Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Breaking the Rules

One of the fun things about the early part of the semester is talking to first year writing students about breaking the rules they've been taught.

Five paragraph essays? Break that rule! Write ten paragraphs! Go wild! Develop your ideas.

Starting sentences with "and" or "but"? Go for it!

Using "I" or "you" in essays? Go for it!

Some students get into the idea of breaking rules, and some look concerned. After all, they've learned these rules, followed them, and succeeded by doing so (they made it to college, right?), and now I'm telling them the old rules just won't work.

I'm not just about breaking rules, really, because these aren't really rules; they're fake rules imposed by people who needed some control, usually some minimum standards. If you require five paragraph essays, then you don't get someone handing in three sentences and pretending it's an essay.

But in college, we get to push beyond the minimums, so no more five paragraph essays. Instead, we ask students to take on the much harder task of communicating rhetorically, of working to communicate more fully while mindful of their audience. And that's much harder, and requires lots of judgment.

So it's also scary, because students shouldn't necessarily trust their judgment right off. And because while we can try to make them aware of some of the new rules and limits, we don't even think about some of them.

Serif or sans serif fonts. I like serif fonts for essays, but it's not like I'd beat someone for a different choice, right? But what if I'm subtly influenced?

And maybe a student wants to break away from the standard looking serif font? Then do I as a reader "get" that? Do I see it as intelligently, strategically working against expectations, or do I see it as an unnecessary distraction in communication?

It's not enough to break the rules. Students have to learn which rules to break, and when to break them meaningfully.

It's an exciting, challenging time here.


  1. Sadly, they ask you about page numbers and those questions because there are people out there who refuse/fail papers over stuff like that. Believe me, I've been there.

  2. i think it is great they are enthused and asking questions!

    one of the *huge* disappointments of my daughter's first year -- which overall, was good for her -- is that she blew off her 8 a.m. writing class. it just kills me, because she can write, and this was a chance to do better. and, how hard is it to set the alarm? and -- i don't care if she thinks she knows how to write already, she has to prove it to her university, and she needs to learn things from this class.

    so, she is taking it over again. hopefully, with a better attitude, at a better time, and with an instructor who is more like you -- aiming students at the edges of the envelope, getting them to think and consider instead of just following rules.

    this probably is of no help to you, but as a mom, i want my kid to get excited about learning to communicate in a better way. also, i hope that this year she goes and meets more profs in office hours.