Corrected by Students

Today, for my class activity, I had my English 1010 students divide into four groups. I handed a printed copy of a different personal essay to each group and instructed my students that they had 15 minutes to read the essay. Then, after discussing their group’s essay, the students in each group had to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and ways they would apply what they learned from their assigned essay to their own personal essay they’d been assigned. During my first class, I told my students that two of the essays were written by my colleagues and two were written by me. The group that read my bee essay (Bumblebee Homicide from this summer) lauded its humor, and the group that read my disgusting service project essay (Used. $1.00 from about a year ago) praised its detail. Neither group listed any strong weaknesses, but the first group did indicate that the parts of the essay could connect to each other a little more smoothly. The second group said that they didn’t see what the main point of the essay was. I thought that the students were holding back genuine criticism because they were aware that the essays’ author, the teacher, was listening. I wrote a note to myself not tell my later class that I’d written any of the essays.

When my next class came around, I divided the class and distributed essays like earlier, but this time I didn’t tell them that I’d written any of them. The results were quite different. The students who read the first essay boldly proclaimed their confusion in following the bee narrative. “What does this part have to do with anything?” one student loudly asked her group mates. In the group reading the disgusting service essay, a student yelled across the room to me, “Mr. Hall, did you write this?” I told him that I wouldn’t confirm or deny anything because that would bias my students. Then I walked behind my desk and pretended to write something in my notebook.
When it came time to present their essays to the class, the group with the bee essay didn’t hold back their criticism. “This essay was a mess and really confusing,” the girl speaking said. “It was funny at parts, and it had lots of good words, but we just didn’t get what was going on.” I felt deflated. Then the student from the other group asked, “Mr. Hall, did you write that essay?” I blushed, caught myself blushing, and tried to regain composure.

“I wrote some of these essays, but I won’t tell you which until after class,” I said. After my reply, the girl presenting at the front of the class continued her assault on my writing.

“What I’m going to take from this essay is to not make mine so confusing,” she said. “But it does have a lot of personality, so I am going to include that.”

The student who figured out that these were my essays spoke on behalf of his group members when his group presented. The only weakness he listed was that the essay had a negative tone, and that he felt that essays should have a more positive message (this is the kid who has a large tattoo of a cross in front of a sunset on his right upper arm, by the way, but not that that means anything).
I left class feeling small, a little dejected, but acknowledging that my students’ comments were probably right. “This shows that even if you really like a piece of writing, if it doesn’t work, you need to change it,” I’d told the class right before I let them go for the weekend. “How the audience reacts to your writing is more important than if you like a particular wording or not.” And I’d meant it as I said it.

In my melancholy acceptance of my essays’ quality (which I really used to like, by the way), I felt a lot like I did in seminar all those times when Sharon would very forcibly show me the areas I needed to improve my writing. And I felt that same undeniable sense of “I don’t like this, but she’s right” that I did when Sharon pulled up an essay about a chair or something trivial like that and made me stand up in front of everyone in seminar while she dissected it.

I have a degree in English. I worked for almost two and a half years at the Writing Center. I was the EAS president and the top student in several of my classes. I’m Mr. Hall, a bearded college teacher, for crying out loud. But a group of college freshman reminded me of where I really stand in comparison to good or even competent writers.

And that constant reminder of what I’m really capable of (which is not much compared to The Greats) is part of why I love teaching university. In my experience, I haven’t had a student of a bad Sunday School or Priesthood lesson force me to face my spiritual inadequacies. I think it’s because class members at church don’t comment on the quality of a teacher’s spirituality. I’ve never heard a student say, “But Brother Jones, you say that we must love one another, yet I saw you flip off that old woman driving slowly on the road last Wednesday.” But my students, by being honest in sharing what they thought about my writing, slapped me in the face with the reality of my quality as a writer.

Once, while I was persuading some students on the British literary pilgrimage to dislike other students singing on the bus, Kirsten said to me, “You need to find a wife who is a little bit better than you to keep you humble.” These students aren’t quite a substitute for a wife (maybe a girlfriend, though), but they are helping me remember how lowly I really am and how much I have to improve before I can begin to call myself “good” at anything.

For some perverse reason, that feels nice.

(P.S. for the first time ever, I feel too intimidated to make comments in a class. I see the other graduate students as more intelligent and insightful than me, so I just sit and listen while they speak.)

(P.P.S. Also, posting on this blog is intimidating for some reason. Even though I know and love most of you and I know that the ones I know aren't perfect, I see your writing as much more significant than my own.)

(P.P.P.S. Congrats again, Shannon and Cooley.)


Daniel Sorensen said...


It's been a while since I've seen or talked to you, but I want to tell you that I have gained a deep respect for you over the past few years. When I first met you I thought you were arrogant and foolish, and it took a while to overcome these thoughts, but during the time we spent at the WC, and in the time afterward, I began to realize that you have a truly profound wisdom. I apologize that it took me a while to realize it, but I see it now, and I respect you as a person and a great and confident leader. You are an inspiration to me. And I love your writing.
I think it's really cool that you are teaching writing. I hope everything goes well for you.

Shani said...

Man, teaching writing using your own writing is pretty gutsy. I'd be scared to death to do that. Maybe I'd learn more about my writing if I put it out there more though, instead of just saving it in an obscure file on my computer...
As far as this piece goes, I liked that it didn't feel all cynical or self-deprecating. It was an honest admission that maybe teacher status doesn't make you perfect, and while there was probably some self-deprecation that happened, you were able to turn it and look at is as a lesson. I also like that you point out the dichotomy of criticism feeling good even though it pulls us apart. For me that often doesn't happen in the same moment, but I definitely could relate to the feeling.
And thanks for the congrats; our little girl is pretty much the cutest thing ever. :-)

Jami said...


You're a teacher? Wow, congratulations and I'm sorry all in one :)

Is it your first year? Good luck.

Matthew R. Hall, Esq. said...

Thanks for that. I really appreciate your sincere compliments. So what have you been up to?

Shannon--I'm glad it came across that way. I'll have to see your baby when I get in town.

And Jami, I'm teaching two freshman English classes as a graduate instructor. And it's scary, like I wrote. Today, I got a personal essay from a student that might as well be a blood essay, and it's a humbling and intimidating duty to honor that trust by making them feel safe but also trying to improve their writing at the same time. So we'll see how this goes, and hopefully I don't really do too bad in accomplishing that.

meghan & jason said...

Wow, where are you teaching? The tattoo description just didn't seem to fit BYUI. That is very cool. I am happy to hear from you...even though I never knew you left Rexburg!