In the first four weeks of the course, we lose a few students. The course looks stranger and stranger to them, their work looks worse and worse, they cannot see a future, and they flee. Typically the students we lose have been raised on courses in which serious, sequential, and productive industry has supplanted actual learning: the syllabus in such a course provides a program of progress with tasks to be performed at each step, the tasks require exertion and suffering which the student can recognize, and the products of suffering can be marked up and graded. By contrast, in this course, students spend the first several weeks trying to become comfortable with the concept of inhabiting a conceptual stand and writing from it, and they do not acquire this concept easily or in visible pieces. In the first month, their efforts typically show little progress and they can become frustrated at the lack of tricks for improving their work. Should they revise this sentence? No. Should they work on their vocabulary? Maybe; it depends. What should they do with this essay, to which they have dedicated their time? Well, observe its stylistic stand, lay it aside, try to inhabit the style, and start over from scratch in the attempt to write from that stand.
It is possible to teach prose style through a program of explicit steps and tricks, and this method does create a feeling of success, but in our experience it is an illusion that fails, in the end, to produce the right results.
We do not know of a way to speed up this initial period or make it less confusing. We keep the student working, we offer examples, we give initial assignments designed to allow the student to get a foothold, we discuss the concept of style. We say, “Think about it for a minute. Do you really expect to be able to acquire a style, or even a part of a style, in a couple of weeks, by using these words instead of those words, that paragraph structure instead of this, or in any way making some little adjustments in what you already do? People teaching themselves have been delighted to learn classic style after working on it for a decade, while this class is going to make you a basic classic stylist in fifteen weeks. If you were trying to learn to hurdle, you would expect to spend at least a month before you looked like a hurdler instead of a goose flopping over the bar. Patience.” This is just too bizarre for some students.