Ben Jonson in the Composition Classroom

As a PhD student of Renaissance literature and rhetoric and a first-year composition teacher, I often look to Renaissance and Classical sources to inform my teaching. One that I am particularly fond of is Timber, Or Discoveries (1641) by Ben Jonson. This work is greatly influenced by Euripedes, Quintilian, and Seneca, among others. In this work, Jonson offers some wise words on teaching writing. Two of my favorite statements are quoted and addressed below:

 “For rules are always of less force, and value, than experiments.”

To soften the writing blow that many first-year college students suffer, I refrain from barraging students with a list of writing do’s and don’ts, as even the do’s are rules and connote constraint. Instead, I tell my students that their job is to clearly communicate to their audience. I leave it up to them to determine how best to accomplish this. In this way, my students do not approach the first writing assignment as if I’m asking them to cross a minefield, afraid to make a move lest they risk being blown to inept pieces. During the workshopping of drafts, students share their experimentation, and I take advantage of this sharing to explain why things are working for their paper… or not. To de-emphasize rule-based writing, I focus on the logic or function of the elements of composition, including sentence structure and punctuation. Instead of teaching rules (primarily the don’ts), I teach response, in that I teach students to write in the service of the topic, purpose, and reader–not in the service of rules. Their needs as writers are simultaneously filled. Yes, following writing rules helps one achieve the goal of effective writing. However, my point is that learning seems, in my experience, better achieved when the rhetoric and approach are shifted from a machine-gun firing of do’s and don’ts to an emphasis on writerly obligation and empowerment. In this way, my students are made aware that they should act upon their writing rather than let their writing act upon them. A writing pedagogy that emphasizes rules, even the do’s, creates a wariness in the learner, immediately quashing, to some degree, desire, creativity, growth, and confidence. Which leads me to the next Ben Jonson quote:

“No more would I tell a green writer all his faults, lest I should make him grieve and faint, and at last despair. For nothing doth more hurt than to make him so afraid of all things, as he can endeavour nothing.”

I put this quote, along with Cicero’s “To write without clarity and charm is a miserable waste of time and ink,” on my syllabus. On the first day of class, we talk about both and spend time reconciling the two, since they contradict each other in tone. Because of this contradiction, students don’t immediately grasp the pedagogical connection that has as its bridge the writing growth that occurs from the Jonsonian treatment. To have a little fun with the dramatic nature of the quote, I take a poll: How many of you would grieve? A few raised hands. How many would faint? No admissions. How many would despair? A few raised hands. How many would feel like you could not succeed and would thus fear the requirement to write another paper? Just about every one in each class admits to this, indicating the real possibility that such heavy marking would cause a fear of “all the [writing] things” and lead to the feeling that one “can endeavour nothing.” As commenting and grading on students’ drafts, including the final ones, are part of the teaching process, these practices should reflect our teaching philosophies, not contradict them.

What do you do to encourage your students to embrace their own potential for writing growth and maintain their confidence in it? Please share your insights and advice!


Happy teaching!

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