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Full Text Publications > Twenty Septembers: A Memoir of Teaching by Elizabeth Christman

Chapter Two

In my first semester at DePauw I was assigned two sections of a course called "Advanced Freshman English," and one section of "Introduction to Fiction." The students in Advanced Freshman English were a select bunch who had proved on an entrance test that they had some writing competence. They were supposed to understand basic syntax, spelling, and punctuation; most of them did. Hence I should be able to concentrate on more sophisticated matters of structure and style. To give them a common stock of material to write about, I was to use an anthology of short stories and a couple of novels. My other course, Introduction to Fiction, also contained many freshmen, with some sophomores and upper classmen, and it wasn't too different from Freshman English. There I used the same anthology of short stories and a number of novels; but the purpose of this course was to introduce students to literature, so there was more emphasis on analysis and discussion and less emphasis on writing.

I loved my courses and I loved my students. In the beginning, my approach to students and to teaching was thoroughly romantic. I thought of my new career as an exalted calling in which I would open young minds to the joys of reading, train young people in clear thinking and lucid writing, and perhaps even reinforce their native idealism by helping them articulate it. Though this romanticism has been greatly tempered during sixteen years of teaching, I wouldn't say even now that it was altogether a wrong attitude. Some measure of cynicism about the young, and some measure of skepticism about her own influence on them, must leaven a teacher's enthusiasm. But all the really good teachers I have known have loved students and have believed in their own ability to teach. When a teacher feels contempt for the young, and cannot smile at their flightiness, their poses, their velleities, and even their falsities, that teacher cannot teach them much. She must have hopes for them so that they can have hopes for themselves.

When I began, I loved students uncritically. My first classes at DePauw, as I have said, were almost entirely filled with freshmen, and it's not hard to love freshmen uncritically. They are so uncritical themselves, so eager to please, so serious about knowledge and so full of expectations about the quantity of it that you are about to impart. They have thick new notebooks with separate sections for each course, and they have high-lighting pens to emphasize whatever sentences in the textbook you are pleased to approve.

On my first day in a DePauw classroom a student called Bruce Schilt sat in the front row and nodded in vigorous agreement with every writing precept I uttered. This was a great reassurance to a panicky neophyte. Naturally I haven't forgotten his name. In fact, without consulting my files, I can remember the names of many other freshmen I faced on September 8, 1969: George Stevenson, Steve Burr, John Kniesly, John Adams, Chris Adams, Mary Ann Rodich, Mary Jane Murray, Tilly Wilhoite, Steve Dieck, Mark Scott, Richard Gage, Jan Hooker, Jan Teter, Tim Bennett. If I forced my memory, I could call up a good many more. Their faces are still before me in the places they used to sit.

My first prescription for good prose writing was, and is, to figure out what you are going to say and divide it into its parts. I don't like the word "outline" and I tried not to use it, because it brings to mind those dreadful mechanical essays we had to do in high school, with A, B, and C, then a, b, and c, and then further divisions into Roman and Arabic numbers. We had to force our subjects into this pattern instead of looking for a natural pattern. So I urged my first students to make a "plan" rather than an outline. When they had made their plans, I exhorted them to write simply, without pretentiousness, to be plain, direct, and specific. I carried on my campaign against the passive voice. I battled against needless words. Bruce Schilt nodded to all these things.

Some people say that writing can't be taught, preferring to believe that the ability to write well is inborn, like a good singing voice or natural athletic ability. It's perfectly true that if you haven't been born with the right vocal cords, no amount of teaching will enable you to sing in opera; and if you were born clumsy, the best coach in the world can't make you a good tennis player. But teaching can probably get you into the local choral society, where even with your meager vocal talent you can enjoy making music with others. And a tennis coach can help you play tennis acceptably in spite of your awkward legs.

So, too, if you lack a vivid imagination, a passionate heart, and a fascination with language, you can never be a great novelist. But most people can be taught to write acceptably, even with very modest ability; and those with talent must be taught if they are to make the most of their talent. I believe that learning to write means learning to think. You don't really know a thing until you can express it clearly. We often find out when we try to explain something in writing that we have to go back and study it more carefully. So I like to think that when I teach writing I am pushing my students toward a wholesome sorting out of their thinking.

I've read many books on writing, and borrowed from them in my teaching, so that now I can't begin to list all the teachers and writers to whom I owe a debt. I've never used any book so consistently as that little gem by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. I started out with it at Saint Peter's College, continued with it at DePauw, and I still use it at Notre Dame. Once in a while I've taken a flier with some other excellent book on writing, but I always come back to the terse commands of Strunk and White: "Use the active voice. Don't overstate. Avoid needless words."

That last precept strikes terror into the hearts of freshmen. I could see it in Advanced Freshman English. I had assigned them to write a 500-word essay on "My Kinsman, Major Molyneux" by Hawthorne, and yet I was insisting that they strike out "as a matter of fact" and "in the present writer's considered opinion" and other plump phrases which they were counting on to help them reach that incredible length. And I wouldn't let them begin with a paragraph that announced "In this paper I shall try to demonstrate that . . ." and end by noting that "In this paper I believe I have demonstrated that . . . ." How would they ever make 500 words if they had to strike out half of them as "needless"?

The answer to this question is in Strunk and White, too: "Use definite, specific, concrete language." When a writer uses specific details and concrete examples he seldom has to worry about filling up his pages. He can afford to cut needless verbiage. Students found this hard to believe. A sentence I got from a paper at Saint Peter's College served me for years as a demonstration. I often put it on the board:

In our household we have a situation where it is necessary for my father to do most of the cooking because my mother works at night.

From this 26-word sentence I cut the 13 needless ones, leaving the same message:

My father does most of our cooking because my mother works at night.

Then I built it back to 26 words by supplying details, making it more lively at the same time.

My mother works at night, so Dad fries hamburgers or makes spaghetti for our suppers. He's good at chili and brownies, but his cakes usually fall.

Though agreeing that the detailed version was more interesting, college freshmen doubted that this was the way "educated" people ought to write. "Everything you tell us about writing is exactly the opposite of what I was taught in high school," a freshman exclaimed, and all the others nodded in agreement. Their high school teachers had urged them to enlarge their vocabularies by adding polysyllabic abstractions. I remember it myself from my ancient times: "Learn a new word every day and use it three times in a sentence to make it your own." The more big words you could handle, the more intelligent you would sound. So a student writing of a visit to the dentist says: "The smell of that office is still impregnated in my mind and nose." She is surprised when I suggest that she say it more directly: "I can still smell that office." Is this what she came to college to learn? Another students writes: "The boy was in a supine position on the grass." What does that mean, I ask. "The boy was lying on the grass," he translates, and wonders why I prefer that version. He was proud of supine. My freshmen were already developing one of the faults of educated writers, preferring the long word to the short one. They would rather purchase than buy; they would rather maintain than keep; they would rather liquidate their obligations than pay their bills.

The brightest ones were often infected with another learned fault, a fault that I observe with chagrin is rife among faculty writers: the addiction to verbal nouns. The word "addiction" is a verbal noun. It is the name of an action. Verbal nouns are perfectly respectable, but when used in large quantities they make prose heavy and pompous. "He has good adaptability to new situations," a professor writes in a letter recommending a student. "Adaptability" is a verbal noun, longer and more passive than the verb buried in it, "adapt." The professor could have said, "He adapts well to new situations," but he rejects the verb in order to sound more impressive. It's not surprising that an ambitious student imitates this construction, writing of his grandfather: "His contribution to the fun was considerable." "Contribution" has a verb buried in it, "contribute." Behind that Latinized verb is a plain English verb as old as Chaucer, "add." I'd point out to my freshmen that when the writer digs out the verb and uses that as his predicate: "He added a lot to the fun," he makes his grandfather sound livelier.

But I'd have to reassure these freshmen again and again that I wasn't disparaging a good vocabulary or trying to make them write a "See Jane run" kind of prose. I tried to make them see that when they expressed themselves honestly, instead of trying to show off their big words, they wrote better prose. Donald Hall once said: "A writer of bad prose, in order to become a writer of good prose, must alter his character -- he must become honest in the expression of himself. There must be no gap between expression and meaning, between real and declared aims. For some people, some of the time, this simply means not telling deliberate lies. For most people, it means learning when they are lying and when they are not. It means learning the real names of their feelings."

The quest for honesty was a theme these young people could respect. This was 1969, the height of the youth rebellion, when one of the most frequent outcries against adults was that they were phony. Young people prized sincerity, and they still do, above almost any other quality. But sincerity is not easy to achieve, especially for the young. They have grown up in a world of jargon, of approved terms like "commitment," "charisma," "dialogue," and "interaction," and of disapproved terms like "alienation," "chauvinism," "segregation," and "anti-feminism." Everything seems to be labeled for them already, and freshmen think writing consists in assembling phrases and pasting them together. They express themselves in pre-packaged prose nuggets without checking to see if these represent any honest convictions. It's hard for freshmen to learn the real names of their feelings. They're so anxious to have the right feelings.

In 1969 the right feeling, or one of the right feelings, was contempt for the "establishment," whatever that was. DePauw was a conservative college, rooted in Methodist ideals, with a long history of graduating upright, prosperous men and women. Many of the students I taught were children or even grandchildren of DePauw graduates, steeped in middle-class values. But "middle-class values" was now a term of contempt, from which they had somehow to dissociate themselves. Many of them did it visually, a relatively safe way, by wearing jeans with holes in the knees, dirty sweat-shirts, lank hair, and -- during the warm weeks -- no shoes. A few of them went further: challenging their professors' ideas or methods, demanding a voice in making the curriculum, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, and even burning down the ROTC building. A few copped out on drugs. But these were mostly upper-classmen. The freshmen I taught contented themselves with bare feet and headbands and long hair as symbols of protest, and otherwise submitted with sweet docility to my instruction,

They submitted at least for the duration of the course. They were at DePauw to get a good education, to graduate with a good record, which would be a prelude to success in life. They wanted to start with a good grade in Advanced Freshman English, so if I wanted them to use the active voice, omit needless words, and prefer the concrete to the abstract, they would try to do so, even though they had reservations about the wisdom of these practices in the long run. Especially the practice of preferring the concrete,

Humble about their own ideas and experiences, they couldn't believe that they should go into detail about, say, a summer job. The girl who had been a waitress at an expensive resort wrote that the meal hours were a great trial because so many of the guests had special requirements which she was supposed to anticipate. She reiterated that her memory and her patience were sorely tried by the peculiar demands of many of the guests at her tables. I wrote in the margin that these generalizations repeated each other. "What did they demand?" I asked, when she came in to talk about her paper. "What were these special requirements?" She recalled that one woman insisted that the cream be warmed before she poured it on her oatmeal, a man wanted one piece of white toast and one piece of whole wheat with his eggs, another man wanted coffee with his meal while his wife wanted hers afterwards, and the waitress was supposed to keep all these things in mind. I advised her to put them into her story. "But I thought all those details would be boring," she said.

How many times I had to repeat it: "Details are not boring. Generalizations are boring!" So they tried to oblige me with specific details and concrete examples, active voice and strong verbs. I suppose that later on many of them in their corporate offices have succumbed to the prevalent business style, and are nouning their verbs and pouring out abstractions and generalizations. Still, I occasionally get a letter from some former student who informs me that his superiors have praised his brisk, clear writing style.


© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.

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