Writing in Private
"Her mother was to read it when it was written; that was understood to be the agreement between them; but there would be no reason why she should not be alone when she wrote it. She could word it very differently, she thought, if she sat alone over it in her own bedroom, than she could do immediately under her mother's eye. She could not pause and think and perhaps weep over it, sitting at the parlour table, with her mother in her arm-chair, close by, watching her.” -- Anthony Trollope, Rachel Ray (Ch. 20)
“Why can’t I write it at home?” asks Shauna.
By reflex, I patiently explain, “You’re going to have to write the exams in class, so it’s good practice.” I see, however, that there are plenty of distractions in our room: the air-conditioning pumps outside the window that are churning; the coffee bar down the hall luring us with its aromas; allergy-plagued Victor with his snortings and snufflings; I with my paper-shuffling; Linda and her eye-sucking cell phone on her lap.
And I know my developmental English students are particularly vulnerable to distractions. They can, like human soufflés, sink into themselves and disappear into their sweatshirts, or, ever- anxious and nervous, can flit and start like deer in the forest, alarmed at the slightest noise.
On the other hand, I discovered long ago when I first started teaching that writing is not so intimidating an activity if everyone else in the room is doing it. And there’s that phenomenon of students of all abilities writing more grammatically and coherently when they’re under the pressure of writing against time, competitively with their classmates, their pens sprinting along -- not being so prone to pause and sink into the grammar-bogs of their native languages or idioms. Quick steps seem to keep us in rhythm even on the winding, bumpy track of writing.
And yet … we professors almost never write in these conditions. My developmental students, the least agile writers and readers, must dance in public through hoops because, before admittance to the college, they failed so miserably at reading and writing. On exam days, they radiate anxiety and I find myself, in my whispered instructions, "Relax! Relax!" that I’m really instead radiating hyper-concerned anxiety right back at them.
So during the semester I try to get everyone accustomed to writing under the gun; writing and reading when none of us want to; writing on and reading topics of no special interest!
"I don’t wanna lie and say I care about community gardens,” says Larry.
“Don’t lie," I say. "Just pretend you’re somebody who does care. Your aunt. The retired schoolteacher down the block."
"Pretending isn’t lying, professor?"
I smile. "No, we call it … fiction."
At the end of every in-class writing assignment, a student will ask, "Can I take it home? I promise I’ll write more than I could here."
"Just try. You have a few more minutes — you can’t take it home."
With exams that I give my second-year students, who have no system- or departmentwide grading to face, I tell them they can write wherever they want to write -- in the hallway, in the library, at the bus stop; they only have to be back by whatever time everyone else is going to finish. I don't really think it's important that they be under my eye. Someone's going to help them write about the very particular and personal points of our many readings? I doubt it. And as I have to admit, they’ve written so much for me already that I know the peculiarities of their writing better than I know the features of their handsome and pretty faces. Yes, I truly believe I can sniff out anything they might borrow from the Internet.
But I want the developmental students to stay put, because out of the classroom is an escape, and they need to get used to not escaping. They need to get used to settling down to work in a noisy environment. They need to learn to shut out their friend sitting next to them.
Yet I'm probably asking too much.
In Trollope’s great Rachel Ray, Rachel needs to write a letter of renunciation to her fiancé -- her mother and her minister have said she should, and so she will. But she needs to do it on her own terms. If they're to tell her what to write, and if her mother is going to have a look at it before she sends it, she needs some space of her own to weep over it. She loves Luke Rowan, and she believes in him, and only a few weeks earlier she had received her mother's and the minister's blessings to love him. She would not have loved him otherwise. Now, due to some plot twists, the authority figures of her life have changed their minds, but she has not changed her heart.
Now, we all know, particularly with developmental writers, that there are matters close to their hearts that are shocking to them as they spill out on the paper.
For instance, Yvonne, regal-looking, sits in the front row, off to the right, by the window, and, 10 minutes into an exam, sits and stares ahead into some middle space. And as I look at her, she seems so distant, so transformed, that I say, "Are you O.K., Yvonne?"
And she looks up, as if waking from a dream, and answers my confounding interference with, "As a matter of fact, I was thinking, professor!"
Most of them write as well as they can in spite of the distractions. Yvonne seems to block us out, to see only the situation she’s imagining. When I discreetly glance at her again, she is writing, brows knitted, her lips parted, almost gasping, her eyes watery.
Next time, I’ll give her some privacy.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.