My first quasi-teaching job was tutoring in the Hunter College Writing Center. We would work with students of all skill levels, but a majority of our clientele consisted of students in "developmental classes"--what, in a less enlightened era, would have been called remedial English. Frequently, we tutors would lament the dearth of skill among our tutees, bemoaning the quality--or lack thereof--of K-12 education in New York City that had brought us to this desperate pass. Invariably, though, when our supervisor--a transplanted Chicagoan by the name of Dennis Paoli--heard us kvetching about, say, our students' inability to write at even the most rudimentary levels, he would harangue us in an eminently imitatable adenoidal tone, "Well, then, why don't you all just teach them?!?"
A fair point. It was, after all, what we were ostensibly there for.
At the beginning of every semester, I am reminded of Dennis's advice. Sadly, though, the people I now hear complaining about their students' shortcomings are not exclusively student tutors--who are, after all, in a sort of apprenticeship position and thus may be forgiven their judgmentalism--but often full-fledged writing instructors. I cannot tell you how often I have heard professors complain about a student's inability to compose clear thesis statements or another's tendency to write run-on sentences. And when I hear these complaints, I hear Dennis's voice clanging around my skull, "Well, why don't you just teach them?!?"
To be sure, some students are seriously misplaced, registered in a college-level composition course when an assessment reveals that they truly belong in a class two levels below. But this is rare: maybe two students out of a class of thirty (and there may just as likely be two students who truly belong in a higher level class). The vast majority of the class--the middle of the bell curve--consists of students quite appropriately enrolled. Sure, some will struggle, and some will breeze, but all will get something from the instruction, provided the instructor approaches the class with the proper mindset.
When I hear teachers complain on Day One that a number of their students "can't write"--often based on nothing more than a quick diagnostic exam that a majority of students choose not to take seriously anyway--I always wonder what, exactly, these teachers were expecting. It would be lovely to have a class filled with Ernest Hemingways or Kurt Vonneguts, but those guys don't need to take basic writing classes. And besides, they're dead! Far better to work with the live students you have in front of you, even if they do occasionally misplace a modifier.