My Secret Life as a Fourth Grader

[addendum: this course is no longer available on Coursera]

Quite by accident, I found myself taking a Freshman Comp course.

How does one do that by accident? I noticed a tweet by one of the behind-the-scenes guys from my Calculus course, promoting his latest project: WexMOOC, the system attached to Coursera’s “Writing II: Rhetorical Composing” class. I didn’t realize it was the second half of Freshman Comp (I thought it was the actual study of rhetorical devices), but since I spent 15 weeks in Calculus whining “I’m a words person, not a numbers person,” I figured it was only fair I put up or shut up. I was also very curious about just how a computer would evaluate the writing of 25,000 students, and the only way to really find out was to take the course – to let it evaluate mine.

This generated a great deal of anxiety: what if I flunk? It’s one thing to risk a fail at calculus. Flunking writing is a whole different matter, ego-wise.

I do lots of things that aren’t acceptable in Freshman Comp. For instance, I digress, which is capital-b Bad unless you’re David Foster Wallace. But it’s how I think; it’s what makes writing feel like flying, and clipping my wings for writing class becomes like the last time I tried to sing, which is also like flying, in a choir, which is also like clipping my wings: most of the music was terrific, but after a while the director got on my case about my vibrato, and suddenly I couldn’t wait to get home from choir practice so I could sing and fly in my living room, which defeats the purpose of singing in a choir. But choir directors – and Freshman Comp teachers – don’t care about flying. Digressions = Bad.

I also nest parentheticals (one of the reasons I love Vi Hart is, she nests all over the place [sometimes dual nests, one on the audio, one on the video] and not only does she not apologize for it, it’s become – along with digression – one of her trademarks). However, in Freshman Comp, parentheticals, especially nested parentheticals, are Evil.

Punctuation is another mode of flight Freshman Comp teachers don’t like, unless they’ve changed since I last took a Freshman Comp course, which was, admittedly, some time ago. Back when the USSR was still the Evil Empire, in fact. Semicolons seem to be a bad thing, though I don’t understand why; they’re perfect when you want a little break in rhythm somewhere between a period and a comma. Em-dashes make teachers – and editors and online workshoppers – sad. In fact, most punctuation aside from periods, commas, and quotation marks, are quite stigmatized. You can use one exclamation point per 10,000 words (or 5,000 or page, the point is, they’re rationed, and that’s why I love Zin). Colons precede lists and lists alone, and only if you have a very good reason for a list. And speaking of lists, the Oxford comma makes Freshman Comp people downright surly, even though it’s functional, occasionally necessary, and historically proper.

Screw that. I want to fly. But I also wanted to see how WexMOOC works. One must sacrifice sometimes for Knowledge.

After poking around WexMOOC a while, I realized the computer is more of an organizer than an evaluator in this course. It would store our assignments, and manage the horrendous logistics of peer-evaluation, a mainstay of MOOC humanities courses. It would make sure each essay was read and evaluated anonymously by a set of other students from a range of experience and ability levels, and thus be a lot better than a message board rating system where, just like in high school, some people end up more popular than others and it has nothing to do with quality.

At least, that’s what I thought – until WexMOOC told me I write like a fourth-grader.*

The first assignment, which would not be peer-evaluated unless we re-posted it elsewhere, was a wide-open invitation to discuss how we felt about some aspect of writing or literacy. Since I’d just had a crisis of confidence following the Initial Course Survey (yes, basic demographic stuff is terrifying when it includes rating yourself as a writer from weak to strong), I used that experience as the core of my 800-to-1000 word essay (which follows).

Then I discovered the part of WexMOOC called “Analytics.”

It’s based on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale which I keep calling the Jamaica Kincaid scale, much to my embarrassment. And not-Jamaica-Kincaid thinks I write like a fourth grader.

Now, I know I took this too seriously (it has nothing to do with the “grade” for this non-credit class which really has no grades) and far too personally. But when someone, even a software someone like WexMOOC, tells me I write like a nine-year-old, I take it seriously. And personally.

I vaguely recalled from my linguistics days that pretty much every American news magazine, such as Time, has about an eighth-grade readability level, and there’s a fourth-grade poet in this year’s Pushcart volume, so I wasn’t too upset. Just upset enough.

The internet contains numerous Flesch-Kincaid utilities, so I used two of them on some of the Pushcart essays available online. Maybe Time sticks to eighth-graders, but Pushcart writers go for high school sophomores, juniors even.

I was very depressed.

When I’m depressed, I listen to music, in this case, my YouTube Likes to cheer me up (I have a Wallow playlist for wallowing, but in this case, I wanted to snap out of it). One of the videos was Vi Hart’s Ted Carpenter commentary about audiences. I hadn’t listened to this in quite some time, and it was just what I needed to hear: all this talk about writing to your audience is fine but there’s value in talking out loud, too, which is what Vi Hart does. And pretty much what I do. That video also ended up as the backbone of my Project Runway recap, since one of the season-long conflicts there was about artistry vs. commerce. They could’ve had a bang-up season with that kind of theme if they hadn’t cheapened it with male strippers and fake drama. But that’s more digression.

Feeling cheered by Vi, I did more research. I put my own essay into one of the online Flesch-Kincaid. It should, of course, have returned more or less the same results as WexMOOC (minor variations always occur). But it didn’t. I’d been promoted to 9th grade. Seems my sentence count went from 129 in WexMOOC to 47 in both online Flesch-Kincaid utilities. That is not a minor variation.

I felt a lot better. The fault, dear writer, lies not in my prose, but in the computer that I am nine years old. I’m still worried I might flunk Freshman Comp, but at least I’ll do so as a teenager.

On Encountering the Participation Survey Question: “How would you characterize yourself as a writer (very weak/weak/average/strong/very strong)?”

Am I a writer?

I suppose it depends on your definition. If “a writer” is one who writes, then of course I am; most people are. Most of us write something, at some point. Maybe it’s a business letter to a client reporting on the progress of an evolving deal. Or maybe it’s just a line to personalize the Hallmark birthday card for Aunt Helen so she won’t feel like her family has relegated her milestone to perfunctory duty, or, more prosaically, a shopping list (produce first, since that’s where the entrance to the grocery is, then deli, then canned goods, pastas, pet foods, paper products and cleaning supplies, finally ending up with dairy and frozen foods before heading to the register).

But that isn’t what’s really meant by “a writer,” is it? No matter what the emotion, real or contrived, is conveyed to Aunt Helen, regardless of the organization and planning – the narrative, really, predicting the little tale of a journey through the supermarket – that goes into a shopping list, “a writer” is typically someone who writes for someone other than his family, or for herself, and for purposes other than necessities of daily living.

So am I a writer, or not?

About once a decade, I jump again into fiction writing, just to see if I’m still really bad at it: I recently learned, oh yes, I am. Maybe I’m just not good at storytelling. Maybe I’d rather explain or inform or enthuse than narrate. Maybe I’d rather say what I want to say than figure out how to configure characters and plots and symbolism to do it for me. My publications have been so few, and in such unmemorable venues (you mean you haven’t heard of Diddle Dog, Forge, or that 80’s classic, Camera Shopper?) they don’t even count as publications. I don’t even have an e-book on Amazon. I know sixth graders who have e-books on Amazon.

I do have a blog, subtitled “I’m Writing and I Can’t Shut Up,” but it’s in a dusty corner of the internet where few bother to tread. I like it that way. If I thought anyone were actually paying attention to me, I’d be paralyzed.

But here’s the thing: I think – I process the world – by writing. I’m processing this class, this assignment, these very thoughts right now, by writing.

When I read a story I love, I write about it. I explain to some imaginary blog reader who may live only in my head what I thought of when I read the story, where it took me, what I remembered that I hadn’t thought of in a long, long time. When I read a story I hate, I write about that, too, and say exactly why I hate it, often using those same tools of memory and association, perhaps to claim it didn’t take me where it should have (in my own opinion) or that it took me somewhere that offered me nothing. Or maybe that it refused to take me anywhere. I’ve even come to the point where I’m willing to post these observations on a blog, to publicly say, “I loved this” or “I thought this was stupid” and let others judge me, or not, for literary comprehension.

If someone breaks my heart, or if I’m yearning after something I can’t have, when I fail, I write about it. These writings usually remain private, but they’re a necessary part of recovery from the emotional spills of life. Sometimes I’ll be unable to sleep – all this stuff bouncing around in my head – until I’ve pounded out a page or two, at which point it organizes itself and becomes manageable: Oh, I see, I’m feeling rejected (or ignored or unappreciated or frustrated or or or…). Oh, I remember, I’ve felt this way before. Oh, it’s ok, I got over that then, and I’ll get over this now.

When I get terrific news, or fall in love, or conquer some mountain that once towered above me, somehow it isn’t real until I write about it. Often this writing remains private as well. It’s hard to brag in public, not only because it’s obnoxious, but because there may be those out there waiting to tell me that my joys are trivial, or, even worse, are interfering with their misery.

And that’s where the Participation Survey for this course comes in.

I spent a long time looking at two of those questions – “How would you characterize yourself as a writer/reader?” I know it’s not a trap. They’re meant to be guidelines for data analysis, to allow collation of statistics showing how people feel about their writing before and after the course, with the goal being to increase self-perceived ability. With tens of thousands of students signing up for these courses, they have nothing to do with someone looking askance at my evaluation of myself: “Really? That’s what you think of yourself, is it? We’ll just see about that.” They have nothing to do with the universe punishing hubris.

I hope.

Because, after spending most of the last 58 years writing, reading, reading about writing, writing about reading, thinking by writing, I finally found the courage to say: I’m a strong reader. I’m a strong writer.

I am a writer.

*The Flesch-Kincaid scale measures readability, not writing level; so while it indicates one must have fourth-grade reading ability to read, it does not actually place an evaluation on the level of writing. It just feels that way.

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4 responses to “My Secret Life as a Fourth Grader

  1. This was an awesome post! And I realize now why I lie your posts so much–digression (couple with parentheticals) and yes, a nice usage of punctuation. There is nothing wrong with a semicolon if you know how to use it; maybe teachers just don’t want to teach them anymore.

    There’s an interesting short piece in The NEw Yorker (April 1, I think) about Hip Hop and the Flesch-Kinkaid scale (which I remember fondly and always tried to make my writing “harder,” which is not as easy as it seems, as length of sentence and number of dependentclauses does not, as one would imagine, seem to make a jot of different to the scale, although the use of long words seems to impact it greatly (unless I’m thinking of the other scale he used on his site, which I might be)).
    I can’t wait to hear how this all turns out.
    Next up…speech class?

    • Hi Paul – Thanks, man, you know how to cheer. I live to digress.

      I wrote this last week; this week’s assignment promoted me to 9th grade (though my peer evaluations are mixed so far). Still not hip hop level (thanks for the article; I love it when all forms of art and language are taken seriously) but at least I’m in Time Magazine territory.

  2. Hi Karen,

    I loved what you wrote about this freshman course. Your style of wit and inquisition is both refreshing and engaging. By the way, come Saturday we will be the same age. The beauty with age is you don’t make nearly the mistakes you made earlier…and you earn the right to please yourself. I never knew one was restricted to only 1 exclamation point per paragraph! I suppose writing in all CAPS is totally unexpectable.

    Be well and happy,

    Kitty

    • Hi Kitty, great to see you outside the PR world – and happy birthday.

      I’ve found that, while it’s true I don’t make the mistakes I made when I was younger, I keep discovering new mistakes to make.

      Hey, watch out for CAPS – under some conditions, they can get you fired. Some people can’t take a joke.

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