A Vermont college's new curricular venture enables students to self-publish books -- a project officials hope will aid a largely first-generation student body and give humanities students a "deliverable" for the future.
Most of my faculty colleagues agree that Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), in which the task of teaching writing is one assigned to all professors, not just those who teach English or composition, is an important academic concept. If we had a WAC playbook, it would sound something like this: students need to write clear, organized, persuasive prose, not only in the liberal arts, but in the sciences and professional disciplines as well. Conventional wisdom and practical experience tell us that students’ ability to secure jobs and advance in their careers depends, to a great extent, on their communication skills, including polished, professional writing.
Writing is thinking made manifest. If students cannot think clearly, they will not write well. So in this respect, writing is tangible evidence of critical thinking — or the lack of it -- and is a helpful indicator of how students construct knowledge out of information.
The WAC playbook recognizes that writing can take many forms: research papers, journals, in-class papers, reports, reviews, reflections, summaries, essay exams, creative writing, business plans, letters, etc. It also affirms that writing is not separate from content in our courses, but can be used as a practical tool to apply and reinforce learning.
More controversial — and not in everyone’s playbook -- is the idea that teaching writing skills cannot be delegated to a few courses, e.g., first-year composition courses, literature courses, and designated “W” (writing-intensive) courses. Many faculty agree with the proposition that writing should be embedded throughout the curriculum in order to broaden, deepen and reinforce writing skills, but many also take the “not in my back yard” approach to WAC.
We often hear the following refrains when faculty discuss students and writing. Together they compose a familiar song (sung as the blues):
1. “I’m not an English teacher; I can’t be expected to correct spelling and grammar.”
2. “I don’t have time in class to teach writing — I barely have enough time to teach content.”
3. “Why should students be penalized for bad writing if they get the correct answer?”
4. “Mine isn’t supposed to be a ‘W’ course, so I’ll leave the writing to others.”
5. “There is no way to work writing into the subject matter of my course.”
6. “They hate to read and write and won’t take the time to revise their work.”
7. “I don’t have a teaching assistant and don’t want to do a lot of extra correcting—I have enough to do.”
8. “Our students come to college with such poor writing skills that we can’t make up for years of bad writing.”
9. “They never make the corrections I suggest; I see the same mistakes over and over again, so why bother?”
10. “They’re seniors, and they still can’t write!”
Much has been written about WAC, and I add my voice to the multitudes because I recently came to a realization, watching my students texting before class began: students spend hours every day reading and practicing writing — bad writing. How many hours are spent sending and reading tweets, texts and other messages in fractured language? It made me wonder: is it even possible to swim against this unstoppable tide of bad writing? One of my colleagues argues that students cannot write well because they don’t read. I think that students do read, but what they spend their time reading is not helpful in learning how to write. (That, however, is a discussion for another day.)
I’m not sure that all students can be taught to improve their writing, but I am sure that it is one of the most important things we can attempt to teach. What difference does it make if students know their subject matter and have excellent ideas if no one can get past their sloppy and disorganized writing?
Let us consider (with annoying optimism) those sad faculty refrains.
“I’m not an English teacher; I can’t be expected to correct spelling and grammar.”
But we are college professors; we know more about writing than our students do. What you could do, if you don’t want to make corrections yourself or are stymied by the magnitude of a particular writing problem (where to begin?), is circle areas for revision and require the student to submit the work to the tutoring or writing center before a grade will be given. (You can even allow several opportunities for revision, depending on your tolerance for pain.) You can designate a certain number of points in your rubric to writing mechanics, letting students know that their grades will be affected by their writing; human nature being what it is, students pay more attention when they know they will be graded.
Most important, we can all emphasize that writing is important in our disciplines and that students will be judged in the workplace on the basis of their writing skills. We can all convey the message that polished prose matters to us and to professionals in our field — so much so that we are taking points off for sloppy work.
“I don’t have time in class to teach writing — I barely have enough time to teach content.”
Do you have time to assign minute papers at the beginning or end of each class, asking students to summarize three things they learned, or pose a question related to the day’s work, or answer one question based on the previous reading assignment? These papers are short and easily graded; they help students internalize and reinforce content.. They each can be worth a few points, based on quality. If assigned on a regular or irregular basis (like a pop quiz), you may even get students to keep up with the reading and pay more attention in class. Minute papers encourage students to organize their thoughts; I discovered that students who could not speak coherently in class sometimes produced thoughtful short essays. Writing can be used in many ways to learn content and improve fluency and writing proficiency.
“Why should students be penalized for bad writing if they get the correct answer?”
Bcuz omg in the workplace they will be penalized for it. Ignoring student errors is like ignoring the piece of spinach in someone’s teeth; it may seem kind not to say anything, but no one really benefits. We can assign more writing in our courses, but if it is never graded, it may improve fluency but not accuracy — and confirm bad writing habits. Take a guess: over four years, what percentage of written assignments at your institution is graded for writing mechanics as well as content?
“Mine isn’t supposed to be a ‘W’ course, so I’ll leave the writing to others.”
Leaving WAC to others is like leaving voting to others. If WAC is viewed as an institutional playbook, it implies that everyone is part of the team and plays a position. All courses should be writing courses with a small w if not a big W; that is the only way to convey the message that what students learn in Composition 101 is relevant to success in their upper-level psychology course or business minor. Furthermore, since each discipline has its own rhetoric, it is particularly important for students to practice the specific types of writing they will be asked to produce in their careers. They will not be exposed to professional writing in their first-year seminars and English composition courses.
“There is no way to work writing into the subject matter of my course.”
Physicists, pathologists, geologists, mathematicians, dentists, lab technicians, engineers, architects, web designers, curators, forensic anthropologists and others have to explain things in writing; in an algebra course, for example, students could explain their reasoning on a given problem. No matter what the field, the ability to organize information in writing is a key professional asset, whether writing is used in a patient history, business contract or gallery brochure. We can invent ways to bring theory into practice by creating opportunities for students to write in the language of their careers.
“They hate to read and write and won’t take the time to revise their work.”
Yes, for many of our students, academic reading and writing seem to be unnatural acts. Some students, for example, seem much more themselves, much more authentic and engaged, on the soccer or football field.
One day in late autumn, on a perfect, still, golden afternoon, I stopped to watch the football team practice. The camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the sheer joy were poignant, as I pictured these young men paying mortgages and sitting in cubicles. Our job is to coach them safely into their futures, into different green pastures. Part of the playbook for that is to insist that they improve their writing skills so that their writing does not undercut their potential — even if they are not there yet, not fully ready to commit to academic work.
My other thought that afternoon was, can we make learning as engaging and authentic as sport? We each have to answer this question in our own way. In my law classes, for example, I ask students to write legal memorandums using the IRAC method: “You are a junior associate in the firm of Flake, Moss and Marbles, and your senior partner wants you to research and write a memo on the case of Madame X, who… .” The IRAC method not only structures the memo for students (they summarize the facts of the case, Identify the legal issues, cite the relevant Rules of law, Analyze the problem based on the facts and law, and draw a Conclusion on the likely outcome of the case), but allows them to role-play a real-world situation. They complete a series of these short writing exercises, with a rubric to guide them, and have several opportunities to revise their work.
For a formal or high-stakes writing assignment, scaffolding is essential; students will perform better when the structure of the writing assignment is broken down into components, which, when assembled, produce a coherent whole. The IRAC method has a built-in scaffold, but other writing assignments can be structured into a series of elements or steps. It is a mistake to assume that students know how to organize a paper or report; let them know what you are looking for, break down the structure into elements, and if you have a good sample of what you expect, hand it out. (Save your students’ work for this purpose.)
In my mediation class, students are asked to draft an agreement based on a mediation role-play they have participated in. The agreements follow a structured blueprint. They are peer-edited, revised by the student (with a writing tutor, if necessary) and then corrected by me. Students are given model agreements from past years and have three opportunities to revise their work prior to grading. Last semester, 18 of 19 students revised their work and received As on the agreements. The agreements were polished and professional and reinforced the content taught in the course.
I believe that we can devise meaningful and engaging ways for students to write in all courses; the challenge is to explain to students why they are doing it. Writing should be like driver’s ed in students’ minds -- a practical skill that is essential to their future success. Without that connection, writing will seem more like juggling: nice if you can do it, but not an essential life skill.
“I don’t have a teaching assistant and don’t want to do a lot of extra correcting — I have enough to do.”
Most of us don’t have teaching assistants, but we do have students for peer editing, and writing or tutoring centers with support staff. Some degree programs have upper-class peer mentors who can help students with writing in the discipline. Consider ways to form a writing partnership, using the resources available to you. Personally, I prefer that students take responsibility for their revisions by seeking out support services. Somehow, it doesn’t seem kosher to make all these corrections, have students incorporate them into their next draft, and then grade my own language, saying “good word choice,” “nicely written,” or “well organized!” I like to circle areas for improvement, making general comments, not specific corrections.
“Our students come to college with such poor writing skills that we can’t make up for years of bad writing.” Some students will make little progress in improving their writing, for a variety of reasons. But if we accept students into our institutions, we should provide opportunities for them to improve their writing skills, even if some students are the proverbial horses who won’t drink. If students practice and are graded on their writing in only a few courses, they learn: 1) that in most courses they can get a decent grade without decent writing, and 2) that writing is relevant only in a few contexts. If we insist that career preparation includes the process of writing and revision, and we all assign meaningful writing exercises that students can revise and improve, the rest is up to them.
“They never make the corrections I suggest; I see the same mistakes over and over again, so why bother?”
When students start losing points, they tend to sit up and take notice. I’ve found that many mistakes are careless ones — what I call a document dump, turning in a first draft with no proofreading. If you hand back a draft and deduct points for writing errors, you will see more effort to correct those mistakes. Why should students devote time to an ungraded exercise when they can spend their time on something that will affect their grades? If sloppy writing has no impact on their grades, it makes sense for students not to internalize your corrections or prioritize revisions.
“They’re seniors, and they still can’t write!”
If we can agree about the value of a WAC playbook, not just in theory but in our daily practice; find ways to weave writing into all of our courses, not as busywork but as a meaningful part of the content we teach; assess student writing and promote it as an essential career skill; and allow students to revise their work, since revision is the heart and soul of the writing process, we are less likely to encounter seniors who have not practiced or improved their writing skills over four years. Our playbook should read that all courses, from now on, are writing courses with a small w.
Ellen Goldberger is director of the Honor Scholars Program and teaches law, leadership and conflict resolution courses at Mount Ida College.
A Duke professor recently used the magic word in an op-ed article she published, resulting in an invitation to visit a U.S. Senate office to discuss legislation affecting millions of children.
The magic word was "I." It's a word academics should include more often when writing op-ed articles for audiences beyond their campuses.
The professor wrote about her research showing orphanages in developing countries to be better than many Americans believe. She argued that well-intentioned legislation now before Congress would close too many orphanages and harm children unlikely to be adopted by nurturing families. The senator, one of the legislation's sponsors, was among those who saw the article.
That's impressive impact for a 750-word op-ed article, which requires far less time to write than a scholarly journal article or book. A well-written op-ed can change minds, sway hearts and affect policy. It can advance the author's career and the university's reputation. It also can serve the public interest, bringing faculty expertise to debates about everything from national security to the arts.
For faculty to play this role, however, they need to become more willing to use the word "I."
In the case of the orphanage op-ed, which our office edited and placed in several papers around the country, the author had the advantage of making an interesting point about a timely issue affecting children. What made her article compelling, however, was how she opened with a story about a Cambodian teenager who was forced to leave an orphanage and ended up becoming a "karaoke girl" who has sex with customers. The author wrote that this teenager illustrates the problem she has seen in several countries.
She maintained her first-person voice through her final paragraph, where she expressed satisfaction that Congress is addressing this issue and hopes the bill will be modified to continue supporting orphanages. To describe what she did in movie terms: She started with a "tight shot," pulled the camera back to show the "long shot" and used a character throughout to propel the narrative.
This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn't work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.
Academic articles also eschew the use of "I" or "me." Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they're told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.
That's true, of course, but also self-defeating when it comes to placing an article with the editors of op-ed pages, where competition can be intense. This reluctance of academics to come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories is one of the biggest reasons why so many of them are disappointed when editors reject their articles. It's certainly possible to address an issue effectively with a third-person "voice of the expert," but academics should not consider this their only option.
My colleague Keith Lawrence and I have helped Duke faculty members and students place dozens of op-ed articles every year, something I also did while running an op-ed service for a decade at the National Academy of Sciences. We've learned that, all things being equal, articles fare better when authors share their own experience along with their professional analysis. If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can't afford the medication you prescribed. If you are concerned about fracking, describe the homeowners who told you their water tastes strange.
You shouldn't violate anyone's confidentiality and you don't want to sound like a reality TV star. When you share your own humanity, however, your words ring truer. Readers care more about what you are saying. This is why presidents of the United States, regardless of party, place "real Americans" next to the First Lady when they deliver their State of the Union speeches. They know viewers will pay more attention to Lieutenant Smith, the brave soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, than to an abstract discussion about military policy.
Why do we have the Ryan White CARE Act and other laws named for individuals? Why do politicians on the campaign trail inevitably tell us about the family they met yesterday? For better or worse, human beings make sense of the world through examples. Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.
Americans who read op-ed pages are not stupid. They are more educated and engaged than the public as a whole. Many have expertise of their own. But they're also busy and, like all people, are wondering how an issue affects them personally. As they gulp a cup of coffee and race through the morning paper before heading to work, they want to hear real stories and voices.
They also want to feel a connection with the author. If you are a professor at Penn hoping to place an op-ed with The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, look for a way to mention something that makes clear you're a neighbor.
Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- known in the trade as "thumb suckers" -- and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from popular culture as well as from Eminent Authorities.
Most of all they want to see the magic word "I." More academics should use it.
David Jarmul is the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University.
Fenway Park, Boston, 7:35 p.m. last Thursday, at the Gate B press credentials window, a full 30 minutes before the scheduled first pitch of Game Two of the 2013 World Series, the Boston Red Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. I presented my Inside Higher Ed business card and my (valid, by the way) Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver’s license. “I've been assigned to cover the game tonight. May I get a press pass?” I told the man behind the bullet-proof-looking window.
Heck, the Boston Globe had reported that morning that the Red Sox had credentialed 1,800 journalists for Wednesday’s game, the night before (8-1 Red Sox). In this newspaper-closing, hard-news starved world, 1,800 journalists in total, on the whole planet? Then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’ll sell you.
Anyway, I was on a professional development mission. Not for me, for my students, all 13,000 (my last count) of them at Bunker Hill Community College. “Show, don’t tell.” “Details. Details.” “Show, don’t tell.” “Details. Details.”
That’s my daily plea to them these days, as we work through the first drafts of essays to transfer to four-year colleges. I’d read in articles and heard wise educators say that teachers should try their assigned assignments for themselves. So last Thursday, after my early evening transfer-essay session last night, I headed to Fenway, to see what I could show not tell, what details I could find, to write about a some old news everyone already knows -- Cardinals won, 4-2.
Let’s see what I can do for details. Only Bruins fans on the Orange Line, my first train from Community College to North Station. Red Sox hats and red jackets and red sweat shirts and red parkas when I switched over to the Green Line, to Kenmore, Fenway Park. Not a mob. Odd. On regular baseball-season nights, riders just going home must often let a Green Line or two go by before the cars have room for new passengers.
"Professor Sloane,” a young woman said at the Haymarket stop. A Bunker Hill Community College student from Senegal. “I missed you last week, when I brought my essay back,” she said. “Well, can I help you now?” I asked. She pulled the essay out of her bag. “Africa is suffering and crying for a cure,” the draft began. She needs little help from me. (She gave me permission to quote the essay here.) “What did you learn revising?” Big, big smile. “This is about me. Only I could have written this.”
The smile is the test. When the students smile, we’re on our way to turn the lead (“I want to go to a four-year college to….") into the thick-envelope-with-financial-aid gold for these Pell Grant students (“Africa is suffering and crying for a cure”).
This woman wants a Ph.D. in microbiology. She will build medical labs at home in Senegal. A ten-year-old cousin had died because Senegal has too few labs for simple blood tests. We talked until I switched trains at Copley for a Kenmore train.
Still no mob on the next train. (Research questions with credible sources.) “Where is everyone?” I asked a Boston Transit Police officer at Kenmore/Fenway Park stop, when I arrived at 7:05 p.m., an hour before the first pitch. For regular games I’ve been to, the mob just carries you out of Kenmore. “I’ve been here since about 5:00. It’s been about like this,” the officer told me. “Steady but not the usual mob. I think more people are taking their cars, not the T, to the game. Remember, at $1,000 a ticket for the World Series, these are not the regular fans here tonight.” (Detail: What did tickets cost? Find multiple sources.)
“How much?” I asked the first scalper I met on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of the station stairs. “I’ve got box seats in right field for $500 each,” he said. “What’s the least I could get in for?” I asked the man down the street holding the poster directing us to ticket-broker Ace tickets. “I’d say probably $400,” he said. Where? “The bleachers.”
Detail for comparison: That’s vs. $47 for a box seat, a dozen rows in from the field between first base and the foul pole, the Pesky Pole at Fenway. (Detail: Named for the late Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky. He hesitated on a throw to home. Enos Slaughter scored, and the Red Sox lost the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against … the St. Louis Cardinals.) That same seat was $100 for the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay.
Other Validation of Transit Police Officer hypothesis: Later, at Gate B, I saw an elderly couple, Brahmin (takes one to know one), come forth from a shiny black chauffered Town Car. The woman had a cane, and the man had over his arm a plaid lap blanket that I’d expect to see instead across the Charles River at a Harvard/Yale football game.
Turning to “Show, don’t tell.” Tell could be: Red Sox fans like to eat.
Tell: Many different programs were for sale. Show: “Get your official Red Sox here, with a free Red Sox pennant.” “Official World Series Program here, with Topps World Series Baseball Cards.” “American League Playoff program right here.”
Show, use time. I’d gone to walk around, outside the park, Wednesday night, too, before I hit on the press pass idea. Wandering the scene may be as close as I get to a World Series game. My closest call before had been another Thursday -- Thursday, October 12, 1967, the seventh game of the 1967 World Series, the Red Sox against … the Cardinals. Bob Gibson pitching for the Cardinals against Jim Lonborg for the Red Sox. (Details? Students, click here.) My father had ended up with two tickets; he took my brother. I still think my father should have torn the ticket and given us each half.
Show: Wednesday night, in Santander Bank, corner of Comm Ave. and the bridge across the Mass Pike to Fenway. Revise, details: corner of Comm Ave and Brookline Avenue, which crosses over the Mass Pike to Fenway Park. Trio out of tune, no tempo. Thursday night in the Santander alcove, a solo trombonist, playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I put a dollar into his hat.
Walking over the bridge, slowly, a crowd at last, I accepted all free placards. From the Globe: “There can B only one,” flipside: “Let’s Go Red Sox!” From WEEI 93.7 FM: “K,” flipside “Fear the Beards.” (Click here for chart of Red Sox beards by player.) From the Seventh Day Adventists, a card to mail in for a FREE Passion story, The Road to Redemption. Your name and address on one side, with flipside a photo of a baseball on fire, the mailing address for Seventh Day Adventists and a box “Place Your Stamp Here.”
Sausages? On Lansdowne Street – the Green Monster backs onto Lansdowne -- I declare a tie between Mike’s, in front of Gate C, and the Sausage Connection, a few yards from Gate E. Both use perfect 8-inch sub rolls from Piantedosi Bakery in Malden, Mass. I didn’t try, I admit, the Sausage King, the Original Che-Chi’s, the Sausage Guy, or Boston’s Best and Original Sausage.
A tap on my shoulder, on the Green Line Wednesday. The balding, middle-aged man beside me asked, “You going to the game?” Just to walk around, I’d said. To buy a Fenway sausage sandwich for my wife to eat watching the game at home.
“You getting sausage? You have to go to our stand. Sausage Connection. We’re the second one on Lansdowne Street. Don’t go to the first one. We’re a dollar cheaper, Best of Boston every year. Peppers and everything. We’ll wrap them up good so you can take it home. What do you like to drink? Coke? No? We got Sprite then. I’ll take care of you,” he promised.
The man, I didn’t get his name, had been shouting into his cell phone from the the Green Line seat. “I killed four guys, but they could only get me on extortion. Yeah, I’m a Made Man, but I stopped all that. They never gave me my money. My wife is on the other line. I gotta take it. What’s your name again?” The next conversation was about heroin, methadone, and cappuccino. That’s when he tapped me on the shoulder.
“I got two tickets, but I’m going to sell them,” he told me. “You never been to the Series? I missed the series in ’04 and ’07. I was in the federal penitentiary in Illinois,” he said. We were off the T and walking down Comm Ave. “I know the Sox are going to win. I’ve got $1,000 on it.” His cell phone rang. He showed me. “You know who that is, don’t you?” I couldn’t see the screen. “It’s A-Rod’s…” A siren screamed. “A-Rod’s agent,” I think he said. “Yeah, I’ll be there in two minutes,” he said into the phone. He turned to me, “You got it? Sausage Connection. Second one on Lansdowne, not the first one. I’ll take care of you.” He was gone.
In front of the Cask ‘n Flagon on the corner of Brookline and Lansdowne, a young couple – Red Sox jackets and hats – were trying to photograph themselves with a cell phone. I volunteered and took a few shots. Effusive (and sober) thanks. “Would you sell me one of your tickets for $20?” I asked. No.
I passed the first sausage cart on Lansdowne. At the second, my new friend was waving his arms declaring something I couldn’t hear to his friends at the stand. I was hungry. But my new friend gave me the two sandwiches and the sodas, for free? Did I want to owe a favor to a guy who’d just told me he had killed four guys? The stories were bluster. I think. Why take the risk?
I stuck to my plan to walk around the Park. Around the corner from Lansdowne, on Ipswich Street, the new Carl Yastrzemski statue, the Ted Williams statue, and the Teammates: Ted Williams, again, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio all had red beards attached. (Detail: True to life, the sculptor had given Dom (the Little Professor) wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Above my head as I kept walking were the retired numbers, 9, 4, 1, 8, 27, 6, 14, and, in blue, 42. (Students: Leave some mystery for the reader to wonder.) Fenway has loading docks along Van Ness. A fence kept us on the far side of the street. It was dark. The flashes of cell phone cameras were popping at one big door. I looked over. A gray-haired man in a white baseball jersey. He turned. Number “8.” “Is that Yaz?” I blurted. “Yes,” everyone said. Carl Yastrzemski. (Detail: You have look up the spelling.) Yaz had played in the ’67 game my brother went to. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct one of the uniform numbers that have been retired.)
Mike’s Sausage? Well, my new friend wasn’t at the Sausage Connection Thursday night. I bought a sandwich, and saw the Piantedosi bag. Excellent sausage; perfect roll. Wednesday, avoiding owing a favor my new friend, I’d fallen into step alongside a Boston police officer. (Detail: Never stop looking for primary sources.) “Where would you buy a sausage sandwich?” I asked. He stopped, turned to me. He had a circle of four of five stars on the collar of his white shirt. “I don’t eat sausage,” he said. I guess I looked disappointed. “But you could try Mike’s, in front of Gate C.” I thanked him. A tall man by the stand in front of Gate C -- Mike, I learned -- locked me into his gaze. “What can I get you?” No escape; I’m glad I already wanted a sausage. Two sausage sandwiches, wrapped so I could take them home. I paid and put a tip into the jar.
“I think it might have been the Boston chief of police who just told me I had to buy my sandwich here at Mike’s,” I said. “That’s superintendent chief. He was just here. Danny Linsky, Irish by the way. We’re friends. He sent you? Oh, now he’s going to want a piece of the action,” Mike said. “Never mind. Next time we have lunch, I’ll be sure he pays.”
Oh, at the Gate B press window. The man through the bulletproof window said to me through the microphone, “No, we can’t give you a press pass tonight.” “Isn’t there someone you could talk to?” “The deadline for press passes was October 2,” the man said.
As I tell the students applying for transfer: Don’t wait until the last minute.
Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter at @WickSloane.
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.