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 Yet my boss insisted that demonstrating our comfort with consulting-sector jargon superseded the goal of communicating our value as clearly as possible.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. 

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