Isolation Row: Part One

How Team Blogging Inspires Creativity, Reduces Writer’s Block and Helps Treat Various Other Ailments Real and Imaginary.

Both as a college freshman and later when I taught English composition, the writing process was similar. As a freshman you are accepted into a college with an assumption that you can write a coherent sentence, one that includes a subject, a verb in the active voice followed by an object, and uses proper punctuation.

Operating on that assumption, the teachers of college composition are charged with passing on at the end of the semester a class of people who know the traditional formats and rules of expository writing, e.g., narration, description, classification, etc. To help ensure this “no frosh left behind” policy they have students purchase examples of acceptable writing bound into a text called an anthology.

The Anthology

The average anthology is compiled by someone, oftentimes from academia, and includes examples of the “best” expository writing. It is also not uncommon for that academic to be a tenured member of the same college’s English faculty, thus turning each semester’s class of frosh writers into a mini-profit center.

In either case, the average anthology includes excerpts of fiction and non-fiction writing for each type of expository writing. The excerpts are followed by questions about the selection and suggestions for students to follow in writing their own piece.

For example, the class reads Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” and  discusses the “meaning” of the story. For example, What is a white elephant? Why is the couple at a crossroads? What does the man mean by “letting in a little air?” 

By the end of the class, the reading is done. Q & A is done. Now comes the writing. In this case, let’s choose Description.

Teaching versus Creating

When I taught this story and looked out over the sea of teens and discussed their writing assignment, I wondered how many of them had ever sat in a train station in Spain in the middle of summer and tried to convince a friend to have an abortion. I never polled them, but I suspect none.

Which is why I was left with 300 word (always a minimum) descriptions of a dorm room or the college campus or their room back home. What did I expect? If the selection from the anthology was non-fiction, the writing assignment was similar.

So I’d correct the essays for grammar and subject-verb agreement with minimal content editing and move on to the next item on the syllabus. The “creative” side of writing was ignored. If a student really wanted to trudge down that path, they could sign up for advanced writing in their junior year.

Us Against Them

As both student and teacher, I often felt that it was us against them. How did Hemingway, Faulkner, E.B. White, Mark Twain learn to write so well? And why were they in my anthology? Why were their essays examples of good writing and my description of the campus only worth a C+? As a teacher, I wondered how to help students improve their writing.

With apologies to Bob Dylan, I coined “Isolation Row” because as a student seated in a neat line boxed in by my peers I felt removed from any “creative” process. It was sit up straight, read “The Most Dangerous Game,” guess at answers to the questions, and then rack my brain to write a typo-free 300 words. We were isolated from the teacher and our peers and worried that if we missed or exceeded the word limit or tried to wax “creative,” we’d be relegated to the C+ gulag forever. So for the most part, I conformed, both as student and as teacher. After six years as an adjunct instructor, I left, still feeling it was us against them.

Fast Forward.

Starting here this post is about collaborative blogging. Up until about five years ago when a partner and I began developing a program for training virtual teams, I had never collaborated with anyone, especially when it came to writing. That was for a couple of reasons.

The first was that early on anything resembling collaboration could fall under the heading of plagiarizing, to me as a student and to me as an instructor. Trust was not implicit, hence the occasional surprise of the in-class paper where it was just you the blank paper and the ball point pen.

The second was that any kind of idea, style or content exchange could itself be viewed as plagiarism. I can’t imagine what it is like with all the electronic devices, forget about the Web. I suspect nowadays there are many in-class papers.

To be continued.

About Bob McCarthy

Originally from the Northeast, I now call Southwest Florida home. I have been a professional copywriter and editor since 1979, both freelance and in house. I have had article published in regional, national and international magazines. Plus, a video for which I wrote the script won an industry award as Best Training Video.
This entry was posted in Advantages of Teams, Blogging, Collaborative Teams, The Lighter Side of Teams and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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