A common conversation in my classes

ME: Here’s what the writer is doing.

Student who paid attention in high school English: I disagree.

ME: You’re wrong. Here’s why. [NOTE, in case my tenure committee is reading this: I say this very kindly, taking advantage of a teachable moment, making sure that the student understands that his/her participation is valued and feels both validated and enlightened.]

STUDENT: My HS English teacher said there are no wrong answers about literature as long as you can defend your ideas.

ME: Your HS English teacher was wrong. There are plenty of wrong answers about literature. What your teacher meant was that there are also plenty of defensible potentially right answers too.


STUDENT: So are you saying there are wrong answers in literature and that my HS English teacher, who was my personal role model and who died last week after a heroic bout with cancer, was wrong about everything?


ME: I’m sure your teacher was a remarkable person.

STUDENT: A remarkable person who was wrong about everything.

ME: Probably not about everything.


ME: Just about this thing.

[At this point, some people are crying in the back of the classroom.]

ME: Let’s move on, shall we?


Dear HS English teachers,

Please stop teaching my future students wrong (read: oversimplified) stuff. They get enough of that from TV.


Jonathan Frey

the guy who will have them as college freshmen


  • Melissa says:

    I’m curious, as a non-teacher- what kind of grossly oversimplified stuff are they coming in with?

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Oh, there are a range. The most insidious oversimplification about literature is the one I mention here, that, since lit is open to interpretation, all interpretations, however ill-informed, are equally valid. This usually morphs toward something more like “no wrong answers in English class!”, which, besides being untrue, is counter-productive in class discussions.

      There are others, less insidious, about grammar or composition: always this, never that. Never use personal pronouns in academic writing. Always repeat your thesis in the conclusion. Verbs are action words. That kind of thing. It means that some 100-level college classes have to do lots of un-teaching.

      But, to be fair, it’s also an oversimplification (and an easy out) to blame your students’ problems on whoever taught them last, to pass the buck on back. And, more importantly, too much emphasis on correcting these more minor fallacies does run the risk of preferring ideas over people, a point that I try to bring out subtly toward the end of the post.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    “At this point, some people are crying in the back of the classroom”
    HA! If only I had this kind of emotional affect on my students!

    I’m afraid to say it, but I often foster the “no wrong answers” attitude, but I then play the part of herder. I’ll herd their answers/insights in a new direction.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      This probably means that you’re a gentler and more patient person that I am. I’m not a terribly effective herder.

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