Oh, you almost had me again, Stanley

There’s a kind of curious entry/article on Stanley Fish’s New York Times “blog,” “What Should Colleges Teach? Part 2,” which is about writing instruction and which picks up on his previous article, which I blogged about here. I posted a response on the NYTimes site, but since I have no idea if it will appear there or not, I thought I’d just post it here:

I have to say this seems more of a “revision” of your previous post and less a “response.”  After all, in part one of this series, you seemed to be all for a traditional view of teaching grammar and rhetoric:  you cited the conservative organization the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and you did write “I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.”  Now you are saying that it is “of course” nonsense to teach grammar out of context.  But as I am sure you are aware, most administrators, the ACTA, and “people on the street” would interpret the phrase “teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else” as “teach grammar out of context.”

Be that as it may, I agree with your revision, more or less, though I would argue that form in writing various depending on purpose and audience.  This is why it is is important that universities are pushing more toward writing within disciplines while simultaneously acknowledging that writing is a field/discipline that itself has content and a purpose.  This is why departments separate from “English” have emerged at many colleges and universities.

But what I still see missing in your response/revision is addressing the issue of “the kids today.”  The way I read it, you were pointing to anecdotal evidence that college students writing skills were getting worse to support your criticism of “the composition establishment.”  This sentiment was certainly echoed in many of the comments, where writers agreed with you that the students today do not write nearly as well as the students of the past.

So, I was wondering what you make of the Stanford Study on Writing, which has received some (albeit more modest) attention recently.  The basic argument of Andrea Lunsford and its other researchers is that the youth of today write in more places and for more purposes than they ever have before.  Lunsford goes so far as to say “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.”  This is a lofty claim for sure, but it does appear to be based on actual research, not unlike the Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer article you cite here.

Have you revised/revisited your impression of the sorry state of today’s college writers?  Or is that too part of your response/revision here?

2 thoughts on “Oh, you almost had me again, Stanley”

  1. I am not old enough to confirm the rumor that, once, all law school graduates wrote with the rhetorical skill of Learned Hand. From time to time, though, I come across business letters or legal documents written by average joes in the first part of the 20th century, and they often seem to show better clarity of thought than what I see from “the kids today.” In comparison, every year I interview law students who are about to graduate, and every year I am dismayed by writing samples that demonstrate real ignorance of basic rules of grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Obviously, my sample is not big enough to be statistically significant, but it certainly seems like these post-graduates are, every year, getting worse at writing, not better. This is anecdotal, but it’s the impression that I have.

    To be fair, I don’t the the answer — or blame — lies in pedagogy. (Some of it, likely, is the product of the money-grubbing expansionist greed of law shools: but that’s the work of the business office rather than the teaching faculty.)

    Some of the problem, as you point out, is probably the bias of the observer. For example, I tend to prefer late 19th and early 20th century writers over their more modern descendants. My view of good writing is largely colored by the tendency to compare what I read now with what I have read in the past. Writing styles evolve, and I do not keep pace.

    Some of the problem may be the result of the acceleration of written communication — the deadline for responding to an email may be minutes, whereas the deadline for responding to a letter might be hours, days, or weeks. We grow accustomed to blasting words out quickly, without taking the time to construct elegant conceits. I don’t think this is exactly the sort of “revolution” the Stanford Study people were talking about, but it is certainly a force that is causing a change in how people think and write.

    Of course, pedagogy comes into it somewhere; no one is born a good writer. Henry Adams (of whom I am a fan) in his “Education” wrote about how he would send letters back from Europe to his brother, who would have them published in the Boston paper. He made this observation, which stuck with me: “He had little to say, and said it not very well, but that mattered less. The habit of expression leads to the search for something to express.” Even though this thought is a hundred years old, I think most bloggers would agree that it is true. People who blog a lot look for and find things to blog about. The converse is also true: people who can’t find or think of things to blog about usually stop blogging.

    In a sense, this is the conclusion the Stanford people drew about “performative” writing. (My understanding of “performative” speech seems to be different from that of the Stanford people. To me, performative words have a hocus pocus quality like, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The study seems to use “performative” to mean either “performed” or “influential” or “life-changing.”) I don’t have the background to effectively paraphrase the study, but my take on it is that students who are interested in writing write better. To make students interested in writing, have them express themselves in a medium other than email or journal entries. Have them write letters to important people about important issues. Have a poetry slam.

    As I understand it, the longitudinal study examined 189 students over five years. By comparison, I have probably interviewed five or ten students a year for fifteen years. By the time I interview them, though, they have already completed — at least — one undergraduate composition class. They have probably taken a legal writing class, and written one or more “performative” pieces. These pieces might include mock trial briefs — or real trial or appellate briefs, if they have worked for a law firm. They may have taken part in or written scholarly pieces for publication in academic journals or law reviews. One would think that they would be interested in the subject matter. And yet, so much of their writing sucks.

    In this regard, I’m not talking about “sucks” in the sense that these proto-lawyers lack rhetorical style. (“Symbolicity,” I think is the word Lunsford uses, which to me suggests some sort of Russian-doll structure of symbolism inside semiotics inside anthropology.) I’m talking, again, about grammar, syntax, and paragraph structure. To the extent that verve can supplant rhetoric, they often have plenty of that, but usually by the third year of law school they’ve learned that one exclamation point will suffice. Symbolicity they’ve got plenty of. It’s logic and clarity that they lack.

    And, so, here’s my layman’s criticism of the study: Nothing To See Here, Please Move Along. Show and Tell may make students more interested in the class, but it won’t make them better writers. What will? Beats me.

    Your pal,

  2. My general problem with Fish’s discussion is that it presupposes that the writing from twenty or thirty years ago is objectively better than the writing today. I’m willing to grant that twenty or thirty years ago, students probably followed the grammatical rules better than they do today, but twenty or thirty years ago, written communication was a much different ballgame, and English itself was different.

    Technology has shifted and reshaped the way we communicate at a speed that is, I believe, unprecedented. The old rules are still valid, but at the same time, we’re developing new rules (what percentage of my generation understands the grammar and spelling of texting?). English seems to be splitting more clearly into High English, which is the written language of school and business, and Low English, which is the written language of texts, e-mails and journal posts. From where I’m standing, people, not just students, are trying to use the (still developing) rule-set of Low English in High English situations, and I think that’s where the disconnect is.

    I don’t believe there’s an easy solution at the moment. English is changing and adapting to what society makes of it, and those changes are happening too rapidly for everyone to settle in and figure out when to use one rule-set instead of the other. Maybe in another twenty or thirty years, things will have calmed down a bit, or maybe the students of today will be complaining about the next generation’s lack of respect for proper l33t speak.

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