To My Students, To Make Much of Time: An Open Letter

You would probably be surprised to know that, in an existential sense, I don’t think my syllabus policies on attendance and behavior are all that important. I, too, am guilty of being late to meetings (although almost never class), whipping out the Blackberry at inopportune times, and missing deadlines; and my personal preference would be to let my students be responsible for their own choices. You are adults, after all, and if you aren’t feeling burning love for English at the half-naked hour of 8 a.m., it’s not my business to give a rip.

Right? Well, not exactly.

In the seats of my classrooms are traditional students living at home, teen parents, full-time night shift workers, returning students, first-generation college students, second-language learners, veterans, ex-gang members, elite athletes, high school dropouts, honors students, and retirees. Some of you are dealing with personal and health challenges; some, even the youngest of you, are heroically supporting yourselves and your families; some of you are strong students who couldn’t afford four-year colleges; some of you are all of the above.

You are making huge sacrifices to be in my class, giving up sleep, hours you could be working, friends you could hang out with if you didn’t have homework, cash for tuition and book expenses, time with your children and families most of all. You’re dragging into my 8 a.m. class in spite of everything, all for the promise that if you keep up with college you’ll have a better life.

When it gets to be mid-semester, like now, the weather is crummy, the workload is increasing, the holidays are looming, and the grades are anxiety-provoking and sometimes disappointing. This time of year, when college becomes less like a photo montage of future successes and more like a slog through the dark and cold to a class that you’re not sure you’re going to need, you sometimes forget why you’re here.

It is my job not to forget. It is also my job to remind you why I’m here. I’m here because English, and particularly writing, is life’s great equalizer. If you can write and communicate, you will be able to achieve your goals; if you can’t, you will have a much harder time. When you become a good writer, it doesn’t matter how you did in high school, what your family is like, what you wear, what kind of car you drive, what color you are, what sins you’ve committed, how much money you have, what lowly position you occupy in the company hierarchy, how cute you look on Saturday night, what you pay for shoes, or where you got your education. If you can write well, you will always sound smarter than you are, and you will always get respect and be heard. And if you can’t write well, you will never get the credit for your intelligence that you deserve.

It is also my job to let you know what it takes to write well: First, practice; second, practice; third, revision; fourth, revision. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explores the careers of extraordinarily successful people, and concludes that it takes 10,000 hours of active, diligent practice to acquire expertise in any skill (the exact number of hours has been debated, but there is near-universal agreement that there is a direct relationship between level of expertise and hours of practice). At this point in your college careers, how many hours have you spent reading and writing? For most of you, the answer is, “Not many.” Given your lack of practice, it’s far too early in your careers to draw any conclusions about what kind of writer you might become: You just need more hours of practice.

If you are the fashionably late type and are doing something during the first five minutes of class that will make as much difference in your life (or someone else’s) as writing, by all means, continue. Otherwise, missing those five minutes at the beginning of every class will make it harder and harder to reach your goals. You’re paying for those five minutes with far more than money, and you could be using them to change your life. The hours you miss will not come back, and people who see you walk in late won’t understand that you deserve a break because you have more than your fair share of demands on your time. They’ll just think of you as the one who’s always late.

Even if you’re always on time, in a typical English course, if you actively, diligently practice, you will spend only around 45 hours on English. If you also do your homework and readings and take the time to apply what you’re learning in English class to your daily life, you’ll make even more progress towards your 10,000 hours. The amazing thing is that you will see so much progress in so little time – if you spend it. Writing is no different from any other skill you practice and learn. Really. These are papers, and we’re not saving lives here…except when we are. If you learn how to write and you commit to revising your writing until you say exactly what you want to say, you will have powers nobody else can give you and that nobody else can take away: the power to give yourself chills, and the power to be heard no matter who you are.


8 thoughts on “To My Students, To Make Much of Time: An Open Letter

  1. Thank you so much for posting this wonderfully thought-provoking essay. It expresses perfectly the conflict I have felt between being the laid back sort I am as a person and the kind of teacher I know I need to be in order to help my students with the discipline they must have to finish their education. The class you describe could be mine — Intermediate English at 8:00 a.m., with exactly the same kind of students and problems that you mention. I am going to keep your essay to remind myself for whom I’m working, and of what I owe to them and to myself.

  2. Yes, it is a well expressed article on a subject that probably all of us teachers have commiserated every semester, when all too many of our students seem to slack off in their attendance, in the handing in of their papers on time, and in having not done sufficient revision to qualify them for the best grades they are more than capable of earning. Although we give our own spiel on this matter at regular intervals in the semester, I think that I shall make a copy of this article and read excerpts of it to my students in the next semester; it was that well expressed, and shows that we truly care about the quality of their future lives. Thank you for sending it on, Jenny.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I shared it with my English Dept. colleagues right before we went on break for Thanksgiving and it really hit home (several commented above . . . and I did let Timnah know that I didn’t write it–even though I wish I had.) I have a feeling this is now circulating Facebook at a rapid rate (I read it when a colleague at another institution posted in on FB) and that just supports your point–the power that writing can have. Thanks again!

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