A Cautionary Tale
Barely a month after the Louisville ALAN workshop--but before SATs changed their middle name from Aptitude to Assessment--the topic for the 20-minute English Composition Test (ECT) was to explain how a clear or simple situation turned out to be very different from what it had originally appeared. Though fast writes may be deplored as invalid and/or unfair for predicting an adolescent's educational future, the Educational Testing Services has had little trouble in finding droves of upstanding high school and college English teachers (including NCTE leaders) to score or read the ECT. Typically, a reader handles 550-600 papers displaying a breathtaking range of skill. But what fascinates me about these sessions is not how examinees write.
Instead, the fascination lies in what those rising college freshmen--from all over the United States and international testing centers--write about. ECT papers show what these young writers view as important to include in essays to be judged by unknown English teachers, particularly since these judgments can affect where they go to college and perhaps affect the rest of their lives.
About halfway through the December, 1992, ECT reading--after some 300 papers--I realized that ALAN would care about what I was learning, and I started taking notes about what the writers did with the topic. The 261 papers my notes cover showed that these writers were respectful; they wanted to sound ready for higher education. Not one television reference surfaced in this sample although a memorable paper on 1991's ECT prompt had proposed establishing a holiday to honor PeeWee Herman.
Most 1992 writers discussed unforeseen problems in studies although very few referred to sciences or mathematics. Others referred to problems in sports, jobs, driving a car, cooking, child care, family and other relationships, travel, and current events such as the recent national election and the Gulf War. By far the most common focus--at least two or three were on this in every batch of 25--was the shock of realizing that deciding where to apply and actually applying for admission to college can be a time-consuming and complicated process. In 61 of the papers on which I took notes, literature was mentioned; however, all except one focused on classics. The one non-classic reference was to Eternal Champions Cycle. But what distressed me was that no paper mentioned a YA author or book.
Instead these 61 students invoked Willie Loman, Gatsby, and Papa (Farewell to, For Whom, Old Man and, Sun Also); Jane Eyre and P&P; Lord of the F and To Kill a Mocking B; Antigone, Oedipus, Odysseus; Huck and Beowulf; Tess D'U; and Anna K, Scarlet L, Heart of D, Crime and P. One of my favorites: Inherent[sic] the Wind. Our Town. Great Expect. Shakespeare, of course: Othello, R&J, Hamlet. More than any other work of literature: the Scottish play.
No Bridgers, no Myers, no Hinton. Much imitation teacher-talk. The farther the writer had to reach, the more insecure the grasp:
Guilt grew to an overwhelming surplus.
Galileo had a real tough road to hoe.
Israel became a strong important power in Southwest Asia.
There were always some added complexities that served to make what was written reach, at best, ambiguity. And there were painful locutions, but youth and pressure provide some excuse, possibly even for avoiding literature as a topic that could impress readers who make a living by teaching it.
I could hardly wait to try that prompt on the future and current English teachers in my adolescent literature course, for I was confident in my students' eagerness to appear familiar with the subject at hand. To avoid contaminating the data, I didn't mention my ECT notes. Moreover, as I handed out 3x5 cards, I refrained from reminding students of the previous week'sin-class survey of their ambiguity- and complexity-laden course texts: Sex Education, Sweet Illusions, The House That Crack Built, Risky Times: How to BeAIDS-Smart and Stay Healthy.
Perhaps that is why not one of those twenty responses, written by college juniors, seniors, and postgrads in the second week of my spring 1993 English 486 Adolescent Literature course, mentioned literature, let alone YA lit. The only connection to books that some of their confidently-recalled personal experiences had was sounding like dynamite YAs in search of authors:
parenting (teaching a child to do something)
the death of a friend in a random highway shooting
relationships with in-laws
choosing a future career
buying and maintaining a used car
speaking before a large audience
red tape and paperwork in a local school district
raising and training 17 retrievers.
Impelled by irony in my data, for the next afternoon's department colloquium I distributed a handout with what I had planned to say so that instead I could use my presentation time for getting responses to the ECT prompt. From thirty people I cherish--and for whom I've been writing (for their own sakes as well as for their children's) annual post-NCTE convention summaries featuring ALANworkshop highlights--two responses were literary: ambiguities of multiple translations of Aristotle's Poetics and the complexity of Emily in "ARose for Emily." Most responses focused on situations somewhat removed from the experience of students in the adolescent literature course. Provocative, if not YA material at first glance, were
maintaining cordiality toward neighbors despite a dog bite and display of the other party's political signage
the fall of totalitarianism in eastern Europe
interpreting a medical appointment for a child who is deaf
getting married at the age of twenty
teaching English in Japan
an encounter involving a girlfriend, a police officer, and a prostitute
gays in the military
conferencing with a composition student who didn't "get it," i.e. the need for an idea at the core of the essay.
Is it significant that, for both ECT examinees who would want to impress English-teacher readers and future and current teachers of English meeting in a university setting, literature--and not just YA literature--so rarely was cited as examples of complex or ambiguous situations?
ALAN stalwarts may take some comfort in seeing that the genre important to us may not be the only one that our students and even our colleagues don't have at …the tip of their minds.
An active ALAN member, Silver Stanfill teaches in Anchorage, Alaska.