Teacher responds to comp critic

Jill Spindler

Jill Spindler

As an SDSU instructor of Composition, I was dismayed to read Roxy Hammond’s diatribe on what she calls “Frosh Comp” in part because I suspect that some of my own students may have similar feelings about my class.

To begin, I must qualify my disagreement. As a former Bachelor’s and Master’s student here at SDSU, I recognize that not all instructors do a great job of teaching. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined only to this institution. What does seem to be a new phenomenon is the fact that one would go to a state university with clear prescriptive writing requirements and then plead in the university newspaper to “Be Free” to write however she pleases.

If Roxy wishes to be free to do whatever she wishes, she’s made a poor decision in enrolling here. Further, she will likely experience some difficulty finding a place that will let her be free.

To be honest, I have no problem with Roxy expressing herself or voicing her complaint; in fact, I encourage dissent in my own classroom. Instead, what concerns me are the glaring logical flaws in her argument. I considered using her opinion piece as fodder for a class lesson on identifying fallacies, but thought better of it-why not give the rest of the student body the chance to read about it? After all, this is an institution of higher learning.

For starters, Roxy’s belief that her experience with English in college would be mere repetition of her experience in high school is a fine example of a non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”). The simple fact that something happened in the past does foretell that it will continue to happen in the future. Roxy, however, believes that since she “received good grades on [her] writing assignments” and “won awards for writing,” she should have been “able to pull off an A, easily” in a “stupid” Comp I class.

Overlooking the fact that easy classes defeat the purpose of a college education, the first major flaw in Roxy’s argument is that, contrary to Roxy’s apparent belief, high school writing is not the same as college writing. In fact, there exist any number of different kinds of writing, ranging from creative writing to academic and technical writing. After Roxy conflates all writing into a single category, she suggests that it should all be creative-i.e., original, expressive, and imaginative-and further suggests that a “plethora” of English professors disagree with her.

While I’ve never encountered an English professor who wasn’t thrilled to read original, expressive, and imaginative writing, submitting an original, expressive, and imaginative poem will likely do little to fulfill the requirements of a technical writing assignment. Thus, in an academic community, one must conform. This does not mean that one must silence him or herself; it means that one must recognize one’s audience and subject matter in order to write accordingly.

The second misstep in Roxy’s reasoning is that she can either “keep her originality” or have someone “tell [her] how to write” (this logical flaw is aptly named an “either-or fallacy” because it disallows other possibilities).

Citing her apparent precursors in the rebellion against teachers, she asks, “Did anyone tell Picasso how to paint?” “Did anyone tell Ernest Hemingway how to write?” Roxy’s adamant “No” in response to both questions seems inappropriate.

Having read Hemingway, I was aware that Hemingway received his training as a young journalist for the Kansas City Star where, according to The Hemingway Resource Center, “[t]he newspaper advocated short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy.” Later in his life, Hemingway claimed that “[t]hose were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them” (). As for Picasso, I Googled the words “Picasso learned” and came up with a number of hits that clearly contradict Roxy’s claim (try the search yourself-hit #10 is especially interesting).

The third logical flaw in Roxy’s argument occurs when she hastily generalizes and assumes that all college teachers of English are the same. After having had one college English course taught by one instructor, she has likened all English professors (her words: “these teachers”) to those staffing the Combine, a whole department full of characters like Nurse Rached and Dean Wormer who are clearly out to stifle creativity.

Before making such a rash generalization, however, keep in mind the goal of a class like Comp I: to introduce first-year college students to academic writing. In doing so, we are trying to help students enter the world of academic discourse-a conversation of sorts-that is different from the type of discourse students experience in high school, and rightly so. After all, it seems logical that one purpose of a college education would be to learn more than what one previously knew.

When Roxy asks herself, “What the hell am I doing wrong?” my unsought answer is this: Roxy is focusing too much on her grades and too little on learning. Unfortunately, she is not alone. My unsought advice: when someone offers constructive criticism (which, by the way, is what instructors are supposed to do-we’re not here just to cheer students on and tell them what a good job they’re doing), don’t take it personally; don’t interpret criticism of your writing as criticism of you. Further, keep in mind that other people can and should influence the way you express yourself without it “impeding on who you are as a person.”

Hemingway had someone tell him how to write, and from what I’ve heard, he had a fairly successful career.

I hope that yours can compare, Roxy.