Write To The Point

By David Ruenzel — May 01, 1995 28 min read

In 1988, as a teacher of English, I would sometimes stand at the blackboard drawing funnels, into which my students were to pour words and ideas, like coins into the tin cones at toll-road stops. Downward the words would jiggle and jangle, chasing after one another in descending spirals, finally catching themselves and their meaning at the funnel’s tapered end. This meaning, I told the students--we called it the thesis statement--should have weight, gravitational pull, its import sinking into the essay’s murkiest depths.

If you’re over 30 and have taken high school composition, you probably know what I’m talking about--you’ve seen the funnel and have poured your own words and ideas into it. Maybe you were a 9th grader assigned a topic, on pets, say, and spilled out an opening generalization such as, “Dogs make better pets than cats.’' Maybe, as your thought narrowed downward, you tumbled out something like, “Dogs, people-loving as they are, make good companions.’' Then, for your thesis statement, maybe you strung the ideas and words together into something like, “Dogs make better friends than independent-minded cats and hence make much better family pets.’'

In subsequent years, you may have poured your thoughts about Hamlet or the causes of the Great Depression into the funnel, but the funnel itself never much changed, though if you liked writing and were a bit of a rebel, you may have tried turning it on its head so that it became a megaphone through which you could blare your frustrations. But by and large, you gave in, for your teacher presented the funnel as an eternal verity. Besides, you were graded upon your allegiance to it. Your teacher may have even transposed that funnel over your paper, and if your words did not fill out that shape, if your thesis statement did not settle in at the bottom, your paper was most likely headed for trouble.

You probably didn’t like any of this very much, but you accepted it nevertheless; after all, the funnel was just part of the status quo, as was the topic sentence (one at the beginning of each paragraph!) and conclusion (restate that thesis!). At least this was how I as a teacher saw it until one day the school headmaster asked me if I were giving my students enough “ownership.’' He had seen an essay I had graded--a disgruntled student had brought it to his attention--and wondered if my criticisms didn’t conspire to make the essay mine rather than hers. If the student revised the paper to my specifications, its ownership would transfer from her to me, like a deed for a piece of property.

I thought then, as I do now, that ownership was a spurious concept when applied to writing. You can own a car, or a house, but owning writing--at least good writing--was a sheer impossibility. To say to a student, “You own this writing, these ideas, these feelings’’ is to encase the student in private powerlessness. The good writer, like the good parent, can only send his or her work out into the world with the hope that it will live a productive but necessarily independent life. And should the work “misbehave’'--that is, should it be perceived in unintended ways--the writer can but shrug his or her shoulders before proceeding to the next project.

As an undergraduate in a required English literature class, I once tossed off an essay that I knew was as vacuous as it was pretentious. I had expected that the instructor, a petite woman with a tiny voice, would be intimidated by my shameless presumption. But the paper was returned with only one comment: “D-, this is a con-job.’' There was not so much as a scribble on the rest of the paper, and it was clear to me that she wanted no ownership of my essay; it was mine, all mine. I began to work at writing for the first time, and as my essays improved, her comments, her praise, her criticism became expansive, even voluminous. As the semester progressed, it occurred to me that my better writing was hers as well as mine and that the only thing I would ever have sole ownership of was not worth having.

Ten years later, I wrote “This is a con-job’’ on the essay of a gifted but extremely lazy boy. Essentially, I was saying, “This is not done to my expectations and therefore not worth owning.’' But he was hurt, indignant, and I had to apologize. For in the new educational climate, it seemed that every platitude and pomposity was worth owning as long as it came from the heart.

By 1985, “ownership’’ had become a staple of what the whole world now knows as “process writing.’' It’s impossible to say just what percentage of schools now utilize process-writing strategies, as no one has done a statistical analysis. But anyone who reads through textbooks and talks to teachers is likely to get the impression that process writing has become so widely accepted that it’s disappeared as an alternative pedagogy: At many schools, it seems, process writing and the teaching of writing are one and the same.

Millie Davis of the Urbana, Ill.-based National Council of Teachers of English told me that although there are yet a few isolated pockets where no one has heard of process writing, it is nevertheless a movement that has swept the nation. “The belief that writing is a process of discovery and not a product is accepted almost everywhere,’' Davis said. “You won’t find a textbook anywhere that doesn’t speak to process writing, and this has all been accomplished within the last five years. The emphasis on pre-writing, revision--you’ll see this across the board.’'

To say that writing is a process is almost tautological: How could the act of thinking through one sentence after the other be anything but a process? But by “process,’' the godparents of this movement--Janet Emig, Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Ann Berthoff, and others--intend much more than thinking. They talk less of analysis than they do of self-discovery, enthroning writing as an expressive act. Writing, as one early proponent put it, “signaled the self.’'

Sometimes these theorists perceive clarity, once the writer’s most indispensable ally, as an enemy, for the writer who is overconcerned with it would have a hard time learning “to accept the mercurial conditions of discovery’’ (Donald Murray) or “living with chaos’’ (Ann Berthoff). The key thing, as Peter Elbow put it in his 1981 Writing With Power, was to prime the pump, to “create words and ideas out of yourself’'; trying to get it right the first time was “the dangerous method.’'

This notion of “inner exploration’’ and ownership has been a cornerstone of process writing from its beginnings in the early 1970s. And with each passing year, more and more books on writing have taken this slant. One book I picked up recently was titled In Your Own Voice: Using Life Stories to Develop Writing Skills. An earlier book by this same author, Bernard Selling, was titled Writing From Within.

Of course, the funnel has no place in the process-writing mind-set--words cannot flow quickly enough through the tapered end. The idea of working slowly but steadily, so that each well-chosen word might summon forth another, now seems passé. Speed in the first draft (and in the second, or even the third) is the rule, the writer rushing forward with little thought of looking back. The funnel has become a sieve, words flowing onto the page or into journals. This is fluency, and fluency leads to voice, and although no one can say exactly what voice is, it clearly ties into the whole idea of ownership. Students express their feelings, their ideas, though feelings are usually a lot more important than ideas. “In teaching process,’' Donald Murray writes, “we look not at what students need to know but at what they need to experience.’'

The new cry is “stay out of the way and let them write’'--which is essentially Peter Elbow’s message in his book Writing Without Teachers. And if the students appear confused, or beg their teachers to tell them what to do, this is because they have been wounded by pathological writing teachers, who drench their papers in red ink. Students are so fix-ated with correctness that paralysis has set in; they are, well, “blocked.’' What else would stop them from producing the stuff of literature? After all, as Murray puts it, “Man has a primitive need to write.’' To which a skeptic may respond, “Man has a primitive need to do mechanical engineering.’'

Of all the pathologies, the worst is the teaching of the five-paragraph essay, which consists of a funneled introductory paragraph (“what’s your idea and why is it important’’), three body paragraphs (“support and develop your idea’’), and a concluding one (“tell me the idea again’’). It is, as critics portray it, the Hoover Dam of composition teaching, fatally obstructing the creative flow.

In the 1971 book The Writing Processes of Twelfth Graders, a groundbreaking work that process-writing advocates still cite today, author Janet Emig wrote that the five-paragraph theme “is so indigenously American that it might be called the 50-Star Theme,’' behind which we might hear “Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America’ or the piccolo obligato from ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’ ''

In a less sardonic vein, Emig claimed that the five-paragraph essay, like so much else in the teaching of composition--she particularly cites “the persistent pointing out of specific errors in student themes’'--is a “neurotic activity.’' It was no accident that she chose the word “neurotic,’' for process-writing adherents like to appropriate psychoanalytical terms. As Elbow writes of the writing process, “I am implying a roughly Freudian depth psychology made of a murky unconscious pool of powerful, threatening energy.’' The good writing teacher, like the good analyst, Murray writes, is “not a judge but a physician. His job is not to punish but to heal.’'

In a 1983 essay, Emig echoed the psychoanalytical-cum-quasi-religious view of the writing process. “All other writers of whom I know convey . . . not only awareness that there is an unconscious actively performing in all their writing but a belief--more, awe--in its importance, efficacy, and power.’' Her advice to the writer is the by-now-familiar, “When mute, or in doubt, start generating words on the page.’'

The implication is that bad writing teachers are as pathologically restrictive as the dictator of a small country, damning the unconscious of their students with five-paragraph themes. Their teacher-centered presentation of composition, Emig wrote, “is pedagogically, developmentally, and politically an anachronism.’'

Thanks in part to the efforts of critics like Emig, the five-paragraph essay has, with a few notable exceptions, slipped from favor, consigned, with tattered out-of-date textbooks, to the classroom shelf. Nevertheless, many English teachers--even many of those devoted to process-writing strategies--still assign topics, encourage their students to use “icons’’ like the funnel, and fastidiously correct writing errors. Are these teachers living in a time warp, engaging in what Emig refers to as “anachronistic’’ methodology? Or do their teaching practices rest on a solid foundation, a foundation that some seem all too eager to topple in the quest for creative expression?

If teachers were writers themselves, process-writing advocates like to say, the five-paragraph essay never would have made its way into the educational mainstream. Marjorie Stelmach, a 25-year veteran English teacher at Missouri’s Ladue Horton Watkins High School, located in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, disagrees. Stelmach is the 1994 recipient of the prestigious Marianne Moore poetry prize and is also a staunch defender of the teaching of the five-paragraph essay. In fact, the five-paragraph essay and the many traditional teaching techniques that go with it have been staples at Ladue for decades. Yet the teachers at the school are far from reactionaries. And their students have strong notions about what it means to have “voice.’'

“We’re brutal,’' Stelmach told me of the demands Ladue teachers place upon their students. “There’s more of my ink on their first drafts than theirs. And we often give them D’s. They expect it; they know we function that way. They’re then expected to go through the paper, put check marks next to what they understand, and bring in questions on what they don’t understand. They’ll ask, ‘What do you mean I didn’t connect this point to an earlier one?’ We’ll talk them through it. Their grade on the final draft will sometimes go up to an A. They’re so immersed into the system of write, conference, rewrite that we write a lot of suggestions even on creative papers: ‘Can you turn this summary into a scene? Why did you drop a symbol you earlier introduced?’ ''

Students at Ladue can take elective courses in poetry and fiction writing, but the essay is the queen bee to which students attend like so many drones. The point, as one teacher put it, “is to get some of the voice out of the writing, so that students can get an objective sense of just what they’re doing.’'

From the time they’re sophomores, at which point they take the school’s standard composition course, Ladue students are taught the five-paragraph literary analysis paper. Each student’s “cookie cutter thesis,’' Stelmach says, is typically rejected by the teacher four or five times before it’s finally approved so that the student can proceed. The whole procedure is almost the mirror opposite of a pure process-writing approach, in which the student ideally discovers meaning through the act of writing and repeated revision: “You can’t know what you mean until you hear what you say’’ is the process teacher’s rallying cry. But at Ladue, the question is something akin to: “How can I write an essay if I don’t know what I want to say?’'

Emig charges that this ironclad structure makes writing an uninspired, mechanical act; words and sentences are teeth and gears, each meshing with the other until the pendulum in the grandfather clock finally swings. Stelmach and the other Ladue teachers would hardly take issue with this characterization. The department’s writing philosophy is spelled out in a handout titled “Manifesto or something’’ that talks a lot about the outline, the funnel, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Stelmach’s own handout to students, a sort of step-by-step manual for the construction of theses statements and paragraphs, is just as regimented. She lists, for example, six thesis-statement trouble spots (such as “It’s too general’’ or “too specific’’), instructions for “An All-Purpose Introduction: The FUNNEL,’' and the “All-Purpose Transition List--Help Yourself.’'

Critics find this kind of cookbook approach oppressive: It’s a long shot from the student-initiated writing they say is so necessary to ownership.

But the Ladue teachers are dubious about the whole concept of ownership, and Stelmach seemed exasperated when I told her that some would see her department’s methods as damaging to students. “First of all,’' she said in a whispering pique, “I was hired as an expert, a teacher. I have great concern for my students’ continuous improvement. I don’t care about the paper, only the writer of the paper. I want them to leave school with voice and a set of skills that will serve them well. I hope I have a lot of variety in my response to literature, and I want my students to have a diversity of responses, too. So not all of my assignments are five-paragraph themes: ‘Here’s your thesis, prove to me you’re right.’ And if you don’t want rigidity, you have to point out quirky use of language. Sometimes they’re not even aware of how unusual what they’ve written is because, after all, how much do they read? I have to encourage any felicitous use of language.

“Besides, why are we so afraid of imposing? A quote I cling to is, ‘Everything great molds us from the moment we become aware of it.’ One of my tasks as a teacher is to have my students become aware of greatness, providing them with a range of models of greatness so they’ll become aware of it.’'

Stelmach’s comments about “models of greatness’’ touched on something I have always found troublesome about the process-writing approach: the peculiar neglect of models as something that can inform students’ writing. The newer process-oriented textbooks like to provide snippets of authors talking about the composing process--how they revise, how they feel while writing, how they prefer writing in the morning or night--but disdain presenting the actual work of these writers at any length. The assumption seems to be that feeling like a writer is more important than learning from established works.

That modeling, namely the emulation of established writers, should fall out of favor was an inevitability in a movement that wanted students to strive for originality. Yet it is dubious that anyone can write anything without having some model in mind. If students aren’t provided with models of good writing, it’s likely that they’ll simply appropriate models from popular culture. What teacher has not wrinkled his or her nose at journal entries that read like advertising copy or reflections coined in the Oprah confessional mode?

Still, even if teachers accept the need for good models, why should they wed themselves to something like the five-paragraph approach, which, as even Stelmach acknowledged, does not exist outside of school?

Why emphasize a form of writing so blatantly artificial?

The Ladue English teachers see the five-paragraph essay as a starting point. Their hope is that students will grow beyond it, though their “Manifesto or something’’ acknowledges that it’s “a standard some will cling to through high school and even through college.’' But more significant is the teachers’ belief that the five-paragraph essay, because it features a thesis that must be supported by concrete examples, is a kind of X-ray device through which students can view, and thereby improve, their thinking processes.

“It helps them organize their thought so that there’s content, real content,’' Stelmach said. “They can see themselves when they’re BSing, which we tease them about a lot. ‘This is total BS,’ we’ll tell them. ‘You do it well, but there’s nothing here.’ Also, many students won’t spend their lives writing, but they will spend their lives presenting. They’ll have to say, ‘Here’s the second and third reason, and here’s why it matters,’ and that’s essentially the five-paragraph essay. In stories, there are beginnings, middles, and ends. We didn’t come up with that because we like the number; it happens to reflect the way ideas are developed. We spend our lives telling stories, and people who tell stories use beginnings, middles, ends. If we teach them the order of presentation, it will serve them well, whether they’re addressing the PTA or making a presentation to the boss.’'

While student writers at Ladue have to meet exacting criteria--a student checklist contains some 41 items--department chairwoman Pat Noland said teachers rarely, if ever, give lessons on grammar and mechanics. “I myself have never done a lesson on comma rules or sentence structure,’' she said. “Three-fourths of the class would fall asleep. We hit on these things constantly but only with kids in individual conferences.’'

The conference system is what Stelmach and others called “the bedrock of the writing program.’' Classes meet three days a week; the other two days are reserved for conferences, during which teachers and students wend their way through rough drafts.

At a conference I sat in on, teacher Melissa Gurley constantly urged the student writer of a philosophy paper to clarify her intentions, asking if there weren’t more precise alternatives to the oft-repeated “good’’ and “bad’’ and if a reference to the 1950s wasn’t somewhat of a Leave It To Beaver stereotype. But issues of style, mechanics, and sentence structure were touched on, too, in a manner that was both solicitous and matter-of-fact. “Are you aware of the difference between the passive and active voice?’' the teacher asked the student. “It’s like saying, ‘We were shown a table by a cute guy at a restaurant’ versus ‘A cute guy at the restaurant . . . .’ ''

As Emig and others have frequently noted, the teaching of writing is all too often a tug of war between prescriptive teachers and reluctant students. But the experiences of the Ladue teachers and their students suggest that the problem may lie less with prescriptive teachers than with the anonymity that has typically characterized the teacher-student relationship. Essays swimming in red ink summarily returned to students can have all the impact of an IRS audit. But the one-on-one conference undermines teacher aloofness. It creates a relationship between student and teacher that ideally parallels the one between writer and reader.

At least this was the impression I had as I talked with Ladue students and read their essays--essays in which they and their teachers engaged in a repartee that zigzagged through the margins. On one paper, for example, Stelmach questioned a student’s factual assertion with, “Really? My memory’s slipping,’' to which the student, proven correct, triumphantly responded, “Checked it, hate it when you’re right!’' Further on, when another of her queries proved off the mark, the author wrote, “Two strikes, Stelmach!’' Halfway through the paper, Stelmach scrawled, “Still going strong’'; the student’s riposte: “Should I stop here?’'

The opening line of another essay read, “Many marital disputes stem from miscommunication, whether the man says something that comes out wrong or the woman interprets the statement incorrectly.’' Above this, Pat Noland had written, “ALWAYS?’' The student, sticking to his guns, responded with, “Not true, Mrs. N., you interpreted it incorrectly.’' The substantially rewritten final draft began with the same sentence, which Noland let pass without comment.

The point is that students given prescriptive writing tasks aren’t necessarily hammered into submission, though process-writing advocates like to suggest that this is almost invariably the case. While Ladue students implement many of their teachers’ suggestions, they sometimes take forceful issue with others. Interestingly enough, they also begin to question the conventions in which they have been indoctrinated, indicating a real stretching of the writer’s muscle. In an analysis of her own writing, a stubborn student protested her teacher’s insistence that she work on her conclusions so that they better restate the thesis. “I still see no point in the conclusion,’' she wrote. “If you don’t understand what I’m trying to say by then, you aren’t going to.’' She also objected to her teacher’s complaints about choppy sentence structure: “You tell me to be clear. You tell me to be complex. What do you want?’'

Students, it seems, learn less in the absence of restrictions than in response to them, as was made abundantly clear to me by members of an Advanced Placement English class at Ladue. The five-paragraph essay, they said, had been “shoved down our throats.’' Yet they also noted that working within a consistent structure had enabled them to progress as writers. It was no fun writing an essay until 3 a.m., they said, yet the final product was a lot better than “the Zen and New Age writing’’ their friends at other schools did. “We do real stuff here, writing that has a purpose,’' one student said. “I personally think you should learn to use formats and conventions, or you simply won’t know what you’re doing.’'

Sarah Morize, a red-headed girl with a prankish demeanor, showed me her King Oedipus essay upon which Noland had written, “Good writing style, which often makes up for a lot. However, it’s nice to have arguments and analogies. They are our friends.’' Sarah laughed and said that despite all the structure--the embedded quotations, the purposeful transitions, the pat topic sentences--it was still possible for her to “put my little fun into it--alliteration, interesting words, Bulgarian page numbers.’' Other students agreed, providing examples of how they had put “riffs’’ and “snide zingers’’ into their papers. Still, Sarah said, “You can’t be creative all the time. You have to say something of substance.’'

But many of their essays were creative, and I got the impression that this creativity was achieved not in spite of the conventions that had been foisted upon them but because of them. Structure and insight existed side by side. Here, for example, is a bit from an essay about the protagonist in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man: “The new light of his soul is not harsh, like sunlight (a symbol of salvation in the church), but soft and telling. . . . Religion’s white and pure light has left him, for he knows that life contains passion and color.’' And here is a thesis statement from an essay on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.’' The story demonstrates, the student wrote, “that an ongoing human conflict exists between our reluctance to participate in acts of violence and the deep pleasure we take in the anticipation of such acts--as long as they victimize only others.’'

Of course, these are talented upperclassmen, and their work is in a different universe from that of students taking “Formula Writing,’' a class mainly for remedial students at Ladue. During the lesson I attended, these remedial students wrote paragraphs on topics such as “The Stupidity of School Rules’’ and “If I Had Three Days To Live.’' On a blackboard was the formula, which in part read: “general statement-specific-extender.’'

The students were to produce three paragraphs during class, and they wrote them with breathtaking speed, blazing back and forth from their computers to teacher Bill Heyde, who would offer a few suggestions (such as “get rid of all the ‘to be’s’ '') and then check off the assignment in his grade book. Most of the themes read something like this: “Despite popular myth, marijuana, though not so harmful as other drugs, is still quite harmful. This powerful drug can kill brain cells, though the exact number is not documented. One can be mentally addicted to marijuana . . . .’'

This kind of writing, so condemned by those critical of traditional teaching methods, makes no attempt to rise above sheer functionality. Yet as far as Ladue English teachers are concerned, functionality--and who’s to say that these remedial students will not rise above it?--is no vice. All writing has a functional aspect, as even aspiring novelists must remember as they construct their plots.

I was surprised to learn that one girl in the formula writing class was an AP student taking the class as an elective. Why on earth, I asked her, would she decide to take a class of the most remedial sort?

“In a way, it’s a bit strange to be here and see everything so broken down, yet it’s helped me a lot,’' she said. “It’s forced me to take a look at the basic structures of language, at how words, sentences, and paragraphs are put together--things I haven’t seen since the 8th grade when I was really too young to think about them.’' She paused, perhaps trying to formulate a thesis statement of sorts, and then said, “Here they care about you learning to write before they worry about how you feel.’'

In The Writing Processes of Twelfth Graders, Janet Emig devoted an entire chapter to a student named Lynn who, in spite of her obvious intelligence, is portrayed as a writing machine that punches out themes like payroll checks. As far as process-writing advocates are concerned, Lynn is every high school student who has been damaged by the interventionist teaching of writing; she can best be healed by reconnecting with the “inner self.’'

It’s apparent that for Lynn, writing is no more important--and perhaps considerably less important--than the myriad of other activities she’s engaged in as an ambitious teenager. When asked to write, Lynn, according to Emig, typically begins without hesitation, making her way to the conclusion in a left to right, “marching through Georgia’’ manner. Revision, if done at all, is cursory; once into the material, she does not, Emig noted, “go outside [the theme] again to consider another route in.’'

For Emig, and for so many subsequent commentators, this is a problem: They want students like Lynn to think of writing as something of critical and even revelatory importance. But it simply isn’t, and for this they posit reasons. In Lynn’s case, Emig suggested, the problem is writer’s block, though she gives it an unusual twist. It’s not that Lynn actually has writer’s block but that she is not permitted to have it and hence produces only functional essays on demand. Adult writers, on the other hand, are permitted blocks, and the working through of these blocks is what allows them to produce meaningful writing.

Emig suggested that Lynn is out of touch with her emotions, “discomfited by her difficulty in expressing feelings, both in speaking and in writing.’' She does not keep a journal. She does not like talking about herself. She may not have a writer’s block--her teachers won’t allow it--but she does have an emotional block, condemning her writing to superficiality.

But the assumptions Emig made about Lynn’s writing difficulties, reflecting the assumptions that process-writing apostates are making today, are highly questionable.

For one thing, it is not the least bit clear that writers like Lynn have difficulties. Indeed, the examples provided of Lynn’s writing demonstrate skill and even creativity. In “Terpsichorean Greetings,’' for instance, Lynn observes the reactions of guests to a cardboard statue of Snoopy “dancing’’ in a living room that otherwise has an academic air. When her boyfriend characterizes the statue as “gauche,’' Lynn writes, “You and all the others will never observe Snoopy’s credo ‘To dance is to live; to live is to dance.’ There are very few dancers in my world.’' The writing here, as elsewhere, is at least adequate, and the only difficulties seem to be those of Emig, who wants the teenager’s work to be more emotionally intense.

Also curious is the suggestion that the ease with which Lynn writes is a handicap. While it’s true, as the process-writing movement likes to assert, that some “real’’ writers constantly revise and agonize over what they’re trying to say, it’s also true that at least an equal number of “real’’ writers approach writing as an artful expediency rather than as a soulful struggle. They would have agreed with Samuel Johnson, who once remarked, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money.’' These writers need to know what works in fairly short order, as they do not have, nor even want, the luxury of endless drafting. There are bills to pay and deadlines to meet, and they know that there are limits to how long someone will wait for a script, a brochure, or an article. Yet the process-writing advocates sometimes talk as if all our students were destined to become brooding novelists or confessional poets.

But the most damaging aspect of Emig’s analysis of Lynn’s writing is her assumption that Lynn, well-adjusted as she obviously is, would nevertheless benefit if she only expressed what she was really feeling. So influential and long-lasting has this analysis been that some teachers have come to equate writing with deep feeling, the most “sincere’’ students winning the most approval.

Emig, it’s true, was writing at a time when the student was encouraged to virtually obliterate the “self’’ in favor of authorial anonymity. A correction was necessary. But her book is almost 25 years old now, and in light of our national Zeitgeist, it seems as if it is those pushing ownership who are today anachronistic. For our students, like almost everyone else in our therapy-driven culture, have bought into the primacy of the much-ballyhooed inner life, and we have discovered that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Self-centered whining, a banal fixation upon how I’m feeling, and personal opinions disconnected from anything going on in the outside world--these are the consequences of ownership, of our collective turn inward. You can hear echoes of it in those classroom discussions that go something like, “Well, it’s only my opinion, but this is how I really feel.’'

Virginia Woolf once received a letter from a young man asking her how he could best prepare himself to become a great poet. Her response, later printed as an essay titled “A Letter to a Young Poet,’' said the very worst he could do was to sit in a darkened room, meditating over the light of a candle. Open the blinds, was the essence of her advice, look out at the men and women in the street.

The Woolf essay came to mind recently as I sat in on an English class at University High School in Urbana, Ill. I watched as seniors ranged through towering stacks of 3-by-5-inch notecards. They had been researching topics of a social and political nature for five months, a project that had begun with a perusal of back issues of The Congressional Quarterly.

It was now the last day of school before spring break, but they showed no signs of battle fatigue. They were honing their written arguments like trial attorneys. In another two months, before the entire school, they would debate their chosen issues, and no one could afford to be ill-prepared. They had combed through obscure journals in the university library, interviewed representatives from the FBI and the American Civil Liberties Union, and zoomed in and out of databases with alphabet-soup acronyms. They had looked outward, and they had spotted something on the intellectual horizon that they wanted to pursue.

Later, over lunch, their teacher, Adele Mazurek-Suslick, told me about an odd painting she had once seen in an art museum of a bird flying in circles over the ocean, apparently uncertain where to go. That is like the writer without a purpose, she said, and while a teacher can never tell student writers exactly where to go, the teacher can at least present specific destinations and then show students just what they might do to get there.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Write To The Point