AP English Blather

by Tina Blue
January 26, 2001

          One problem I have in teaching college undergraduates how to write is that they often have to unlearn writing patterns that have been drilled into them throughout high school, and often since as early as seventh grade.

          Ironically, some of the worst writers are AP (Advanced Placement) English students. Most of these kids had fairly high-level language skills to begin with. They are also usually hard-working and eager to please. What they are taught, they learn--with a vengeance! And the more thoroughly they have learned the lessons from their English classes, the harder it is for them to change their writing style in the fifteen weeks that they have me for college English.

          Now, no math or science teacher expects her students to throw out everything they have learned up to that point in their education. If the student has thoroughly learned what his earlier math, biology, chemistry, or physics teachers have taught him, then he is well-prepared to learn what his new teacher will teach him.

          And yet it is the most common thing in the world for a new English teacher to demand that her students throw out everything they've worked so hard to learn and then start completely from scratch. New semester, new teacher, new rules.

          I say we have no right.

          I tell my students that, too--we have no right

          How, you might wonder, do I square this conviction with the fact that I explicitly tell my students that they must not write the way a lot of other teachers have taught them to write?

     Well, I throw myself on their intellectual mercy, as it were. I appeal to their intelligence as readers. "What sort of writing do you like to read?" I ask them. "What sort of writing do you actually find out there in the real world? Does it look
like what you were taught to write in your English classes?"

          They aren't fools. They have had to go against every instinct to write the sort of blather that is required of them in so many of their English classes, and they don't like reading that stuff any more than they like writing it. But good little soldiers that they are, they have usually swallowed their perfectly rational objections and conformed to their teachers' expectations.

          Unlike most of their other teachers, I write for my students. I write essays in response to the assignments I give them. I write essays in response to the discussions we have had in class, or in response to an essay one or another student has written. The students get to see my writing and to judge it, to decide whether they like it or not, and if they don't like some aspects of my style, they can think about why and about how to avoid picking up that sort of writing element in their own work.

          It is important for a student to acquire his own authentic voice in writing, not to imitate some pompous, pedantic manner, bolstered by big words recruited from the thesaurus in order to impress a teacher. It is important that he find a way to make his written language a suitable vehicle for the developing complexity of his own thought. It is also important that he learn to modify his writing style and format to accommodate the very different requirements for writing in different sorts of school or real-world contexts.

          None of that can happen if he is tied to a formulaic style that is divorced from any consideration of real-world necessity--although I do warn my students to keep the AP English blather style in their repertoire to trot out for those teachers who require it, as at least a few are bound to, since many of those teachers have also been trained that way.

          Let me give you an idea of what I mean by AP English blather. First of all, it is highly formulaic, and has as its root the traditional five-paragraph theme. It may not be five-paragraphs long, but it will have the standard introduction, which I call the "roadmap" introduction. Here is an example:

          In this paper I am going to discuss three of the factors that led to the election disputes in Florida in 2000. One factor was undervotes caused by inadequate voting machine technology, found most often in voting precincts that included the highest percentage of low-income and minority residents. Another factor was overvotes, caused by confusing ballot designs that caused voters to register two choices for president rather than one. A third factor was the lack of facilities adequate to handle the unexpectedly high number of voters, especially African-American voters, who went to the polls in Florida.

          Now, an introduction like this is at least functional, and for a certain level of student, it would probably be an adequate model--as long as the student didn't get stuck at that level. Of course, it is not a flexible or particularly readable introductory style, and the student certainly needs to develop other ways of drawing in his reader and establishing the purpose and direction of his essay.

          Still, that dry, formulaic introduction is far better than some of the introductions I see, which maintain the soporific dullness of the style, but abandon altogether its major virtue, which is clarity. (I think English teachers, especially AP English teachers, often undervalue clarity and overvalue "style," although what they consider to be style is often just a mishmash of ill-considered words dragged out of a thesaurus.) Let me give you some examples of the sort of meaningless "fancy-pants" writing that I see in the early weeks of my literature classes:

     The nature of the significance of "Roman Fever," by Edith Wharton, is its impeccably timed brilliant irony that renders it a well-deserved classic of the American tradition. In this paper I will show that this story is constituted of several different ironies cleverly revealed through the brilliant use of the technique of foreshadowing. The author's use of these ironies manifests her incredible skill as a great writer.

          I assume that you can all see how awful this is. It has absolutely no meaning at all, and on top of that, it is presumptuous. Who is this little eighteen-year-old girl to announce that this or that author or work is "brilliant," or that an author "manifests . . . incredible skill as a great writer," or that the story is characterized by "impeccably timed brilliant irony that renders it a well-deserved classic of the American tradition." This child knows diddly-squat about the American tradition or about what might make a work a classic, or whether a given work deserves the status of a classic.

          Even worse, her sentences put words together so ungrammatically that her prose is nonsense, pure and simple. The phrase "renders it a well-deserved classic of the American tradition" is not even possible in the English language--it is pure gibberish. It's as if she is taking a verb from Column A, a modifier from Column B, and a noun from Column C, with no reference to whether those particular words actually mean anything when put together in that order.

          And yet this girl, and her counterparts from other AP English courses, has never gotten less than an A on a paper or in an English class. When she went back later in the semester to revise this paper, she admitted that when she reread it, she had no idea of what her sentences meant or of what point she was actually trying to make in her paper. Of course not--there was no point, other than to impress the teacher with the big words she was slinging about.

          Here is another example:

     The author of this great poem intends for us to comprehend the significance of the fine and meaningful images he weaves so masterfully throughout his magnificent work. In this paper I will carefully examine the meaning of some of these significant images and of the skillful use of words that go into making up this great work of art.

     Gag me with a spoon, for heaven's sake!

          The conclusions required of these students are, if anything, worse than the introductions. They are usually required to tack on some sort of fake "summary" conclusion at the end of an essay.

          Actually, since most of their essays have no real point, they don't ever actually get anywhere, so there is not a satisfying sense of closure at the end. They really do seem to be left "hanging in the air" instead of clicking closed naturally as a well-conceived and well-directed essay will. So even the students feel the need to tack something onto the end of the essay to sort of tie it all up.

          But writing, "As you can see, I have fully demonstrated the exquisite skill with which Edith Wharton uses irony in her brilliant short story 'Roman Fever,'" does nothing to mitigate the ugliness or the meaninglessness of this sort of essay.

          In one sense, at least, such an essay "succeeds": It promises from the beginning to do nothing worth doing, and by the end it has completely fulfilled this promise.

          I see far too much of this sort of blather to consider it an accident. These kids are being taught to write this way, and then given A's for doing so.

          Can you blame them for being stunned almost to the point of tears when they get their first paper back from me? I ask for margins of 1.5 to 2 inches on all sides of each page, just to have room for all the corrections and comments I must make, so that I can help them rewrite their papers to the point where I can give them a half-way decent grade. If I had to put grades on these essays the first time through, most students would get only D's and F's from me.

          However, my purpose is not to beat up on these kids but to teach them to write better, so I allow them to rewrite each essay, after they've begun to learn how to say something more meaningful about literature than "This great author manifests her extraordinary skill as a magnificent example of the most brilliant writing in literature," which is just another version of the standard comment I see from my students early in the semester.

          By the time they revise, they also will have seen plenty of sample essays on all the literary genres we cover, and in response to all the assignments I have given them. I write a lot of the sample essays myself, but I also use student essays when they are good enough, so the students can see what is possible for someone at their level to accomplish.

          It is important for them to understand that I am not asking them to write like an overeducated fifty-year-old English teacher. The sample essays I write for them, though, are written in a plain style, and are not overly sophisticated. You know my writing style--it's not anything a bright freshman or sophomore could not learn to do with a little practice. I am only asking them to say something interesting and useful about the literature and to do so in prose that can be read and that actually makes some sense!

          The only reason that is hard is that these bright, eager students have diligently studied the lessons they have been taught by their AP English teachers. And those lessons are the worst sort of nonsense.

          Another problem with English classes--again, AP English classes are the worst offenders, but I find this problem in all student writing--is that students have been taught by teachers that think writing is "rule-driven." They wield grammar and usage rules (some of them absolute nonsense, by the way) like bludgeons: they announce that students must never use linking verbs or the passive voice, or whatever other element of language the teacher has decided to declare total war on.

          My daughter's ninth-grade AP English teacher would not allow her students to use prepositional phrases, linking verbs, the passive voice, or words of less than two syllables. She also hated common verbs, so the students had to replace every natural verb with some Latinate monstrosity from the thesaurus! Can you even imagine how deformed her students' prose was? So despite my conviction that students should not have to unlearn everything each semester when they get a new English teacher, I make them unlearn everything anyway in my class. But I also tell them to remember how to write that nonsense, so they'll be able to trot it out whenever some teacher demands it of them.
          The kind of writing they learn in my class, though, will serve them in most of their college classes (since most college teachers are not English teachers, thank goodness), and will also transfer smoothly to the writing contexts they will face in the real world.

          I trust their intelligence. They really don't like the sort of writing they've been forced to do, and they are relieved to be able to write natural, lucid prose again, even if it means having to break bad writing habits that have been drilled into them for years.
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High school AP classes are not the only problem--and often not even the problem at all.  Some college instructors also teach students to write blather.  It's a type of writing that I am complaining about and the fact that some students are being taught to write this way.  Some high school AP teachers are definitely part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  Visit my article "Some AP English Teachers Are Actually Wonderful," 
where I give good high school AP English teachers their due. Good teachers at all levels are on the same side, and some high school teachers are as good as or better than college instructors. Those who teach students to write the sort of drivel I quote in this essay are the only ones I am squawking about--
not the ones who are fighting to teach students not to write such nonsense.
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