We teach this course, in this way, because the results are miraculous. We find it hard to believe it ourselves. When asked to describe the results, we lie, afraid of looking self-deceived. Privately, we use words like “inexplicable” and “magic.”

This course is incomparably gratifying for the teacher. Students whose writing was embarrassing in the past, who wrote the kind of paper that makes the Freshman writing instructor sigh with despair before correcting some spelling and scribbling “awk” here and there, become passable writers. They still write “it’s” for “its,” but that is a flaw they can fix easily and locally, and which they now have a motive to fix since they can recognize it as a blemish on something basically sound. Average students become good stylists, even though in some cases it takes three months. All of the students learn to analyze the style of a passage presented to them. There are always a few students in the class whose work becomes absolutely distinguished, publishable, a portfolio for launching a career. The greatest surprise for us is the student whose writing goes from truly terrible to truly superb, who produces work we would have thought permanently out of his reach. We ask in office hours, “What happened?”

There comes a gratifying moment in about the twelfth or thirteenth week of the semester when we announce that we will start each class with readings from student work. We read these fine pieces one after another, and the class as a whole judges its collective performance to be breathtaking. The individual students write in their sketchbooks and in private email, “I thought I was the only one who had made the jump.”

In fact, the improvement is clearly too large to be the result of fifteen weeks of study. We imagine that much of it comes from clearing away impediments to hidden abilities.

How the Course Works