With a few weeks to go in my first semester at Stony Brook, I walked into WRT 102 and announced we were deviating from the course outline. I handed each student a photocopy of a column that I wrote for an Irish newspaper in 2010 about the birth of my third son, Finn. They saw the byline and, immediately, they perked up.
“What are we doing with this?” somebody asked.
“We are going to read it and critique it and figure out how it could have been better!” I replied.
Some of them couldn’t believe their luck. I think I saw one or two rubbing their hands with glees. Others were a little taken aback, unsure at first about how critical they could possibly be about somebody who would be giving them their final grade a few weeks later. I split them into groups of four – deciding they’d be bolder and less intimidated than if asked to do solo critiques – and urged them to do their worst.
They sat there in silence, reading. Then, there was some giggling. Eventually, that gave way to murmurs of discussion and, finally, some note-taking. Fifteen minutes later, they began to present their findings and I stood against the back wall, and I took my medicine. Nothing reminds you how flawed a piece of your writing is than having a fresh audience give it a rigorous examination a couple of years after you first produced it. They questioned punctuation, tone (over-sentimental since you ask!), the size of paragraphs, the word choices, and the (admittedly) stilted ending. Quite correctly, they latched onto a couple of dodgy constructs that they knew I would put a red line under on any one of their papers.
Some couched the steel claw of their criticism in velvet gloves, a couple of the brave ones broke out knuckle dusters and aimed for the jaw. They all seemed to be enjoying it way too much.
The purpose of the assignment was simple. By that point, the students had been receiving feedback, criticism and advice from me and from their peers for more than two months. We had reached the stage in our relationship where they winced when they saw me walking in with a batch of freshly-corrected papers under my arm. Many of them were no doubt sick and tired of being told a paper wasn’t ready for portfolio and required major surgery. As the end of the term loomed, I felt they were stuck in a never-ending cycle of revisions and re-examinations of their own work.
Aside from providing a welcome respite from the routine, I think this exercise benefitted us all. Firstly, the column I used was a deeply personal piece of work. Why? Well, these students had shared all sorts of deeply personal information about themselves and their families in that room and in their writing over the previous weeks. I felt it only proper to give them something in which I revealed intimate information about my own life. The least I could do.
Secondly, by making my work the target of this particular correcting exercise, they were reminded of how all writing (not just their own) can be critiqued and improved long after we might think it finished. During their presentations, I answered some of their criticisms by offering a run-through of the copy-editing every article receives before being published in a newspaper. After quickly explaining to some of the younger ones what a newspaper is, I even threw in a few horror stories about editors firing work back at me and ordering last-minute rewrites.
If one of the avowed goals of WRT 102 is to teach students the value of the revision and drafting process, I think handing them something to tear apart like this afforded them a glimpse of the way these things work in the real world. Aside from gleeful and informed nitpicking, they had a slew of interesting questions too. How long did the piece take to write? How many drafts of it did you do before sending it off? Were you asked to rewrite? What was the reaction of readers to it? All smart and cogent queries that you’d expect from diligent writing students.
Of course, at the end, one of them asked a question that may have been on a few of their minds.
“You actually got paid cash money to write this?”