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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

The Search for the Origins of Pseudo-academic B.S.
October 20, 2013 - 3:52pm

One of the more common issues my first year writing students struggle with is the propensity to write what I’ve come to refer to as, “Pseudo-academic B.S." (PABS).

Anyone who’s taught first-year writing knows the symptoms of PABS, a ten-dollar word substituted for a ten-cent one, sprinklings of “plethora,” “myriad,” and “quintessential.” The tone of the prose sounds like a Masterpiece Theater host who’s swallowed a dictionary and enjoys mangling syntax. A simple idea like, “Smart phone use has increased by 43% among today’s college students,” comes out as: “University undergraduates engage with new touch screen technology phones in increasingly significant ways, which is belied by the fact that 43% of them now do it more.”

I mark these passages in my students’ essays and ask them where they come from and they suggest to me that these practices have been rewarded in the past, that the straightforward sentence is somehow, “too simple,” and that effective prose involves right-clicking and calling up the thesaurus function on their word processing software in order to sound, “smarter.”

A recent article at Slate suggests a possible origin for PABS that shows up in myriad ways across a plethora of assignments in quintessentially egregious ways: the SAT essay section. Author Matthew J.X. Malady argues that when it comes to doing well on the SAT essay section, trying to write something accurate and true is actually a hindrance.

Malady believes this is caused by two related factors. One is the essay parameters themselves: a short prompt followed by a 25 minute window for planning, writing, and revising. With such a short time frame, actually trying to recall facts to support a thesis is near impossible. A much better strategy is to make something up which sounds good.

The second factor is the scoring methodology. Each essay is read by two graders who have no more than three minutes to render a verdict, making it difficult to assess the work for anything other than its general resemblance to effective writing.

In the words of Les Perlman, the former Writing Across the Curriculum director at MIT, as quoted by Malady, “What they’re actually testing is the ability to bullshit on demand.”

I have little doubt that the SAT essay test and other standardized writing assessments are a factor in this phenomenon. Students are indeed being rewarded for spinning B.S.

But I also believe this is part of a larger issue of how we view education. I think it’s a problem of orientation, of they way we signal what school and learning is for, and how it’s done. In essence, I believe we privilege the “having done” over the “doing,” the result over the process, the ends over the means, and in so doing, we are creating generations of students that don’t actually believe in learning, because in the system we ask them to operate within, learning has limited value.

The clearest example of this phenomenon is almost certainly high stakes standardized testing. By definition and design, these exams privilege a score over anything that may have happened prior to the test. “Teaching to the test” very clearly tells students which part of the equation is important and that the purpose of learning is measured only by how well you do when it “counts.”

We have decided that what matters in education is the scoreboard, and it matters little how the points get up there.

But this isn’t the only place we see this sort of attitude. Last year’s cheating scandal at Harvard is another example. Hundreds of students endeavored to work around the guidelines for a take-home test, arguing that doing so, despite it being prohibited by the instructor, was “smart.” The test was a problem to be solved and the best solution was the easiest one in order to produce the highest score. Howard Gardner, an expert in leadership and ethics and a professor at the university commented on the phenomenon by saying, “They feared that their peers were cutting corners and that if they themselves behaved ethically, they would be bested.”

I see it in my students who would choose guaranteed A’s over actually attending class and learning something. (A phenomenon I wrote about in greater depth here.) I see it as well at a concert where more people are viewing the performance via their smart phone screens, making sure the moments are captured for posterity, rather than experiencing it in the present.

Even the intriguing new trends of “gamification” or “badging” where competencies are rewarded with virtual emblems of “success,” privilege the having done over the doing. Aren’t we potentially signaling to students that it doesn’t matter how the badge was attained? The work around is just as good, right?

And how are they going to work well once the world stops offering them badges? And what if badges don’t actually make us happy or successful?

This orientation towards product and away from process is particularly corrosive to good writing because everything we know about writing well tells us that it is indeed the product of a good and comprehensive process.

It’s not surprising that my students have little to no experience with revision when even the SAT says that writing is something that can be accomplished in 25 minutes.

In my composition course we are at the initiation point of their researched essay, an assignment where they have almost total freedom on choosing a topic. For many of them, this freedom is their greatest challenge because they are forced to create their own target, design their own badge. If it is a game, they have to invent it. Many of them are excited and intrigued by these possibilities, but they have very little practice in it, which distresses me.

When they were young and small and decided that the box the new television came in was actually a time machine, their play had no objective other than to occupy themselves and to expand the borders of their experience. The act of doing leads to the important discoveries.

I see writing the same way. I say to my students all the time that the act of writing reveals what we mean to say. Our only command is to communicate, to first discover an idea that matters to ourselves, and then to share it with others.

Thinking of writing this way is almost wholly foreign to them and we have only ourselves to blame.

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