Last week I wrote about a successful businessman who said that the most important thing a student can learn for a successful career in business is how to write because when you learn how to write, you learn how to think. Along these lines I will cast back to my tenure, before teaching, in an engineering and construction company whose president became Secretary of State. (Before his work in business he had served in three other cabinet positions.) Occasionally a memo from the president would cross my humble desk. When one did, I was always impressed by its lucidity and freedom from jargon, cliché and baloney.
These four qualities help us to know what to look for in good writing; others can be found in Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Take for example their dictum that ‘classic prose’ is to be read not solved. If you don’t immediately know what kind of bad writing I am talking about, look at the winners of the late Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest to see. Another justly famous kind of badness is Orwell’s translation of a famous passage from Ecclesiastes into polysyllabic flab.
How do we judge good and bad writing? This posting went into some detail, but for today’s discussion I want to reprint an excerpt from an essay by a high-school student that got an undeserved 4/6 from the New York State Regents, a passable mark. It opens, “In life, ‘no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,’ as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints.” It is entirely free of content except the title extract, whose sense is repeated three times, the third time with question-begging. A good writing teacher (but not software that marks writing) could help the student see and solve these problems. A good writing test would give such writing a failing grade.
Arum and Roksa say that college students are more likely to learn when they have teachers with high expectations, and of course this goes for high-school students too. It’s therefore a pity that so many ‘universities’ systematically prevent this from occurring by basing personnel decisions on surveys taken of students who are more interested in ease than in expectation. But a teacher must not just ‘have’ expectations; he or she must act on them, and schools and universities must establish and maintain conditions in which this teacherly action is possible. It is hard work, so there must not be too much of it to do properly.
Two of my students got full marks on their IB Literature Extended Essays, which I supervised. The IBO prescribes five hours of contact time between student and supervisor, though the supervisor must obviously spend the preparation time needed to make the contact valuable. What is more, the supervisor is forbidden to edit or proofread drafts. The two students and I conferred at all stages of the work, and as the diplomats say, the discussions were productive. The students are bright and productive; they had a thing or two to learn not just about their subjects but also about writing and thinking; and they learned it. (One was on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; the other was on Calvin and Hobbes.)
Oh, yes: two others did not get full marks. One of them still got an A, adopting a risky strategy for rewriting midway through the process, in which the risk paid off. The other, whose best writing is as good as high-school writing gets, was not motivated by the task and wrote as if not motivated. This brings us to a very important point that ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ overlook: a teacher with the best will in the world can lead the proverbial horse to water but can’t make him drink.
One thing the teacher has, or ought to have, in addition to functioning good judgment, is the fortitude to use it, and to back it up with grades, including failing grades. If little Dobbin wants to make messes on the sidewalk and eat the flowers from the garden, he must be made to learn that it is not all right. It’s the same as with Alex’s sailing school (see last week’s posting): you’ve got to learn to right the boat, and you’ve got to do so by actually righting a boat. As with sailing, so with writing: the way to learn writing is to write. The writing must be criticized, and it must be done again and again. That is what Arum and Roksa’s ‘writing-intensive course’ is.
One way to show what schools and universities are doing would be to subject student writing to the Newspaper Test. In this test five A and five B papers are selected randomly and published anonymously in the daily community newspaper with this introduction:
‘STU is proud to present this random selection of excellent and good student writing so the community can see how well its students are learning this essential task.’