FLG picked up a quotation I posted, from Fretful Porpentine, and had a little discussion in three parts about teaching writing, and whether the heart of teaching composition ought to be in sentence-level writing, or in expressing logical thoughts (more or less). Presumably in support of his belief we ought to focus on sentences, FLG also posted a conversation with a classmate, which actually proves that his classmate has been taught to focus too much on grammar instead of on communicating quality ideas effectively.

Anyhow, it reminded me of a thesis defense (undergrad) I once had. I was third reader on the thesis, which was not at all good and clearly required substantial revisions before we would accept it.*

She should not have defended, of course. I have a tendency to let students defend, because:

  • rescheduling a defense at short notice is a big-ass hassle
  • a student who defends without being ready is often under-advised, and the defense becomes a moment when she gets some really good feedback and all three professors can touch base about problems, which the defense question and answer does a good job of diagnosing quite precisely
  • I’ve seen students redeem a bad thesis with a strong defense, and fixes sometimes consist of “re-organize along the structure of your presentation and incorporate everything you just said and the answers to the questions we asked you”

But, anyhow: in addition to needing more research and context, her writing was all over the place—sentences didn’t make sense, word choice was terrible, she had organized the thesis around her evidence, not her ideas, points were made that connected to points established five pages away, etc.** So my recommendation was that she really needed to focus on the structure—nail down what each section was supposed to argue, keep each paragraph focused on a single idea, and then it would be much easier to compose logical sentences, when she knew what she was aiming for. Grammar would come naturally from clear thinking.

My colleague—also a historian, maybe five or ten years older than me but not substantially a different generation—thought the exact opposite. Focus on each sentence, get it grammatical, and that would clarify the ideas and a logical structure would evolve naturally from that.

I still think he’s wrong, of course, particularly for that thesis, but it was interesting to see the gulf.

*Stu Dent did not help her case by giving us a coffeeshop gift card along with the thesis, just before her defense. Not gonna fix a bad thesis, honey.

**I was kinda pissed, because I’d actually taught her in a history class a couple years back. I went back into the typed comments on essays that I had given her then, pulled out feedback that applied to her thesis, and wrote her a nasty letter about how I had already told her she needed to stop making these mistakes—which of course I did not give to her. But it let me blow off some anger, so I was nicer in the defense.