Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own?

Actually, I have figured out pretty much what the code does in setting up the caves, except for that “i” and later “j.” Am I vindicating his pedagogical theory? This is not a trivial question. To the dismay of many a student, pretty much the same pedagogical theory underlies how many writing teachers work. And boy, do students rant.

In other words, if the teacher fixes everything for you, if the teacher is too “directive” and tells you too much of exactly what you should do, you’ve missed a vital part of learning the complex skill of writing. It’s in trying to come to terms with your own communicative obstacles, casting around for a range of solutions, and making your own decisions about the best one that you develop the neural pathways for dealing with those kinds of problems in the future when no teacher’s around.

I certainly was taught to deploy that theory. I struggled with it, since I have “control freak” inscribed on all my DNA. I especially struggled when students would blast me for “not helping.” It took a lot of willpower to sit on my hands in effect, to write a long paragraph about a messy sentence explaining why I found the sentence confusing and asking the student to figure out what she meant and rewrite to resolve my perplexity. “Helping” seemed to mean rewriting the sentence myself.

Maybe it’s that same problem I started with: the sentence was perfectly clear to her. Why did she need to explain?

The question for this rant, then, is how much frustration you should ask a learner to accept. Is there useful frustration and pointless frustration? How can you tell the difference? When someone shows up with a deadly weapon, demanding a fix for their comma splices or your life? How can you convince eighteen-year-olds to be glad they’re frustrated? Not easily, as you may have guessed.

One difference is that the student could, if so moved, come to me and talk with me about her meaning and how she could clarify it. I can’t easily do so with my Python-book author. He’s actually enacting a fundamental truth about writing: it gets read (and hopefully used in this case) when you’re not there.

In my mind, it comes down to the centrality of feedback to successful writing, whatever the genre. But not just any feedback. My Python-book writer may not have asked true beginners to read his book.

Finding the right reader is hard but key. Let’s say you’re learning to play baseball and you need to learn to hit curve balls. You get instruction, you go off and practice (essential), you come back and get feedback from your coach (also essential). But the point toward which I have been tending is this: only when you see the ball coming at you and actually try to hit it do you know whether you’re doing it right.

The right reader is that ball coming at you. Whether you hit it or not: that’s the ultimate feedback you need.

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Filed under College writing, Learning to write, Teaching writing, Writers' groups, Writing and teaching writing

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