August 27, 2006

Tell me something about yourself...

Professor Samwick has a very interesting, very convincing post up this morning. It argues that the central reason why collegiate writing skills are in such a sorry state is that the emphasis of writing is clearly on self-expression (rather than clear communication) through much of our education.
There is no denying that many of the college students that I teach are extremely bright. As such, they have been encouraged from a very early age to "express" themselves. Writing for them is a very self-oriented process, as if it is a reply to the admonition, "Show us how smart you are."

This is acceptable for a student in grade school, but as a student matures, writing needs to become more about communication and less about expression per se. (This is true even if the purpose of writing is still for students to show us how smart they are.) Communication is oriented toward the needs of the audience, particularly the audience's need to be persuaded of something in order to change its mind. This is certainly the case every time I read a student's term paper, an article in a professional journal, or an opinion piece.
Professor Samwick also references another post that throws in the lack of reading as another reason why students are such poor writers. However, I think that post (and the sources it references) misses the point of why reading widely is important for good writing skills. I think too much faith is placed in the idea that a student can become a good writer simply by reading good writers. I somehow doubt that reading Shakespeare will elicit epiphanies of better syntax or that Wordsworth gives one an idea of how to make a convincing argument.

The reason why reading widely helps with writing well is that it builds up a reservoir of ideas and a depth of thought which one can bring to bear on new topics. If one does not have this reservoir, I cannot see how one can possibly think of something to say. I would not go so far as to say that this lack of something to say results directly in tortured grammar and poor argumentation, but in working with students attempting to write a paper, the first thing I realize is that they have very little idea of what could be said about their topic, mostly because they cannot enter into a dialogue with others who have thought and written on similar or connected topics.

I think this connects with Professor Samwick's point about self-expression in that many students seem to be taught that this larger dialogue is, not quite irrelevant, but unnecessary in the process of writing a paper. What is important is what comes from one's own mind.

Of course, when there is absolutely nothing in that mind, what is going to come out?

Not to prolong this post too much, but I think the fantastic play "The History Boys" can make an interesting point here.

In the play, two teachers, Hector and Irwin, exhibit very different ideas of what makes for good scholarship. Hector is of the opinion that the only way to get something out of the boys of any value is to fill their heads with Auden and Housman and the like, and simply skim from the top of what will be a marvelous collection of quotations and memorized couplets. Irwin believes that all of that is rubbish and what is important is contrarian thinking, a sort of method without content that seeks mainly to surprise and provoke. (A very good article about all this is found here, at Slate.)

One might think that I am about to say that a little of both methods together could provide what is necessary for proper writing. But, in fact, neither method is suitable, I think, though Irwin's does find success in the play. Both strategies focus on self-expression: Hector encourages meaningless bacchanals of poetry-quoting and Irwin openly describes history as only a kind of "performance."

However, standing in opposition to each other, the two strategies give the boys an example of a dialectic, and one which cannot be resolved in a perfect synthesis. I think, essentially, that most students are incapable of dialectical thinking because they are unused to having more than one idea in their head at a time, mostly due to the fact that their reading is so shallow and they are familiar with very few ideas about any given topic. When one does not have more than one idea about a thing before one, how can one possibly say anything oneself—how can one find a space in which to speak when one cannot see the terrain?

Batteries do not run, I believe, when only one electrode is in contact with something else. Self-expression is just that--an effort at contact in only one direction. Self-expression is not self-directed; it is outwardly directed, but it draws on nothing further. And that is, I think, what makes writing so poor in so many cases.

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