“In Hebrew God is called Yamaha.”
Or so says one of Professor of History David Stewart’s former students. This comment is immortalized along with a 14 pages of single spaced, individual student flubs collected by Stewart during the 20 years he has worked at Hillsdale College.
The “Yamaha” quotation shares the page with other gems like: “Actually, Homer was not written by Homer, but by someone with the same name.”
Stewart said he often copies small portions of this makeshift anthology and prints them on the back of quizzes to entertain students. Some have noticed the addition, but few on campus know the extent of the list from which it came.
20 years is a long time.
Stewart’s colleague, Professor of History Paul Rahe, has a list of his own. He staples this list of what not to do, simply titled “Painful Examples,” to his sheet of paper requirements. Rahe said the his list is composed of mistakes from students at schools where he was employed before Hillsdale — schools like Cornell, the University of Tulsa, and Franklin and Marshall College.
“When I was teaching at the University of Tulsa, my six-year-old daughter could write better than some of my college freshman,” Rahe said.
He said he wasn’t exaggerating, either.
“Twelve years of daycare does not teach you to read and write,” Rahe said. “They corral you in, prevent you from killing one another, and look after you while your parents are working.”
Rahe said Hillsdale is different — most of the students who come here are better prepared and well-read.
“I haven’t had any real bloopers at Hillsdale,” he said. “I don’t mean the writing is uniformly good. Especially in Western Heritage, where I get first-term freshmen, there is a certain percentage who need a lot of help with their writing.”
One such student, William Cooney ‘12, began his college career with virtually no writing experience, but now is attending graduate school at Gonzaga University and plans to pursue a PhD.
“Dr. Rahe and Dr. Stewart at two of the three people who really propelled me to where I am,” Cooney said. “They taught me how to think and how to read. Both they and their well-earned chastisement encouraged me to work harder, read more, and spend more time editing my papers.”
Cooney still has a copy of Dr. Rahe’s “Painful Examples” and has noticed similar mistakes in his own students’ writing.
Certain mistakes occur regardless of passing time, Rahe said “The current generation doesn’t know to use the apostrophe. They use it promiscuously.”
Rahe said for some time there has been a “grave problem” with pronouns and antecedents, misuse of “lesser” versus “fewer,” and use of the shortened “most” instead of “almost.”
“’Most everybody.’ That’s what rural people in Oklahoma, where I grew up, said,” he laughed.
Rahe said the examples are amusing, but the problem is real. He said every student makes a diction error occasionally, but if you cannot write well, it makes it more difficult to get a job.
“What goes on in the writing center on campus and the pummeling we give student papers is very important,” he said. “It’s a matter of habits. Changing habits isn’t easy, and requires conscious effort.”
Associate Professor of Education Daniel Coupland said poor grammar is a common problem in today’s public school system.
“If students received explicit English grammar instruction — including sentence diagramming — in a traditional public school, they received it from teachers who were willing to teach against the grain,” he said.
Coupland went on to say that in today’s classrooms, you have a better chance of finding a manual typewriter than you do of finding a sentence diagram.
“The sad fact is that most teachers couldn’t teach explicit English grammar even if they wanted to because they themselves never learned it,” he said.
Rahe said that he also sees bright students who aren’t willing to do the work. These are the students who approach a test without studying and scribble down a nonsensical — though witty — answer to the questions they don’t know the answer to.
Rahe admitted these “snarky” answers made him laugh, but were a symptom of the high-school-fostered idea that studying was an unnecessary accompaniment to class. Many students feel that because they coasted through high school they can pull the same stunt in college.
Rahe said this usually comes out on the test.
“I will guess a third of my freshman students will fail their first exam,” he said. “Being hit by a two-by-four is a very useful thing for a freshman.”
Stewart agreed that he saw much of the same behavior in his classes. He said many of the mistakes that appear on his list are there because students wrote the paper at 3 a.m. with no time to proofread.
“I believe 90 percent of the time the mistakes result from procrastination,” he said. “I call on the students who ought to know better.”
Stewart says he calls students on their mistakes, often in class, but that most don’t make it onto the list.
“A list like Rahe’s or Stewart’s does three things,” said Cooney. “First, it shows students that professors care enough to read their papers closely. Second, it shows students that their classmates have also made mistakes and gone on to overcome them. And third, it’s easier to recognize a problem if you can associate it with an anecdote or an example.”
At the end of the day, it helps students learn.
“You deserve to be mocked if you clearly didn’t spend the time proofreading,” Stewart said.
But neither Rahe nor Stewart shame the students who they call out, Cooney said.
“It’s for the edification of others and always in good fun — never ill spirited. They simply create the exemplar of what not to do. Compliments do the same thing, really, only by showing what one ought to do.”