exercise was a time filler on the first day but also exposed me to how gullible my students were by signing something they could not possibly understand – a factor I am sure would some day follow them into other contractual relationships, thus keeping the courts busy settling simple misunderstandings. Nonetheless, in my many years of teaching, only once did a student question the signing of the document, and not for the social implications of the future, but because she was worried about her privacy.
Allow me to explain. One line of the syllabus states, “…all essays will be peer reviewed.”
A simple sentence that meant students would read and critique each other’s work.
I will always remember the young lady, and that day, because she interrupted my otherwise repetitive presentation with frantic hand waving. “Professor.” She shouted from the back of the room, hand extended to the ceiling and alternately striking the ball cap of a student seated next to her. “Sir.”
I paused. “Yes?”
Her hand was still in the air. “Does this mean that someone is going to read what I write?”
I sat on the edge of the desk. “Indeed, each of your essays will be peer reviewed, critiqued, and generally edited.”
She finally lowered her hand. “But, I don’t want anyone to read what I write.”
“Oh.” I did my best to seem offended. “Then, why write?”
“I just want to learn to write better.” Her answer was expected.
“And,” I paused for effect. “Your better writing, who will read it?”
She looked down at the paperwork. “I don’t know.”
“That is exactly right. “ I slipped off of the desk. “We don’t know who will read our writing. We don’t know if they will like it or not.”
“The class seemed to be paying attention so I continued on. “We who write something are peer edited each time. The advantage you have in this classroom is that the editing is in-house, nobody but your peer and I will see it. Mistakes that you make, or that your peer makes will be corrected, thus making your writing even more readable. Is that understandable?
I looked around the room; there were a few nods, but mostly deadpan faces.
“There’s nothing embarrassing about being edited in this closed vacuum. We grow through editing. Folks who will not be as kind will read your writing in future. Consider yourself lucky to have a friendly face helping you, and you in turn helping them.
A young man, near the front, raised a finger. “But, it’s my stuff, I can choose who reads it, right?”
“Perhaps, but follow this. Writing is like renting an apartment, or a dorm room. Yeah, you can decorate it anyway you want to.”
“As long as you don’t kick holes in the wall,” shouted another student.
“Exactly right.” I tossed the syllabi on the table with a noticeable “whack;” a technique I learned in grad school. The effect was that all attention came to me. “If you kick a hole in the wall you have to fix it.”
I saw some hands starting to go up, so I quickly added, “it’s the same with writing. You are given a clean sheet of paper. You write on it, but if there is an error, your peer editor, just like the contractor hired by the apartment owner, comes in and fixes the problem.”
The hands seemed to recede.
“Like I said, we may have created the writing, but we don’t own it. The reader owns it. The reader decides what is good or bad, what they like or dislike, or what is not written correctly. And, on Wednesday, we are going to talk about that reader, who we call audience.”
A commotion in the hallway caused me to glance at my watch. Class time was over. “On the way out of the room place your signed affidavits on the desk.”
Students began to rise.
“Have a good day, and I’ll see you Wednesday.”
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