Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom: Welcome to my Blackboard Jungle

Posted on June 7, 2010


Previous: Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom:
Down the Rabbit Hole

In order to translate my teaching method into edu-speak, I first had to sit down and figure out what my teaching method actually was.

There certainly hadn’t been any for my first class.

To start with, half my students spoke English as a “second language.” This didn’t mean they spoke or understood English, but that they could sometimes recognise it in passing. The other half, born and raised in Canada, were not only native English speakers, they were also graduates of our country’s highly-praised public school system.

It was difficult to decide which half was at more of a disadvantage.

That first day, with only 48 hours to prepare, I had little in the way of a lesson plan and decided to kill time by asking them what they knew about writing essays. While half the class industriously keyed what I’d said into their electronic translators, the Canadian-born students jumped at the chance to answer.

Essays, they told me confidently, are five paragraphs long.

Well sure, I said. Sometimes. I guess.

But — huh?

And so they proceeded to educate their poor, ignorant teacher who had no idea what an actual essay consisted of.

There are always five paragraphs, they said.

  1. The first, or “Introductory Paragraph” (you could hear both the capital letters and quotation marks as they spoke) contained the thesis statement and a brief mention of the three main points.
  2. The second paragraph, or the first “Body Paragraph” contained the first main point along with three supporting arguments.
  3. The third contained the second main point with its three supporting arguments.
  4. The fourth contained the third main point with its three supporting arguments.
  5. The final, or “Concluding Paragraph,” restated the thesis and summarised the three main points.

One Hamburger Essay to go, please.

“It’s called the ‘Hamburger Essay,'” they finished, pleased to show off their knowledge of the technical lingo.

At first I suspected an elaborate hoax, but they seemed sincere, and the idea of so many students all agreeing to come up with such an insane definition struck me as unlikely at best.

As it turns out, they were right. I really didn’t know anything about how a real essay was constructed.

The “Hamburger Essay” has apparently been the standard format taught to most North American students for the past quarter century or so. It’s easy to teach, and it’s easy to mark (there’s even software available to do the marking).

It also makes thinking while writing almost impossible — which Lynn Stratton, in her 2002 article for The St. Petersburg Times (“Taught to remove all thought“), indicates is the aim of it. Whether that’s really the aim of the five paragraph essay or not, I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly the result.

By the beginning of my second semester I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to approach this.

It seemed to me that the first thing was to make them pay attention: to get across the fact that this wasn’t going to be yet another class in which they could get away with writing the same five paragraph essays they’d been writing since early public school. (Seriously — many told me they’d been taught the Hamburger Essay style since Grade Four.) Along with this, I wanted them to appreciate the fact that writing is important, damn it!

So starting from my second semester, the first lesson consists of two parts.

Part one is an overview of the course. This is where the teacher traditionally goes over the course outline and explains the schedule of tests and assignments. For me, however, it’s a chance to demolish every last vestige of my students’ complacency and replace it with a deep well of insecurity and doubt.

Rather than going over the course outline (which I conveniently “don’t have printed out yet”), I instead explain that while the course might be called College English, my primary purpose is teaching them how to think. I tell them that most of what they know is wrong, that they’re abysmally gullible, and that in this class they don’t have a sacred “right to their own opinions” unless they can bloody well back them up with solid facts and reasoned arguments. I tell them that while they may be in college to prepare for a particular career, in five years time they could find themselves doing something entirely different, making everything else they’ve learned here useless.

I tell them that this class, however, can mean the difference between becoming an average, mindless human being, swayed by the cheap rhetoric of chattering celebrities, or an independent thinker whose opinion on any subject is actually worthy of respect. I also tell them that 14 weeks of three-hour classes are woefully inadequate to learn all this, but that we’ll give it a shot, and if they’re willing to continue working at it after college, they may — just may — become at least semi-literate and semi-intelligent.

As for essays, I break the bad news: there is no one standard form. Essays come in all shapes and sizes, including newspaper editorials and TV news specials. The word itself comes from the Old French assay and simply means “attempt.” In other words, an essay is an attempt to articulate our thoughts in a convincing fashion. But to do that, it is necessary that we first actually have thoughts — which, I helpfully remind them, they don’t. What they have instead are mental reiterations of sound-bites from various (and usually unreliable) sources that they have taken ownership of due to some particular emotional appeal.

This is also where I introduce our two “prime directives.”

In order to write an essay:

  1. You must have something you want to say.
  2. You must honestly try to say it.

Everything else is detail.

The second part of my first class each semester is a lecture on the history of the English language.

I discovered very early that many, if not most of the students harboured resentment against the many oddities and inconsistencies of English spelling and grammar. While there was nothing I could do to change these oddities and inconsistencies, I could at least explain how they came about.

And so I tell them about the invasions — Roman, Danish, Norman — and show a few of the thousands of words that each particular invasion bestowed upon us, along with their spelling and grammatical baggage. I play a recording of Old and Middle English, and end with a few statistics on Modern English, including the fact that while we arguably have the largest vocabulary in the world, only 2% of it is actually English in origin. (PowerPoint here, should you be interested.)

So, I tell them, if you want to blame anyone for our screwy spelling and wacky grammar, blame everyone else — because it’s not our bloody fault!

The next few classes are spent trying to give them an idea of what such foundational writing elements as “sentences”  and “paragraphs” really are. This came about because in my first semester I had them write a thousand word narrative essay to drive home the fact that essays are not all the same. The result was a rash of essays with absolutely no paragraph breaks. Why? Because in a narrative essay there aren’t  three major points, and therefore they had no idea where a paragraph should end.

I mean — Lord love a duck!

So I’ve introduced them to Andy Rooney. We watch Andy spout off for a minute or so, then go through it again more slowly, allowing the class to decide where he’s starting each new paragraph.

Unsurprisingly, when paragraphs are removed from educational definitions that have almost nothing to do with the real world, students instinctively come to recognise them as part of the rhythm of speech.

As for “thesis” (the subject of my job interview assignment), I generally show a Rex Murphy spot, then open it up to analysis on what his point was, how well he managed to back it up, and how his factual arguments were supported through the emotive value of his word choices, analogies, and other rhetorical frills.

So. Was it possible to express this in a way that sounded like a learner-centred teaching method?

Damned right it was! When words and phrases have as little definition as those found in education, they can be used to justify just about anything you want.

So. With a little judicious use of jargon, I could make it look like I’ve been engaging the students in “facilitated educational experiences” all along. Surely any self-respecting interviewer would see that, right?


Next: Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom:
Finally, The Final Chapter