A FERTILE IMAGINATION was Matthew Millstein's most notable attribute as a teacher. He approached the improvement of the writing skills of college freshmen with all the zest and enthusiasm of a seven-year-old attacking an ice cream sundae at a birthday party. Freshman comp, as it is familiarly known to faculty members and students alike, does not generally gladden
the hearts of those called to teach it (which is the reason, as someone once remarked, why God created graduate students); it has all the deadening qualities of the proverbial millstone (as our eponymous professor was well aware), and most of us prefer other forms of neckwear. But Professor Millstein loved his trade and brought a freshness and vitality to all his classes that aroused the envy-although, unfortunately, not the emulation-of his colleagues.
It is well known that those most in need of help with their writing are those who most hate writing courses. They are also the ones for whom required writing courses are particularly designed. The challenge offered to teachers of mandatory writing courses- which might just as well be called "Learning to Love What You Most Detest-may therefore be unmatched anywhere else in the curriculum. Yet before his captive and resentful audiences, Matthew Millstein took up his challenge gladly and turned most of his ugly, illiterate frogs into articulate and handsome princes and princesses by semester's end. And he created such aesthetic models without kissing any of them.
The magic was in the Millstein's imagination. As Dr. Millstein told his students when he first met with them, his vision of their future was of all of them as prolific and published authors. He told them about Michelangelo's facing a block of marble and chipping away the extraneous matter to discover the statue within. Like Michelangelo, he saw his task as removing whatever obstacles lay between his students and the improvement of their writing. "To find out what those obstacles are," he would declare, "I will need a sample from each of you. Nothing brief, mind you! Something multipaged and detailed, encompassing the kind of tricky subject matter you will be expected to write about in your other courses at this institution, whatever the major of your choice. And please fill your samples with as many errors, neologisms, spelling mistakes, syntactical monstrosities, and solecisms as possible. Give me your writing, like marble hacked from the quarry, and let me be the sculptor who uncovers the beauty beneath the surface."
Professor Millstein's conviction that all his students were destined to become accomplished writers meant that he was genuinely interested in what they wrote, no matter how inept, awkward, and ill-phrased their early efforts might be.
His comments and criticisms were always encouraging, and he came close to entering into a continuing correspondence with each of them, even though his classes averaged some thirty-five students apiece. The self-assumed workload was of course backbreaking. He wrote many responses to his students' work by hand, but most of the time he preferred to use e-mail and encouraged his students to respond by the same means. These individual exchanges might occur two or three times a week.
Professor Millstein's classroom presentations of difficult subjects were always illuminated by his novel approaches-many of which he conceived and practiced by himself before using. In considering complex sentences, for instance, he would explain indirect speech and questions and clarify relative clauses. When he had covered these constructions, he would take up the other nine types of subordinate clause, those usually described as adverbial. In case students had difficulty remembering these, he had a little memonic verse ready for them: Come, Cuthbert, Cause Paul Pleasure; Tread Round a Roguish Measure!
This nonsensical couplet gave his students the initial letters of the nine types of adverbial subordinate clause: conditional, concessive, comparative, purpose, place, time, result, reason, and manner. He taught about them, not because they were essential for everyone to know, but to illustrate the wonderful complexity of his beloved language. Yet his charges rarely forgot them -even the great majority who did not become writers.
As well as writing for each other, the students in his classes were expected to write for publication, too. He encouraged them to send letters and other pieces to the student newspaper, and there were usually three or four each semester who had letters published in the local press. For texts in class, Professor Millstein often used newspapers and magazines to prompt his students to write for the public, and he set a model for them by showing them his own letters and articles when they appeared in various newspapers and magazines.
While Dr. Millstein's classes were orderly and his intentions clear,
1. his instructional methods were frequently novel, and excitement was always in the air. Students never knew precisely what to expect; Professor Millstein would use any means to clarify a point of grammar or elucidate a problem of style. Wearing funny hats, singing and dancing, making up games for his students to play, attempting conjuring tricks, distributing candy as a reward for participation in class discussion-nothing seemed too much trouble or too ridiculous if it helped his students improve their writing skills.
2.Because he was consistently serious in his purposes, none of these gimmicks detracted from his authority as a teacher.
3.In fact, he was held throughout the campus in great respect because these methods indicated to others that he was putting additional time and effort into his teaching.
Quick to anticipate students' reactions, Professor Millstein also had a reputation as something of a mind reader; he seemed able to predict questions, forestall complaints, and prevent difficulties almost before they had arisen. He attributed this talent to the fact that he had a strong recollection of his own years as a student; he was always ready to relate his own confusion and ineptitude in those far-off days for the instruction of his classes.
"In high school," he would tell them, "my writing was so awful that when I asked my English teacher what I should write on, she told me privately that she thought one side of an index card would be quite sufficient."
"Another time I asked my teacher what I could do to improve my writing. He sat there thinking for such a long time that I began to think he hadn't heard my question, but then, with a smile on his face, he uttered one word: 'Incineration.' "
Not all his recollections of his student days were frivolous,however. He conveyed his struggles with split infinitives and dangling participles and his early confusion over metaphor, so easily used to excess. He taught his students how to moderate the use of metaphors so that they would be effective weapons rather than two-edged swords. While his students laughed at his recollections of his youthful indiscretions, they were learning to avoid those same pitfalls themselves. "All right, David," he would exclaim, directing his remarks at a lounger in the back row. "What is wrong with this sentence: He threw his eyes around the room and nailed them on the door?" And David would gather himself together and address the egregious mixing of metaphors.
Such was the force and ingenuity of Dr. Millstein's imagination that his students had to race to keep up with him. But no matter how difficult they found this challenge, somehow they always managed to succeed and, in the process, wrote more readily, more intelligibly, and more accurately. After twenty years of teaching, Professor Millstein was able to produce a long list of former students who had gone on to careers in writing, because he imagined them as professional writers long before any of them had learned from him how to write an intelligible and error-free sentence.