“My Students are Not a Deficiency” Blackberry Tartlets
by The Poor Baker
Recently, a lecturer from the department of nutritional sciences at my university wrote two editorials to the school newspaper complaining about the fact that our students can’t write. As she states in her first editorial, “At the time of this report, [our university] required four of the core subjects, including composition. But like many other universities, the course that fulfills this requirement…allows instructors to focus on discussions of literature or movies rather than composition. Although they have instructional merit, these topics do not teach writing.” In her second editorial, she follows up by proposing a “strategy to reverse negative trends in writing opportunities on campus,” which she outlines thusly: “We must emphasize the same characteristics that lead our favorite sports teams to victory: focus on fundamentals, gain experience related to each field of study and practice, practice, practice!”*
As one of the instructors who is apparently “not teaching writing” in my writing class (good grief, where are all the papers I have to grade each semester coming from!?!?…Oh no…They’re coming from inside the house…), I have something to say about this. Actually, I have many things to say about this, but at the risk of writing a tl;dr blog post, I’ll limit myself to the three things that irritated me the most.
Firstly, our friend suggests that the goal of first-year composition should be to “focus on fundamentals,” which she identifies as the “basic rules” of English syntax and grammar. However, as anyone who actually studies writing in any kind of critical way knows, what she’s identifying as the somehow “inherent” fundamentals to the English language are, in fact, socially contingent conditions for communication that necessarily evolve over time. To think about “good writing” as something that simply replicates itself over and over like a little, articulate virus is not only a faulty understanding of how language works, it uncritically privileges a conception of language marked by a social residue of hegemonic privilege, top-down classroom pedagogy, and phallogocentric thinking, which works from the premise that the language our students have been using to parse their own realities has been, up to this point, somehow wanting. Teaching college writing is about helping students effectively communicate while still remaining authentic to their own experiences of the world; it is not about shaping little automatons with perfect syntax. It is not about teaching grammar. Suggesting that should be my job is like if I said that her job as a nutritional scientist is to teach the food pyramid—a so-called “fundamental” of nutrition that even a freshman comp instructor knows is an outdated, socially constructed, and culturally loaded way of thinking about food.
Secondly, her own writing isn’t so hot—she used plenty of passive voice, clichés, and ambiguous pronouns, including opening her editorial with the phrase, “Your writing could make or break you.” Her use of evidence is also pretty sketchy, because although she focuses on the fact that the introductory writing program “allows instructors to focus on discussions of literature or movies,” she doesn’t mention that not only do we then ask our students to write about said literature, we are required to collect and provide feedback on 15,000-22,000 words per student over the course of the semester, 8,000-12,000 of which must be formal writing. This is a department policy, and to neglect to mention this fact is a fallacy that my students know as “stacking the deck.” I point this out not to shame her, but rather, to illustrate that knowing the basics of grammar and syntax does not, in fact, make one a good writer, that we are none of us perfect writers (myself included), and that writing is hard. I’m consistently blown away by the amount of work that most of my students put into my class, but they are not going to experts—no, not even at the so-called “foundational” stuff—after 15 weeks. No one expects students to come out of her class an expert in nutritional science. Students will not come out of my introductory composition class as expert writers either.
Lastly, “your writing” will not “make or break you.” It is good to be a thoughtful and self-conscious writer, and I support the author of this editorial’s conjectures that our students need to be asked to “write, and write often” and that students need to be better trained in the writing conventions that are specific to their discipline. It is good to think about the effect that the words we put out into the world will have on those who hear or read them and to consider what that, in turn, might say about us. But our students are whole people, they are not deficiencies that need to be filled, and I believe that part of helping them become strong writers means validating what they already know about language, and what they already know about how words can be powerful, even if that knowledge isn’t grammatically correct.
If one feels that one’s goal in life must be to take something empty and fill it up, make tarts.
* As a snarky side note, I doubt anyone who actually studies composition theory (of which I’m not really one myself, I should probably add) is smacking their head as they read her strategy and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”
“My Students are Not a Deficiency” Blackberry Tartlets
This recipe makes 24 mini tarts
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ cup powdered sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ¾ cups all purpose flour
- 1 T cornstarch
- 1/8 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a medium size bowl, cream together butter and powdered sugar. Mix in vanilla. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Add the flour mixture into the butter and sugar mixture and stir until just blended.
At this point, if your dough feels really soft, you might want to pop it in the fridge for a few minutes. Otherwise, take two mini muffin tins and divide the dough equally among all 24 wells. (Normally I don’t go for silicone bake ware, because I swear they make things taste plastic-y, but it’s great for these because you can just pop the tart shells out). My super secret trick to shaping the tart shells is to flour the bottom of a shot glass, press it into the dough in each well, and twist until the dough comes up the sides.
Freeze the tart shells for 10 minutes or so, and then bake for 18-20 minutes. If they are all puffy when you pull them out of the oven, you can tamp each one down again with the shot glass. Allow the shells to cool before you remove them from the pan.
- 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
- 7 oz. sweetened, condensed milk (make Thai iced coffee with the other half of the can)
- 1 T lemon juice
- ½ tsp. vanilla, or half of a vanilla bean
- Blackberry preserves
- Blackberries and mint for garnish
In a small bowl, cream the cream cheese. Add in the sweetened condensed milk and blend until smooth. Blend in the lemon juice and vanilla.
Set the cooled tart shells on a tray, and put a small spoonful of blackberry preserves in the bottom of each one. Spoon the cream filling on top of the preserves. Top with a blackberry and a mint leaf. Chill until ready to serve.
Adapted from The Joy of Baking