Frederick Crews Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Criticism and the Empirical Attitude: Conversation with Frederick Crews, Professor Emeritus of English, UC Berkeley; 8/24/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Learning to Write

Part of your job as an educator is to teach students to recognize these myths and illusions. And one of the ways they can go about doing that is learning to write. For many years you were the head of the freshman composition program here and, as I pointed out, you are the author of the Random House Handbook. So let's talk a little about writing. Can we learn to write well, and how do we do that?

Well, I got through graduate school so quickly that I had never even been a teaching assistant. I got my Ph.D. in three years, and then I was just told to start teaching freshman English here in 1958. I hadn't the faintest idea how to do it. I wasn't even told which books to assign; I was just kind of told to go in there and do it. And the kids that I was teaching were not much younger than I was. I was twenty-five. I found this tremendously exhausting and challenging, but also very exciting. I was almost like one of these little goslings that Conrad Lorenz writes about: I got bonded to Freshman English. And I never ceased loving the teaching of composition. Later, when I went through some of the intellectual changes that I've been discussing with you, I started a course called "Practical Writing" that was for everybody but English majors. They were not welcome. But with a sequence of sessions between myself as a lecturer and specially trained TAs from other fields, we had social scientists and humanists and hard scientists all doing writing. And we were all talking about the same general topic, which was precisely rationality and rhetorical presentation. And that was one of the most exciting courses I ever taught. I did that for several years in the '80s. But back in the '70s I decided to write a composition handbook for a number of reasons, some of which were just very personally practical. And it was a lot more fun than I thought it would be, because I found that one could use better literary examples, and one could even create whimsical characters who had a kind of plot line going through the book. So this book was quite different from the usual fare that was being produced in that genre, and it was very successful in every way.

You make a point, in the introduction to the Random House book, which I would like to ask you about.

You tell the student "you must realize that effective prose is not like a brass ring at all. It is more like the destination of a journey, approachable by steps that anyone can follow." And then you go on to say, "we do not have things to say. We acquire them in the process of working on definite problems that catch our attention."

Yes, I believe that profoundly. And I make the statement to freshmen because freshmen tend to come in believing that they do have things to say; they've already experienced wonderful things that they want to tell you about, and reached wonderful conclusions. And what they've experienced generally is what their classmates have experienced, which isn't a great deal. And what I want to tell them, what I've wanted to tell them, is that the things that are really exciting are the things that you don't know yet, but that you will find out if grapple with a real problem in a way that opens your mind to objections to your first thoughts about that problem. And the sign that this is happening is the struggle over drafts with prose. If you find that your first drafts are perfectly adequate, it means that you're an egotist, that you're in love with your words. Experienced writers become increasingly suspicious of their own drafts, and even suspicious of their own enthusiasm for their drafts. And they try, insofar as possible, to critique them themselves, but if they're really lucky and they have some honest friends or relations who are also intelligent, they submit the work to criticism and they listen to the criticism and are inclined to believe the criticism, because more often than not the criticism shows them something they did not want to see about their own work.

You state that your philosophy of education, book cover I think this was in The Critics Bear It Away, is to make our students "more capable of independent judgment by teaching them to read accurately and to write scrupulously in a comprehensible idiom. Our own prose can be an example in this regard. We can also mediate between relatively uniformed readers and great works of imagination, holding out alternatives to a life of passive consumption and manipulation."

I couldn't agree more. That's what teaching literature ought to be all about. And by the way, that's why I always preferred teaching undergraduates, even when I was surrounded by acolytes among graduate students when I was a Freudian. The undergraduate teaching was always more exciting for me, simply because you had minds that were more ready to be changed, that were not pre-professional.

Didn't have the theories down.

Didn't have the theories down. You know, in my last years as a teacher here I found increasingly that the graduate students understood the profession better than I did, and I thought that was terrible. I thought that they should postpone this kind of canny insider knowledge of the way the departments work as long as possible, but they seemed to know it when they came in. It's a kind of premature shrewdness which shuts down intellectual options.

Next page: Lessons Learned

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