“Welcome to English 5.” A small sardonic smile lit Professor Ermarth’s face, suggesting a deeper meaning than her words conveyed. In the innocence of my youth, however, I ignored any instinct to run, took my seat in Sanborn House, and flipped open my college-lined, spiral notebook.
Every student at Dartmouth was required to take English 5, preferably in the first year of study. And having a profound fear of writing, I figured I would stress less if I took the course fall term and got the requirement out of the way. It was the first class I attended and seemed pretty tame until Professor Ermarth closed her book at the end of class. “Your first assignment, due Monday, is to write a five page paper on the first four chapters of Paradise Lost.”
Have you ever read Paradise Lost? Not an easy thing to decipher, much less about which to write. Turns out, we had to write one paper each week. The good news was, that if we didn’t like the grade we received, we had the option to rewrite the paper – as many times as we’d desired. The only grade that would count would be the last version submitted.
Although anxious about the volume of writing, this sounded feasible to my seventeen-year old, virgin ears. I spent the next few days deciphering the first four chapters of Paradise Lost, wrote my paper and called home to tell my folks that all was well.
And it was, until I got back the graded paper. It was covered in ink. Every sentence was edited – several times. “Wrong word choice.” “This makes no sense.” “You already said this.”
I got a “D+” – not the way I planned to start my college career.
After a few bouts of despair, I took solace from the fact that others had received similar grades. I also knew I could rewrite the paper to receive a new grade. I already had another paper due, however, and from Ermarth’s comments on the first paper, it was clear the second paper wouldn’t fare much better than its predecessor. I had to redraft my second paper as well as the first – and in those days we had to type everything on a typewriter that had no self-correcting features (we used liquid paper to cover our mistakes). I put in a few late nights to catch up.
I got a “C-” on the rewrite and no grade on the second paper.
“What’s on the pages seems much ado about a small point, namely that the form of the work is a device to involve the reader. This is true of any work in any language, and so in effect you say nothing in saying this. The language isn’t bad, considering how hard it is to write well without an argument to develop…much of your argument here is merely assertion, which of course is no argument at all.”
Ermarth had given us the opportunity to suggest our grade. I had given myself a B-.
“Your evaluation seems optimistic.”
I called home in a panic. I was in over my head. Even after my Dad’s pep-talk – “They wouldn’t have let you in if they didn’t think you could do the work.” – I wasn’t so sure.
I went back to writing, now with a new third paper and two re-writes behind it. I began to think the professor was sadistic – until I realized that she had to grade every paper we submitted. Okay, so I figured, maybe sadomasochistic.
I got to the point where I was writing or re-writing (and typing) a paper each night. And I, who never had gotten a “C” in my life, was relieved to get a “C+” on any of my first drafts.
I rewrote the Lost paper five times (for an A-/B+, thank you). I rewrote one on Camus’s The Fall four times (never choose an existentialist subject with an English professor) and was relieved to get away with a gracious C+.
Needless to say, English 5 did nothing to help my fear of writing. After ten weeks of sweating through paper after paper, I ended the term with an exhausting B+. It was the last English class I took at Dartmouth. As you can imagine, I now consider this an enormous personal loss. Dartmouth had some of the finest English professors (including Ermarth) on the planet. More risk averse than I am today, I was foolish and cowardly to pass them by.
I still have a fear of writing, although it is less pronounced than it was during my freshman year at college. I could not have imagined then, during those early autumn walks to class in Sanborn House, that I would wind up a writer. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have had my suspicions. There are only four files from my days at Dartmouth still in my writing desk. Ermarth’s edits of my English 5 papers is one of them.