My English Teachers Were All Right, They Were Just Teaching Me All Wrong (What Everyone Should Know About English Class)

My English teachers were all right, they were just teaching me all wrong…

Education + code + writing = a deadly combination


Wisdom from Stackoverflow

I wish I had read this post by Jeff Atwood of Stackoverflow when I was in middle school. In it, he stresses the importance of written communication for coders, but from my perspective his argument holds for achieving just about any significant task that includes more than a single person. One of humanity’s fundamental assets is our ability to work together, but part of efficient collaboration is having the ability to clearly communicate our ideas to other people.

East Coast Education

My East Coast education always stressed the importance of writing. In elementary and middle school, English teachers were equivalent of the clergy during the Catholic Church’s political dominance in medieval Europe wielding (what I believed at the time) to be a vastly unreasonably large influence. I preferred the far more interesting and “productive” activities available such as programming calculator games in Math class and hustling trading cards during recess and later the hard sciences where I could (a bite often more challengingly) gauge my progress in objective test scores rather than the subjective grades of my humanities teachers. Yet, like any good East Coast overachiever I listened to my elders, sucked it up, and to quote Martin Hu of Tezzit shoved my healthy dose of writing down my throat “like vitamins.” (Outside of subjective standards) writing wasn’t that bad, my teachers just never presented it as being applicable outside itself.

Whereas I was taught to change compounds in chemistry, chart trajectories in math, and (attempt to) predict the future in history, no one ever showed me how do anything with my writing in English class other than “write.” You could write an article. You could write a book. You could write a paper. But the option of doing something with the writing was never explicitly conveyed.

You’ll Never Regret Those Vitamins (no matter how much you hate them)

When I left the East Coast, I had some delusion that I would somehow outrun writing. The last thing I expected was to voluntarily work at it like my life depends on it. Why?

1) I want to bring people together to get things done. It is unbelievable how important and sometimes challenging effective communication can be. You need to be able to communicate ideas to your teammates, your advisors, your investors, and most importantly your customers.

2) I’ve realized that some of the most amazing people I know can not only code like heck, but are also avid writers. To name a few:

  • Professor Eric Roberts – Legendary CS faculty at Stanford and twice my professor (for the humanities AND computer science).
  • Anthony Mainero – One hour talking to my classmate and you know you have met a genuine polymath in the making.
  • Andrew Brown – The reason I can’t stop talking about Missouri while in California.

3) Exposure to advice like Jeff Atwood’s post or Jack Dorsey’s ETL talk has shown me the real life applicability of writing outside the classroom. Effective writing and communication can reign in a startup team going in 100 directions onto a single, focused path; a masterful narrative can win over a customer or investor; and (I like to dream) one day eloquent prose may win the heart of a special someone.

The last reason is one which I wish I believe EVERYONE who has ever taken a pen and paper to the written English language (or any language for that matter) should internalize as early as they can in their life. It’s something that my English teachers never taught me. Truly understanding the applicability of their field would have been a whole new level of motivation to learn their art. Perhaps it is unusual for me to have this a personal “ah ha moment” after almost two decades of education, but I am so glad I did.

So to My English Teachers:

Yes, you were teaching me it all the wrong way.

Yes, I admit English is useful after all.

Yes, you will have the last laugh reading this post, but I am eternally grateful you taught me, and thank you 100 fold for giving me those tough tasting vitamins!

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