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What you get when you get a 'W'

rants from the podium

Some of what follows is factual, and some of it is made up, but it is all true.

This kid emails me on the last day of Drop-Add. She goes, “I was enjoying the class but my friend dropped, and she was going to help me write the papers. I’m not good at writing, and...” 

There were some more words, but I’m not sure what they said. My office window burst open, and a great wind whooshed through, clearing the air of book mildew and mouse miasmas.  My lungs filled with oxygen and delivered it to my brain, and I felt that I understood some things for the first time. Honesty is a bracing and rare commodity, and when you get a taste of it, the world feels fresh and real. This is especially true in the Land of Russian Literature, where I live. 

I loved that kid! But I never got to know her. 

My course is “W,” which means that we write “in the discipline.” You guys know this; it’s one of the obstacles, I mean, exciting intellectual opportunities, that you encounter as you make your way through the Trinity curriculum. You need two of these by the end of senior year (if your goals include graduating). So even if you manage to slither out of one before the end of Drop-Add, it still looms in your future, with me or some other gatekeeper standing between you and the credit. Students and professors actually have this in common: you have to take the class, and I (or one of my bros) have to teach it. 

I know that some students think that they’re good writers, and some think that they’re bad writers. Human psychology dictates that the latter attitude predominates. Regular people, including professors, tend to think about their writing this way too. That’s not how I think about you or your writing, though. I know that you want to write a good paper for my class. But you’re not in my class because it’s a good place to turn in a good paper and get an A. You’re in my class because you are interested in the subject matter and because you want to develop your writing into an instrument for conducting thoughts out of your brain into the world, where they can become part of an ongoing conversation. Weirdly, if you think you’re a bad writer, my class is actually a great place for you to spend some time. 

Now here’s the hard part; please sit down. 

I don’t want to read your paper! I don’t want to read bad papers or good papers. I don’t want to read any papers at all. Your paper might overflow with ideas and spark. I might even like it, or learn something from it that I didn’t know before—which is often the case. Your paper may be devoid of adverbs, redundancies, overstatements, passives, theorizing, untethered pronouns, dangling participles, name-dropping, pretension, “AWK”s, and tangents. If it catches me in an unguarded moment, your paper might even wrest from my clutches the rare A+. But honestly, I don’t want to read your paper, or anyone else’s. I want to go pony riding, or to a movie, or out to eat. And if I feel like reading, I’m going to go for Chekhov. He wrote better than you. Better than me, too! He wrote better than just about everyone. And lined up next to him on my walls are people like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They glare down from there, and tease me when I’m hunched over a stack of papers—or, let’s be honest, a stack of scholarly books. They go, hey, what’s that guy saying that I haven’t already said better? They even whine: why aren’t you spending more time with me? 

I read your paper because it’s my job. Duke pays me to read your paper. 

In other words, we’re in this together. There’s no denying the power dynamic at work. You have to make it through this process to get your W. And I have to show up at work. Along the way, though, something worthwhile might happen. You do some thinking and some writing. I read what you write, I do some thinking, and I write something back. Then you write some more. And I read that too and write back. Along the way there might be some question marks and crossings out, even an outburst or two or an exclamation mark. I can only guess how it all feels at your end. Still, if the stars align, we may eventually find that we’re in a real conversation. And things get clearer and clearer. It’s just as simple as that. 

I loved that kid. But I never got to teach her.

Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “rants from the podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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