The Impotence of Teaching

One of the more entertaining moments for me at the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago was the recitation of the following poem — which, if you’re interested in hearing a rendition of (because it really does add a whole other dimension to the experience, and poetry should be heard anyway), you can listen to here on YouTube.

“The the impotence of proofreading” by Taylor Mali

Has this ever happened to you?
You work very, very horde on a paper for English clash
and still get a very glow raid on the paper (like a D or even a D=)
and all because you are the liverwurst spoiler in the whorl wide word.
Yes, proofreading your peppers is a matter of the the utmost impotence.

This is a problem that affects manly, manly students all over the word.
I myself was such a bed spiller once upon a term
that my English torturer in my sophomoric year,
Mrs. Myth — she said that I was never going to get into a good colleague.
And that’s all I wanted — that’s all any kid wants at that age —
just to get into a good colleague.
And not just anal community colleague,
because I am not one of those guys who would be happy at just anal
community colleague.
I need to be challenged, challenged menstrually.
So I bet this makes me sound like a stereo,
but I always felt that I could get into an ivory legal collegue.
So if I did not improvement,
then gone would be my dream of going to Harvard, Jail, or Prison
(you know — in Prison, New Jersey).

So I got myself a spell checker
and I figured I was on Sleazy Street.

But there are several missed aches
that a spell chucker can’t can’t catch catch.
For instant, if you accidentally leave out word
your spell exchequer won’t put it in you.
And God for billing purposes only
you should have serial problems with Tori Spelling,
your spell Chekhov may end up using a word
that you had absolutely no detention of using.
Because what do you want it to douche?
It only does what you tell it to douche.
You¹re the one whose in front of the computer scream
with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit.

So do yourself a flavor and follow these two Pisces of advice:
One: There is no prostitute for careful editing when it comes to your work —
no prostituting whatsoever.
And three: The red penis your friend.

All joking aside, though, many of you have taught or are teaching right now, so this poem will likely strike as uncomfortably close to home for you as it did for me.

Attempting to visit one of my doctors recently, I was pawned off onto a nurse practitioner working toward his advanced degree. After asking me what I did for a living and learning that I was a writer and editor, he told me about an unlikely task he was given by his dissertation advisor: edit master’s candidates’ theses and articles, which were intended to one day make homes for themselves in some medical journals out there. He then proceeded to laugh at the thought that any of these people would get published, because after hours of torturous labor sifting through typos, sentence fragments, comma splices and all the other accoutrement, it became clear to him that — educated as these people were or were supposed to be — they simply lacked the fundamental skills most obtain as early as elementary and junior high school required to communicate properly on the page. So unless they had an editor around the rest of their lives, the dream of one day seeing their research in print would remain just that: a dream.

Frankly, I was horrified — but not the least bit surprised. Americans — from our doctors to our children — seem to be growing dumber by the second, and I don’t think we can really blame the teachers (the good ones, at least). Many of us try to catch these kids and adults up — as I did — to no avail, because our current system is about passing students through to collect $200 again when the desk is filled by a new body regardless of whether people are ready to proceed or not. And even heads of huge companies and corporations know this to be true, which makes the job of succession planning a heck of a lot harder for them. Be honest with yourself if you teach: Can you really imagine one of your students, past or present, successfully filling a CEO’s shoes? If you can, lucky you! That would give me some shred of hope. At CES this year (for any tech geeks who don’t know about this amazing show already), Xerox CEO Ursula Burns emphasized the importance of education; of course, her focus was on science, math, and engineering, but she made a good point when she reminded all of us in the audience that without people who specialize in these particular fields, we’re dead — literally. After all, there’s no one to jump-start a still heart if there are no doctors. (If you’re interested in reading more about what she had to say, here’s a good blog that sums it up.)

But how does any learning occur? Through language, communication, and — of course — part of that is reading. I ran across some information in an article I was editing at work that made me chuckle: Apparently, color printing increases students’ willingness to read, according to the studies. Of course, this could just be another ploy to indirectly advocate for color printing and subsequently advertise the authoring company’s color products, but the real reason I laughed is because putting color images in a textbook doesn’t encourage reading, it encourages viewing — two different things. And even considering the possibility that the reference was to the use of color text, well, perhaps I’m showing my age (though it really wasn’t all that long ago, actually), but I remember a time when the burden of engagement was on the actual content of the text versus the smoke and mirrors of color, pictures and even multimedia; and though I can see how all of these additions can be used well to further engage learners, I’m not sure I agree that they should be the primary methods of engaging learners in the first place — at least not all the time. (And if you really want to be disturbed, visit this link — I dare you.)

Illiteracy is an awful reinforcing cycle, when you really think about it — especially considering every profession truly does require competent written communication to take place: Kids are growing up in front of screens and images instead of pages with words that they have to learn to read and know the rules of, which leads to poor reading and writing skills down the line — especially in the context of deliberate texting misspellings, but don’t get me started on that — which leads to other methods being again required to engage viewers (who are no longer readers), which leads to continued ignorance regarding language and communication, which leads to more ignorant and undereducated people who later have their own — you guessed it — ignorant and undereducated children who, yes, will one day be running the world. And parents are really surprised by things like the Brat Ban Movement, which is basically, as far as I can tell, one way for the public to tell parents that they might have some work to do when it comes to parenting their children, with a measure of rudeness equivalent to (but likely less than) the children’s behavior itself?

Of course, I can’t entirely make the argument that kids are ignorant and out of control because they can’t read — but I can make the argument that kids are ignorant and out of control due to a combination of poor parenting and a culture that both encourages instant gratification and rewards acting out (and even violence) instead of valuing education and communication. I believe there’s something about reading that not only teaches the information intended to be disseminated, but also teaches 1) the proper ways to communicate from a grammatical perspective and 2) good old fashioned patience. And kids can be patient, but only if they’re taught to be so through consistently modeled behavior. Likewise with clear, cogent communication.

One interesting thing I didn’t mention earlier about Taylor: He’s got a personal campaign going on this website, where he’s trying to encourage 1,000 people to become teachers. I’ve been blessed not only with a mother who taught me to read before the age of three, but also fabulous teachers along the way who kept me on the path of education and provided me with the tools I needed to succeed in the workforce. And while the ship has sailed on being a teacher myself for the quite cynical time being — because, short of not awarding degrees until people can properly punctuate sentences, I’m not sure I believe there’s any incentive for people to catch up on communication skills they’re lacking — if you want to take on the task, my deepest respect and thanks — as well as that of my nurse practitioner — go out to you.