Thursday, 29 March 2018

What if Students Want to Write Poorly?

I was re-reading George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” recently and was struck by the relevance it still holds today. To recap, Orwell argues that the “ugly and inaccurate” use of written English that he witnessed during his time was not the mere by-product of untalented writers. Rather, it was a distinct trend motivated by political orthodoxies that sought to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Being the friend of many English instructors, I was particularly interested in Orwell’s suggestion that poor writing serves a strategic purpose, that it reflects the motives of writers whose goals are better served by vagueness than by clarity. Nearly every person I know who has taught a writing class has expressed frustration or dismay at the difficulty of turning a poor writer into a good one. When considered alongside Orwell’s essay, this challenge provokes me to ask: what if students want to write poorly?

What if they bring to writing a set of assumptions and goals that are incompatible with clear, concise expression?

Finally, how can understanding and addressing these assumptions and goals help instructors succeed in fostering better writers?
When I was fresh out of graduate school and looking for work in the private sector, I landed a part-time job as a proposal writer for an IT security company based in Toronto. Armed with a PhD in English Literature, I vibrated with excitement at the opportunity to prove my more practically-minded relatives wrong by showing how valuable my skills could be in the “real world.” I wasn’t prepared for the setback I’d experience after handing my boss my first draft proposal.

The man emailed the document back to me almost immediately demanding a full rewrite, noting that the document “didn’t speak the language” that was necessary to gain credibility in the IT sector. I needed to use more words like synergistic, architect (as a verb), leverage (also as a verb), and utilize. This last word pained me even more than the others, since Orwell himself once advised his readers never to trust someone who uses the word “utilize” when they could just as easily use “use.” Yet my boss insisted that demonstrating our comfort with consulting-sector jargon superseded the goal of communicating our value as clearly as possible. He also asked me to add more than ten pages of extraneous material simply to make the document appear more detailed and rigorous.
In another instance, I found myself arguing on the phone with a representative from a company that had overcharged me for a tax-filing service. Over and over, the young man on the other end explained to me: “It has been decided that you will not receive a refund.” Repeatedly, I demanded that the young man admit that a human being, located somewhere in the world, was responsible for this decision. But he wouldn’t budge from his use of the passive voice, and kept repeating “It has been decided” until I gave up in Kafkaesque despair.
What I soon learned in my postgraduate life was that even though clear expression is a great gift, the world constantly calls on us to obscure what we are saying for personal or professional ends. There are daily occasions where we must choose not to express ourselves clearly, but must pad our writing and speech with innumerable qualifications in order to achieve specific ends, whether it be to soften our tone when delivering bad news or to qualify our thinking with a dozen layers of nuance.  
To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: what might motivate a student to write poorly? As many instructors will no doubt attest, teaching students to write well can be very difficult, even over the course of a four-year university degree program. A student might spend a few more hours than usual studying for a biology exam and expect to improve their grade on their next test. Yet spending a few extra hours on an English term paper (while always a fine idea), does not carry the same level of correlation to an improved mark. Anyone who has ever heard a student say something along the lines of, “But I worked so much harder on this one!” understands that this lack of correlation between increased effort and instant payoff can be a source of great frustration for students and instructors alike.
Mastering the mechanics and style of good writing is a long and difficult process. But I’m convinced that it is longer and more difficult than it needs to be, due to the assumptions and motives that students bring to the process.
Anyone who has ever taught a writing class will recognize the line, “Since the dawn of time, man has always…” This common opening reflects the writer’s inability to assign an appropriate level of scope to their argument. But it also reveals something more—the student’s engrained belief that English class is a place for lofty statements, the bolder the better. Such lines are the product of a culture whose concept of an English professor has not advanced beyond the likes of John Keating in Dead Poets Society.
To summarize, teaching students to write well is difficult not only because the craft itself is hard to master, but also because of the false beliefs and counterproductive motives that inform students’ concept of what writing is supposed to accomplish. For many people, and young people especially, writing is meant to convey one’s grandest ideas and to persuade others to agreement. Accomplishing as much will require a writer who can go beyond simple, clear statements. However, one can’t progress to the strategic use of language until they’ve grasped how to write an idea in simple terms. But as I’ve seen countless times, many people will actively resist putting their grandest ideas into simple terms.
One of the greatest gifts of youth is a belief in the uniqueness and world-shaping significance of one’s ideas. For many, these ideas exist not in words, but in the boundless enthusiasm that one might feel for a fragment or image that feels extremely insightful. Unfortunately, these ideas are much like dreams—incredibly interesting to the person who experiences them, but equally vague and boring to those who don’t. The holder of the idea will often resist expressing it in plain language, for fear of killing the happiness it inspires in them. Considered in the daylight of clear expression, the idea reveals itself to be not nearly as unique or compelling as its creator initially thought. This resistance to clear expression isn’t limited to young people. There are many adults I’ve met in my postgraduate life (especially entrepreneurs) who’d much rather preserve their enthusiasm for a vague idea than ruin it by trying to set it down in clear terms.  
This is all to say that there are powerful motives informing people’s unwillingness (and yes, I call it an unwillingness) to write clearly. When seen as the product of unwillingness as much as the product of inability, poor writing reveals why it is such a difficult problem to address.
I haven’t written anything in this essay that experienced writing instructors don’t already know. What I’d like to pose again, though, is the question: how might students and instructors both benefit if writing classes explored the motives of poor writing as thoroughly as they addressed the mechanics of strong writing? I'd be very interested in hearing people's thoughts on this subject in the comments below. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Right to Speak is Not the Right to be Heard

Free speech advocates will often accuse so-called Social Justice Warriors of shutting down speech with nothing more than a claim to victimhood, as though the marginalization of specific groups were based solely on a person’s squishy feeling of being victimized and not a matter of historical record (which it is. Anti-Jewish state propaganda exists. Laws banning women from voting exist. Look ‘em up). The next claim is that while such laws might have once existed, we’ve cleared them all away and now we’re all on an equal footing (let the moral hand-dusting begin). How these people would explain the overrepresentation of African Americans and Indigenous peoples in the prison system, or the high likelihood of assault being committed on members of the LGQTQ++ community remains a mystery to me if group-based marginalization doesn’t exist.

If these free speech advocates want us to be super specific about which speech SJWs want to shut down and which speech they don’t, they need to be equally rigorous about the flip side of the equation: what does and does not constitute a violation of a person’s freedom of speech? When we ask this question, we see just as much hand-waving by free speech “victims” as they accuse SJWs of engaging in.

So let’s start off with a baseline for a violation of a person’s freedom of speech.

Case #1: When the government threatens to legally prosecute, intimidate, or disappear someone based on something they’ve said.

That’s it. Seriously. That’s it.

The Antifa groups that sometimes engage in violence such as Nazi punching?

Nope, not a violation of a person’s freedom of speech. Even if you don’t believe in violence, this is a violation of a person’s right not to be assaulted. The assailant might not know the person is a Nazi at all. They may have thought the person in question was looking at them cockeyed. Even if you don’t believe in punching Nazis, this is (and is only) a violation of a person’s right not to be assaulted.

When a university denies someone the right to speak on campus?

Newp. Not a violation of their freedom of speech. This is a matter of campus policy. Different campuses have different policies about who can come onto their campus and speak, and they can change these rules any time they want. There may be some argument here based on the fact that these are publicly funded institutions, but the fact remains that policies about who can and can’t come speak on campus are different at different schools.

When I start screaming at someone to shut up and drown them out?

No, this doesn’t constitute a violation of that person’s freedom of speech. If it did, the free speech advocate would have to admit that speech in itself is capable of violating another person’s rights. That means speech is a form of violence, and the entire divide between speech and violence that free speech advocates rely on would come crashing down.

The screaming example raises another important point, and it’s one I repeat to myself whenever people start talking about their free speech being violated.

The right to speak is not the right to be heard.

In recent conversations on the internet (and they have been actual productive conversations), I’ve engaged free speech advocates about the idea of internet “mobbing” of those who express unpopular views, be it on the right or left. One claim to victimhood that is constantly made by free speech advocates is that when more than a few people (let’s say more than five) gang up on someone to call them a Nazi or some other epithet, this somehow constitutes a violation of that person’s speech. To these people, being a person who bravely presents a dissenting view to a group orthodoxy somehow constitutes a more authentic act of speech than those who just so happen to share a common reprisal. We can talk all we want about the necessity of maintaining civil discourse and a rational exchange of ideas, but this doesn’t come close to violating that person’s freedom of speech. If Twitter (a private company) bans that person or the people who come after them, it doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom of speech.

Why not?

Because the right to speak is not the right to be heard.