Composition 1.01: How Email Can Change the Way Professors Teach

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Each year another thirty or so college students, for the most part English majors, stumble onto -- and then take furious advantages of -- an almost impossibly capable machine.

It works via e-mail. You send it fragments of your paper, maybe a provisional thesis or a few snippets of exegesis. Moments later it returns a fine-grained commentary: "I think you need to make this 'art' connection more clearly in your first paragraph if you're going to follow it throughout the paper.... Are you maybe a little too black / white here?.... I think it's key that you say both things -- that Stephen achieves a success but it's qualified by the ironies with which Joyce frames it.... I don't think the poem suggests he's in a daze."

It combines careful cross-examination of your argument with advice about structure. It copyedits your prose, flags awkward clauses, suggests the better word. It asks whether you've thought about a related passage and recommends books to help complicate your reading.

It does all of this quickly and unrelentingly. When you ask it over and over again, How about this? Is this okay? Am I on the right track?, it doesn't tire or protest. It just continues to politely feed you corrections, pointers, little snatches of wisdom.

If I hadn't used it myself I might not believe it exists. It sounds too much like the sort of overly general and fancifully articulate computer program that AI researchers have been promising, but never actually making, since the dawn of their endeavor.

But I know it's real -- it hums along most of the time in a small, cluttered office on the third floor of Angell Hall at the University of Michigan -- and for those who take advantage it may deliver exactly what they came to college to find: an attentive sounding board whose feedback, backed by daunting erudition but anchored, always, to the student's own words, shows the way to crisper, richer, more reticulated thought.

* * *

At certain moments on certain lazy Sunday afternoons, I'll watch a professional tennis player do something to a tennis ball that I didn't believe a person could do to a thing, and I'll wonder whether maybe world-class athletes are better at athletics than the rest of us will ever be at anything else.

My thinking in those moments runs something like this. I've read that paper by K. Anders Ericsson, the paper that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in Outliers, that touts "the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance." Ericsson argues that to become an expert at something you have to log about 10,000 hours of practice, but not just any practice -- a kind of practice that includes an "active search for methods to improve performance," immediate informative feedback, structure, supervision from an expert, and "close attention to every detail of performance 'each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.'"

I wonder: if Ericsson is right, does that mean that activities especially vulnerable to deliberate practice -- activities like sports -- have especially "climbable" learning curves? That those who devote themselves to the deliberately practicable, as opposed to the not, will master their work faster and more completely?

The idea scares me. I worry that I've chosen vocations -- programming, writing -- that can't be conquered. What's the equivalent, for a writer, of playing tennis with a broom handle instead of a racquet (as a way of learning how to really "see" the ball and hit it solid)? Trying not to use the letter "a"? Is there some academy where young wannabe Gladwells are fed four hundred transitive verbs, then four hundred intransitives, and asked to return each one with a smooth, driving sentence?

* * *

I had hoped I might find something of that sort at college. But of course professors don't train writers the way coaches train athletes. Instead they do it obliquely, one paper, one small barrage of comments at a time.

The whole process is rather clumsy. In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.

Whatever you produce joins dozens of other efforts in a stack whose growing thickness doesn't exactly thrill your professor. But still he'll soldier on and read, and maybe re-read, and mark up and grade each one. Along the way he might leave short contextual notes in the margin; he might write one long critique at the end; he might do both; or he might do neither and let your grade do all the talking.

Trouble is, no matter how detailed and incisive the feedback, by the time it gets back to you it's already too late -- and, in a way, too early. Too late because your paper has already been written, and what you really needed help with was its composition, with the micromechanics of style, with all the small decisions that led you to say whatever it is you said. And too early because even if the professor's ex post pointers make every bit of sense, a whole month might go by before you next get to use them.

This is not the way to develop a complicated skill. It would be like trying to master the violin, say, by going blind to a recital, having an expert tell you all the ways you've failed, and letting that gestate for a few weeks before your next recital.

Presented by

James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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