Not long ago,this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.
Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.
But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).
Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.
To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.
Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.
Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.
Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.
Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.
In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.
As Bard restores idea of writing your way into college, we offer a look at its essay prompts, and others. Are colleges asking the right questions? Was Kant correct about dishonesty? And how cool is the mantis shrimp?
Whether we're slaving over a scholarly article or a textbook, or knocking off streams of memos and e-mails, virtually all of us write constantly -- and we can do it better and more meaningfully, Mike Rose argues.
A recent news item cut me to the nib. Many public schools no longer teach cursive writing; 46 states no longer mandate that districts must teach cursive in their language arts core curriculum. This comes from the mistaken logic that our keyboard-happy society has made cursive a relic of the past that students no longer need. Numerous public schools now teach only printing, and some don’t even bother with lower and upper case – just block letters. Roman Catholic schools still demand cursive, and good for them. For the foreseeable future, kids who don’t have cursive will be at a competitive disadvantage. I’m surprised parents aren’t on the pitchfork-and-torch brigade over this, but I’d like to suggest that college professors should be (especially if they have kids).
I’m no pen-wielding Luddite waxing rhapsodic about creativity flowing down the barrel of a pen, making allusions to a shared Western heritage, or discoursing on calligraphy as art. Like millions of Americans I hit the keyboard most of the time. Nor do I harbor fond memories of learning cursive. My grade school taught the Peterson Method, a system loaded with unnecessary curlicues, severe angles and precise slants. It required mind-numbing oval drills that began with a roomful of kids rotating their arms from the elbow down as the teacher chanted, "Round, round, ready, touch." We repeatedly penciled the same oval – points deducted for lines that strayed. I hated Peterson Method and couldn’t wait to dump its silly W -– a looped double-V – with a more efficient double U construction. I was so bad at penmanship that even my sainted Pennsylvania grandmother called my handwriting "chicken scratchin'." These days I have a hand disorder that makes my scrawl closer to hieroglyphics. But I can read it within 90 percent accuracy and I can pen it very fast.
My defense of cursive is pragmatic, not aesthetic (though I covet elegant script). The first is discipline-specific. The humanities are more text-oriented than most math, computer science, and hard and experimental sciences. We humanities professors tend to demand more prose writing, our content is frequently more subjective, and an ability to take notes is essential. One unexpected consequence of cursive’s decline shows up among recent graduate students working in archives. Those unable to write cursively, often experience difficulty reading the script of others. That was difficult enough in past times, but what we are seeing now is quasi-illiteracy in all things cursive. If a document hasn’t been transcribed, students won’t use it. Need I remind humanities professors how few documents have been transcribed?
A second problem lies with blue-book exams. Count me among those who find blue-book exams an imperfect way of assessing student achievement, but I doubt that they will become obsolete as long as class sizes soar rather than shrink. Large classes present logistical problems. Administrators want professors to be up-to-date, yet they saddle them with classroom structures akin to industrial-age assembly lines. Those with bulging classes of first-year students could assign take-home exams or papers, if they wished also to flunk half of the class for plagiarism. There are other options, but they are limited, which means that today’s college students are likely to take numerous blue-book exams. The results won’t be pretty.
Students swear they can type far faster than they can "write," by which they mean block-letter printing, and that’s correct. Then comes a blue-book exam and with it the instruction, "No, you can’t type this on your laptop." (If you allow that, you’d better have an army of test monitors to stare over shoulders.) Many students cannot fill an eight-page bluebook in an hour, which means that their essays are superficial and are graded accordingly.
"Unfair!" they cry. "Incomplete," we reply. "We cannot assign a grade based on what you might have said." Is it unfair? No more so than a math class in which a professor insists that students do their own arithmetic rather than using a calculator. Or a computer scientist who tells students that the code students write must work at the end of the hour. There are numerous other situations that disallow computers, including the GREs, LSATs, and most licensing exams.
Problem three occurs when technology fails. Students use electronic devices so frequently that they’ve come to assume access. They’re often the same ones who don’t keep batteries charged, think professors come to class armed with extra power cords, and can’t imagine a classroom without empty electrical outlets with their names on them. Heaven help them if their laptops run out of juice in the middle of a class. You know what most of them do? Nothing! The best students try to focus, hoping they will retain enough information to transfer it to their computer once it’s recharged. Try that and tell me how well it works. Almost none open their backpacks and pull out pen and notebook. The weakest students ask me to put my notes on the class website. I know that some of you do that, but I refuse.
Problem four is among the reasons I won’t. "Good listening skills" generally rank high in lists of what employers desire of new hires. There are still jobs where one cannot use technology all the time. Journalism – even for e-zines – is one of them. I have done freelance music journalism for decades. When I can, I use a recorder and a laptop. But I have conducted interviews in backstage green rooms as noisy as a chorus of jackhammers, in the back of buses, on the street, at the side of stages, and in various other situations where the only thing that makes sense is pad and pen.
Journalism isn’t alone. One business leader tests perspective candidates by devising mock scenarios. Candidates must jot down information – no machines allowed – as the interviewer rattles off details, and the candidate must come up with a plan to address the problem. The point isn’t revelatory problem-solving; it’s a test of listening and short-term memory. Why? Because sometimes you simply need to take notes on the fly – a supervisor barks out an assignment, one is trapped in a no-gadgets environment, verbal directions are given to someone who is lost, or you need to focus on a client, not a screen. (Realtors, doctors, caseworkers, therapists….)
Problem five is one of keeping up. An accomplished typist cranks out 60-80 words per minute (WPM). I can write faster than that even with my bad hand. To hit 60 WPM, you need to know how to touch-type, another skill that most students never acquire. I often observe students struggling to keep up. Sometimes I can slow down, but there’s not much to be done during discussions or AV presentations. Just as violin players can play faster than a cellists because they don’t have as much instrument to cover, so too can a cursive writer scribble on paper faster than typists can traverse a 12-18 inch keyboard (especially if one is a hunt-and-peck typist.)
There are limitations even in nontraditional classrooms. The latest rage is the "flipped" classroom, in which students refine what would normally be called “homework” in class. One historian assigns questions to answer in writing outside of class and devotes class time asking students divulge, discuss, and expound upon their answers. They hand in their prewriting and keep a second for themselves. On the second they take notes based on class responses, as this is all they can use to complete papers and exams. The pace is rapid – answer, redirection, and discussion until depth is achieved. When I asked if all students keep up, I was told, "No. And that’s not my problem. It’s not a remedial course."
Finally, computers can be deadly to discussion and deep comprehension. A mind focused on a screen is less actively engaged with live speakers, be they professors or student peers. (And that’s before other temptations from the World of Wireless intrude. Try reading a single e-mail and see how long it takes to refocus on an active discussion.) Many students are great at retrieving information, but extremely slow in analyzing it, partly because they fail to grasp the connective tissue that relates one bit of information to another. The more distracted they get, the less likely they are to find that tissue. Some educational psych studies claim the physical act of writing produces better comprehension than typing. That’s not my field, but it rings true.
Again, I’m not a technophobe. But I do think those declaring the death of cursive are wrong -- at least for the immediate future. Today’s world depends increasingly upon flexibility, suppleness, and adaptability. I simply see no benefit in retiring cursive, and the potential for harm looms large. It’s no fun to teach or practice. Meh! I didn’t like learning multiplication tables, conjugating verbs, or discovering how to decode the periodic table of elements, but they were good medicine.
College professors should deliver the message that the decline of cursive reduces student chances for success. Our new Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, might be able to get away with scrawling gibberish across a page, but ask yourself: Would you hire some kid who can’t sign his or her own name?
Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of Inside Higher Ed's "Instant Mentor" career advice column.
Since the beginning of time
Everyone knows in society today
Student writing hasn’t gotten any better
Nor is it really any worse than usual.
The sentences are still afraid of commas
And plurals and possessives share a closet.
I don’t expect much improvement
Without better nutrition and stronger threats.
Plus, there are far too many sentences
That begin with This or There followed
By big empty boxes of Is and Are.
(Perhaps this student should take a year off
And read books with real people in them.)
And I’m only talking about sentences
Not the paragraphs that struggle along
Between the left and right margins
But miraculously start and finish
At the top and bottom of each page.
Also, I was really hoping for an original title
And just once my name spelled right.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.