My Take on Writing Classes (and School in General)

I have always loved learning.

That being said, I have also always hated school.

Individual classes, individual teachers, individual ideas I have enjoyed and gained valuable knowledge from while in a school setting.  But the institution itself?  Loath it.  Despise it.  Repulsed with a vengeance.  Abhor with a passion.  Trust me, college is not for everyone.

Since school has started up again for many people, I thought it would be appropriate to broach the topic of writing classes.  I’ve had a mixed bag when it comes to writing and English classes.  My parents always encouraged reading and writing when I was homeschooled and I had a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Ware, in middle school who was still old-school enough to make us do vocabulary, spelling, and grammar exercises.  (To this day, I can still spell “amalgamate” without help thanks to her.  ^_^)  In high school, my literary highlight was Fiction/Poetry Writing with Mrs. Turner.  I adored that class; it catered directly to my interests.  In fact, where my friends and I sat became known as “the Fantasy Corner” because we were all obsessed with that genre, and with J.R.R. Tolkien’s works in particular.  I learned about different poetic forms and took my first jab at writing short stories, so Fiction/Poetry Writing exposed me to some new writing forms and encouraged my creativity.

But once in college, especially during my first 2½ years, my writing classes devolved disastrously, mostly because my teachers were either incompetent or I simply didn’t like them.  A teacher really can make or break a class.  In my first college class, the teacher accepted anything you wrote, no matter how terrible it was.  I never wrote a finished draft for that class and still got A’s on everything.  A friend of mine even wrote her paper in class, right in front of the teacher, and he still accepted it.   (She got an A on that paper too.)  With such low standards and without having any respect for that teacher, my writing started to slump.  My second English teacher is college was a real witch who was obsessed with Anne Frank.  (Seriously, about 3/4 of the papers written for that class revolved around Anne Frank.)  She was also the first teacher to give me an F on my paper, simultaneously accusing me of plagiarizing because I didn’t paraphrase or cite my sources well enough, and, the parts that were original she said couldn’t be my words because “no one your age can write that well, so you must have plagiarized.”  This was my first taste of short-sighted ignorance in a teacher with regards to my writing and the first time I’d met one who cared more about format than content.

So, between these two teachers, my love of writing became seriously compromised.  I was taught that A) I was too good a writer to be writing original material and B) no one really cared what I wrote or how well I wrote it as long as I turned something in.  It takes more gumption than I’ve got to continue striving at my best and pour effort into something that isn’t going to be appreciated.  While my technical following-MLA-guidelines skills improved, both my content and originality suffered a near-fatal blow.

My third year of college did not help much.  In fact, it only worsened the trend.  I transferred from my 2-year community college to a private Catholic university to focus on a degree in Communications.  I picked that major because I thought it would give me more opportunities for a career than another writing major.  And this university had a good reputation, so I was willing to pay the exorbitant tuition to get a good education.

Boy, was I wrong.  The professors at this reputable, beautiful, expensive college were actually worse than the ones at the community college.  I was taking five classes:  Asian History, Religion (required at all Catholic schools), Media Communications, Personal Writing, and Broadcast Journalism.  Out of these five classes, only two had decent professors (Asian History and Media Communications), and while my Media teacher was amusing and the class fun, the only class where I felt like I really learned something was in Asian History, a class that wasn’t even related to my major!  My Personal Writing teacher was a living incarnation of Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter (frizzy hair, bottle-cap glasses, jangling beaded necklaces, robe-like dresses) and refused to give us any critiques or constructive feedback on our work until the end of the semester when it was too late for us to work on problem areas and improve.  Broadcast Journalism was supposed to be a three-hour class once a week.  We were lucky if we were there for 30 minutes.  I literally did no work in that class and got an A.  And my Religion class was lead by a well-meaning, but woefully unprepared woman who I think was a substitute, or perhaps a student teacher.  I’m sorry, but if I’m going to shell out $30,000 a year, I better damn-side get a top-notch education out of it. But I got a better education (English department notwithstanding) two years previously for a fraction of the cost.

That miserable semester broke me, physically, mentally, financially, and emotionally.  I had a nervous breakdown, told my parents how much I hated my school, and they pulled me out.  I took the spring semester off to recuperate and look for another place to go.  I learned that Communications was not the major for me.  It was too focused on being a reporter, a job that I had neither the interest nor talent for.  I wanted to read and I wanted to write, and the only major that fit that description was English.  I didn’t want to be a teacher, but unless I wanted to be miserable for the next two years, that was the only major I could take and not go insane.

I managed to find a school that would allow me to complete my English degree in two years (most of my credits from the community college transferred; the university’s credits did not), was close enough for me to commute (I steadfastly refused to participate in dorm life), and wouldn’t break the bank:  Penn State Mont Alto  And I really, really wish that I’d had more emotional reserves to take advantage of my time at Mont Alto because they actually have good teachers and good classes.  I had three teachers who I tried to take classes with as often as possible:  Dr. Boon, Dr. Russo, and Dr. Dendle.  These three are geniuses in their field and even when I didn’t agree with them, I still came to deeply respect them.

Alas, I only had Dr. Dendle for two classes, Logic and Medieval Literature, but I was happy to take on the challenge of learning and reading Old English.  Granted, it was just a basic introduction, but it was a fascinating literary experience.  And I thought I was going to dread Logic due to it’s mathematical appearance, but Dr. Dendle made it fun and interesting, especially when he said, right off the bat, “The laws of logic are completely arbitrary.  Just work with the formula and you’ll be fine.  If you try to pick it apart, you’ll find that it won’t make sense, and you’re right. It doesn’t.  Just run with it.”  (This is a loose paraphrase of what he said, but you get the gist.)

Dr. Russo was the one who made me love Shakespeare.  The best kind of teacher is one who is knowledgeable about a subject they are passionate about and they are able to impart that passion and information to others.  Dr. Russo loves Shakespeare and her passion for his work shown through.  We went through his plays, watched different film versions to compare the different takes and techniques used on his work, and we even got to the chance to see Richard II performed live!  (And some of us went back again later to see Henry V. ^_^)  I regret to say that I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked on my papers due to exhaustion, but I am very grateful to Dr. Russo for rekindling my interest in literature.

Dr. Boon was probably the greatest influence on my writing during this period.  I took Screenwriting and Advanced Fiction Writing with him.  I learned a great deal in those two classes, even though Dr. Boon is a plot writer and I’m a character writer, so we approach stories in a very different fashion.  Screenwriting taught me how to write a movie script and how it’s a very different animal than writing a novel.  Everything is so visual and condensed in a script and that really helped my writing.  It forced me to think in cinematic terms and how to pare sentences down to get the best emotional effect.  The best skill Screenwriting taught me was outlining.  Plotting out a story beforehand so you know what scenes you need and the story (almost) writes itself.  It certainly cuts down on the amount of time you spend chasing dead ends.  And Advanced Fiction Writing taught me some new skills regarding short stories; I actually turned out a decent one called “Menagerie.”  I did not recover the same amount of enthusiasm for writing that I had before college, but I did learn some new tricks and techniques to make things easier on myself.  And, as time passes, I can feel my original glee regarding writing return.

So, I guess the moral of the tale is, writing classes can be beneficial, although I always advocate experimenting and writing outside the boundaries of a classroom.  But, if you are thinking about taking a writing class, or want to attend college for writing, here are some things to keep in mind:

1)  Not everyone needs to go to college.  The great myth these days is that you have to have a degree to get a job.  That’s true only in a few cases.  Not everyone has the intelligence, money, or desire to go to college, and you sure don’t need to attend straight out of high school.  Find out what YOU like and what YOU want to do before you make that commitment.   Also, a lot of colleges also offer non-credit courses, so you can always look into that if you just want a few writing classes and not commit into the long haul of college life.

2)  Expensive does not mean better.  Again, I got better education at a community college with a $2,000 tuition than at a major university with a $30,000 tuition.  If you can get education that is as good as or better than an expensive college at a cheaper one, take the cheaper one.  Your bank account will thank you.  And if you later decide to leave college or switch majors, you won’t feel pressured to stay in a major or a college you hate because of the money you’ve already sunk into it.

3)  The teacher can make or break the class.  I suppose this goes for any class:  an intelligent, competent, passionate teacher can make a bad class good and a decent class superb, while a poor one can make a good class dull and a dull class a living hell.  Before you enroll in a writing class, try to meet the teacher, sit in on one of their classes and see if their teaching methods suit you.  If they don’t move on.  Life is too short to spend trapped in tedium.

4)  No class can replace talent and hard work.  To write well, you need both skill and passion.  Skills can be taught, but you must work to master them.  The passion is entirely up to you.  So get to it.


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