Learn it, then unlearn it, then learn it over again differently.

Rob Jenkins at Georgia Perimeter College has a great piece online about “Teaching as Unteaching“: the work that college professors have to do in the classroom to get students to break the habits and practices they learned in high school. I have tackled each and every one of the questions from students that he addresses in his article, though I tend to justify my answers a bit differently than he does. The transition from high school writing to college writing has a lot to do with adapting to differing rhetorical situations: a way of writing is just a way, not the way. You wouldn’t write everything with the same tone, diction, and structure any more than you’d wear the same clothes to the swimming pool as to a wedding. All the restrictions that students learn without necessarily learning the reasons for them are simply ways of creating a formal tone and an explicit organizational scheme in an essay–two necessary components in academic writing. I don’t blame high school teachers at all for teaching the restrictions but not the reasons. But at the college level, knowing the reasons–or at least being given a chance to learn them–seems necessary and appropriate. After all, it seems foolish to insist “Never say ‘I’ in formal academic writing!” when thousands of published, peer-reviewed articles introduce their theses by saying “I will argue . . . ”

I’m sure the unlearning-and-relearning process is frustrating for students who just want to memorize the answer, put it on a test, and move on to the next task. But I have seen the same process in other fields and the initial version that one learns is always an important building block or developmental step toward the more advanced iteration. Students learning French need to internalize ne . . . pas around a verb for negation before they discover that in casual conversation, native speakers routinely leave out the ne. Ice skaters have to master a forward crossover with one push (push off, cross, uncross) before they add the second push (push off, cross, underpush, uncross). Ballroom dancers have to learn closed footwork in foxtrot (Slow, Slow, Quick Quick) to understand the rhythm before they start doing continuity footwork (Slow, Quick Quick, Slow, Quick Quick). Teaching and then unteaching may be frustrating for both the professor and the student but I would argue (see what I did there?) that it is widespread, useful, and necessary.

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