John Adams on the Foundations of Good Writing

By Kelly Davis

Name: John Adams
Courses taught: Grammar Lab

Who among us doesn’t have not-so-fond memories of elementary school grammar lessons? But it’s likely none of us had as perfect a comeback to a split-infinitive-stickler as John Adams. (To find out exactly what Adams told Sister Thaddeus, you’ll have to read the Q&A below.) Adams is an accomplished playwright whose latest, "Golden Land," debuts at St. Marys College in Maryland in June before heading to the Manhattan Repertory Theater in New York. But he’s not forgotten those early grammar lessons which, however tedious, put him on the path to becoming a wordsmith and educator. Though, his approach to teaching is much different than the classroom of his youth. “The field of teaching requires patient endurance and a love for empowering students to become active collaborators in the construction of knowledge,” he says.

How did you get started in your field?

Having two younger brothers, I often found myself mentoring and tutoring them particularly with regards to reading and writing. We attended a Catholic grade school, St. Anthonys, where the nuns labored long and hard each day attempting to instill in all their students a life-long love for learning among other virtues. In the 1950s and ’60s, diagramming sentences was the touchstone of Catholic English curriculum, a skill that served me well in my future language studies in Greek, Hebrew, French and Latin. I sometimes wonder if the sisters who taught me believed their immortal souls were in jeopardy if my fellow students and I did not master basics of English grammar. Whatever the underlying reason for their passionate desire to impart their knowledge, they achieved their goals despite the fact they oversaw 50 students in a classroom.

When I was in in sixth grade, my father began teaching vocational shop at a large public high school. Sunday through Thursday every week of the school year, we would watch him sitting at the dining room table where he planned his lessons (yes, even shop class required lesson plans and a textbook, which I still have today) in preparation for the following day. I marveled at his ability to construct a lesson that would engage his students to become active collaborators in mastering the intricacies of the automobile's internal combustion engine, electrical system, carburetor, exhaust manifold, etc.

After serving in the Air Force and following that with working in a steel mill for a year, I went on to graduate from St. Louis University and then off to the University of Southern California, where I was the assistant editor on an award-winning graduate film. There I honed my skills in creative writing. I was subsequently mentored by Carol Roper, an award-wining playwright and screenwriter, and I went on to earn a graduate certificate in creative writing from the Humber School for Writers. In 2016, my play, "In the Shadow of a Dream," was produced at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York City, and in June of this year, my latest one-act play, "Golden Land," will make its debut at the Bruce Davis Theater on the campus of St. Marys College and then move to the Manhattan Repertory Theater in New York.

Teaching and writing are my two passions, and I was blessed with great role models who continue to inspire me: tenacious nuns, a loving dad and the brilliant Carol Roper.

What do most enjoy about your job? 
The students I have had the honor of teaching are what make this more than a job. They make it a vocation. Their inquiring minds constantly challenge me to find just the right way to explain a principle so that it is understandable and easily mastered.

What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the field? 

When a teacher provides students with multiple opportunities to actively engage in constructing their own understanding of the content, when a teacher encourages students to embrace inquiry (a question is the answer), when a teacher is willing to continue to support students in their learning even after a course ends, the field becomes a fertile one: both student and teacher are nourished. To be a writer, write often and let the writing take you where it wants to go—to the darkest depths, to the shining stars.  

How is your field changing? What new skills do people need to stay current? 

Because I teach prescriptive grammar, I recognize the fact that the rules of grammar change at a glacial pace, although what I see of the receding glaciers around the world, perhaps my description needs reworking. When Sister Thaddeus intoned how horrific it was to split an infinitive as she wrote in flowing cursive on the chalkboard “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and corrected it with “to go boldly,” I had the temerity to say, “But Sister, the iambic rhythm is lost in not splitting the infinitive.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. Of course my culpa lay not in the stars, but in her teaching us poetry and how rhythm and meter complement the poetic experience. I do wonder, though, how long the relative pronoun “whom” will remain before it hangs up its special place and joins the pronoun “you” with one form for both subject and object. In 2016, the Associated Press announced a new style manual prior to the American Copy Editors Society's conference. The new style manual stated that “internet” would no longer be capitalized. Regularly updating ones knowledge of current style manuals has become a must.

The field of teaching itself has changed substantially from when I was a student. As a student, it was a time when the “sage on the stage” delivered the information, and the student was an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. Today we recognize multiple learning styles and the need to develop courses that provide students with a variety of activities that meet the needs of all learners. Because the course is delivered digitally through Blackboard, instructors need to be competent in using the platform and working online.

What do you like most about working for Extension?  

Originally the current course that I teach was on the UC San Diego campus. Being on campus limited its reach to students in the San Diego area. Once the course went online, its global reach is limited only by access to the internet. I have had students living in Katmandu, Israel, China and from nearly all 50 states. This has been a wonderful opportunity to offer a positive experience in cultural diversity. I also appreciate working with the highly professional staff of Extension. Their support is invaluable.

We understand the value of high quality writing in today's information-driven world, and we offer a wide array of courses and programs to hone those skills such as Copyediting, Children’s Book Writing, Creative Writing, Digital Media Content Creation, Medical Writing and Technical Communication. Learn more today and continue on your writing journey with UC San Diego Extension.

UC San Diego Extension
Hi Debra: We follow AP style on our blog, so some of editing choices may appear out of the norm to you. However, if you see errors, please feel free to drop us a line at and we'll be happy to update them (assuming they fall within our editing guidelines).
11/16/2017 6:10:21 PM

Someone should really correct the grammar in this Q&A. It doesn't instill a lot of confidence in the course.
11/16/2017 5:40:46 PM

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