Filed under: invention, Professional Writing, rhetoric, WAC
We shouldn’t defend bad language and writing, and it isn’t productive to blame or complain. We should do something about it. The Center for Plain Language, a fairly new nonprofit, is looking to improve how people and companies write for audiences through granting awards to the some of the “best and worst” writing; let me emphasized that the key marker here for granting the award is audience. CPL explains that “The definition of “plain” depends on the audience. What is plain language for one audience may not be plain language for another audience.“ Writing should attend to people’s needs, however. No doubt, this rubs people the right way because citizens are justifiably frustrated with bureaucratic language.
As I said, we shouldn’t defend unclear writing, but we should understand why it happens before taking action. It’s not a lack of will. Often, cloudy writing is an issue of authority. If a writer or speaker is worried how others will respond (get angry, not accept, and/or penalize the statements made), he or she will become veiled or convoluted in his or her language. Syntax and diction becomes obscure. Writing for a boss or teacher who has authority over us then promotes long-noun phrases, nominalization, and/or searching through the thesaurus for a “unique,” if not always “the best,” word. Politicians and legislators may be especially susceptible because they are sensitive to public or party opinion. Lawyers use legalese, in part, to distance themselves from their audiences because the distance distinguishes them (and protect themselves) from others, implying status. Thus, I’d like people to remember the next time they disparage “un”plain language that negotiating authority in writing is at least as important as language control and understanding audience.
As another example, consider academics, who are often accused of producing more jargon than knowledge. Sure, sometimes, people–academic professionals or otherwise–don’t really have much to say and inflate their words to compensate. Yet theoretical language and words do have their place. If the same words and grammar are used, judgments and conclusions tend to promote the same ideas and constrain innovation. Since writing assists how one thinks and understands a subject or advances one’s analysis, theorizing and using new vocabulary is a messy, unclear process in expression. But again, this happens because writing for one’s own purpose(s) can be important. In addition, specialized language promotes bonding within a discipline. If academics can recognize peers researching similar problems, for a time, speaking in specialized “tongues” assists comprehension of the solutions proposed. We accept specialized tools for getting labor done more easily, and since we know language is a tool, why don’t we see jargon as a disciplinary tool? Mostly, we are annoyed by it. And we should be irritated when institutions disable us, not that the language isn’t universally transparent. Language isn’t telepathy but always requires interpretation.
If you are interested in some “clear” examples of institutions faltering in their “official” words, check out the NPR story on CPL’s awards.
Filed under: Creative Writing, FYC, invention, Professional Writing, rhetoric
The NCTE committee charged with compiling information on undergraduate writing majors has completed its report. In sum, the CCCC article explaining the results observes there are two types of undergraduate writing majors depending on the college: Liberal Arts or Professional/Rhetorical; the former is founded in creative writing and literature, the latter in writing theory and praxis (418). Nationally, the writing major is growing with 68 degrees at 65 unique schools documented. Most are housed in English departments and are either quite flexible and/or interdisciplinary degrees. Candidates are encouraged to double major. None of this should is a surprise. What is interesting, however, is where these points coincide in principle with Cayuga’s own writing concentration. At Cayuga, many liberal students are interested in creative writing, and professional writing courses are linked to other majors such as business, mechanical tech, computer information, or telecommunications. This difference is recognized by Cayuga students through their desire for personal-literary expression and writing that gets-things-done.
Overall, two curricular recommendations were made:
- The Writing Major might include a foundations/ introductory course such as those found in psychology, sociology, etc.
- The bachelors degree should have a capstone experience–i.e. a portfolio, internship, or other experience through which students might draw together and/or apply what they’ve learned about writing.
Finally, it was suggested more rhetorical history and research methods instruction be included in undergraduate writing studies. Cayuga is addressing these concerns in several ways. An honors English 101 has been offered successfully that focuses on an Introduction to Writing Studies (rhetoric and composition); plans are in process to offer such designated 101′s in the future. Professional Writing, a new writing concentration course with an experiential component, will be offered Fall 2010. Several new one-credit English 238 courses are scheduled for Fall 2010, one on Written (Rhetorical) Invention, another a revision workshop that would help a student’s writing portfolio for transfer or prospective interviews. In total, Cayuga is making several steps toward meeting the recommendations in the CCCC Report on Writing Majors and looks forwards to continuing to offer a very reasonably affordable education for those interested in writing for careers and transfer.
We live in the age of fast capitalism. At first glance, this is an exciting time to live. Through global transit and technology, the world is better connected. People have access to different cultures and language. Our opportunity to learn and know increases. Potentially, people can improve themselves. The world market can assemble products and provide services quickly and with economic and resource efficiency. Westerners have a particular advantage at the moment and as consumers can get more of what they want, when and how they want it. For all the serious environmental and human consequences, there are lots of benefits to more and cheaper.
So you may ask, how does fast capitalism effect student writing? If more communication is necessary through globalization and interconnected technology, in fact, there are many opportunities for students to write as future workers. Again, that’s exciting. Student writers can write for multiple purposes: email, texting, web design, multi-media advertising, research and reports, etc. As future workers, students must be adaptable to market needs, but is that really a big deal? Flexibility is a virtue of fast capitalism, and who begins college with the goal of becoming lazy? People are motivated to go to college for various reasons, but laziness isn’t usually at the top of their list. Students are motivated to train for a job or want the experience of learning under demanding and stimulating classes. Even if the reason to attend higher education originates from parents or social pressure, college can be an ideal setting in preparing for a world of fast capital.
And frankly, old fashioned capitalism and industry can make work boring . When Henry Ford famously implemented the assembly line where tasks were broken down into simple manageable units, workers felt under challenged with the same day-to-day drudgery. But industrialization didn’t stop with managing products. People were susceptible too. Post-Fordian thinking breaks people down into manageable units. Yet if fast capitalism works, people are kept too busy to become bored. Productivity is admirable and its own reward, isn’t it?
Today’s writers are challenged with new tasks and more genres than before. Unfortunately, as writing across the curriculum has shown us, little in writing is easily transferred. Writing is never a generic or basic skill. Under the industrial age, writing tasks were standardized. For example, the business letter, scientific research, or technical instructions were learned and executed by the same professionals. But today, we are expected to write using complicated technological tools for sophisticated goals. This takes more time to learn than most workers or students have available to them. Complex talents like writing take time and practice to learn. So what happens when more people are required to write in an information age? The resulting pressure isn’t necessarily bad; it can motivate and stimulate problem solving and creativity. One problem, however, is that since the platforms and genres change with the speed of cultural markets, fewer students will be quick or advantaged enough to adapt. Especially in a time when more communication is needed, this is frustrating for students, teachers, and employers.
Students appear to write no worse than in years past, yet in such demanding times, it may feel like there are fewer competent writers because in meeting specific communication tasks, people are excluded from the time it takes to master those tasks. In addition, one written skill set conflicts with others: students often say frustratingly, “But that’s the way I learned it before.” By the time someone masters a Blackberry, the iPhone becomes the mobile communication platform of choice. By the time a writer learns MLA citation, it’s been updated and s/he has become a chemistry major required to document according to the American Chemical Society guidelines. Likewise, as a budding chemist, exposition is less important than the ability to produce complicated molecule diagrams, so writing first-year composition essays only partially prepares them for the new genre demand.
Specialization coupled with fast capitalism can cause resistance on the part of students saying they can’t write because they sense the time, energy, and proficiency will move on before they’ve mastered the necessary skill sets. Frustration leads to desperation. Groups blame one another for the bad writing they see. Students ignore or avoid their impulses to express and develop their writing ability. The effect can be contagious enough to effect an entire school, region, or nation. And since one rule of fast capitalism is that those who are fastest to deliver draw economic investment, talented people are then drawn to the social, regional, and economic success. Some worker pools gain advantage; others stagnate or even degrade. Those that stagnate must sell off what they have, whether its skill or local materials, usually at reduced market rates.
But one piece of good news is that technological tools like writing can allow people greater means to produce. Learning to write doesn’t need to be a continual chasing after new kinds of writing and conventions. Learning to write that fosters inquiry positions students with talents for inventing new ideas and revising old ways of explaining, directing, and making products or services.
Questions: Since fast capitalism emphasizes writing as a handmaiden to employment, does it leave space for people’s humanity, family, and nation? Is so, where?
First-year composition (FYC) can accomplish a great deal for college students but less than we so unfairly assume. The history of first-year composition is a history of remediation. Many years ago, when the same cultural class attended college, writing, speaking and rhetoric were practiced throughout all four years of college. The professional goals for college were fairly simple:
- To become a lawer
- To enter ministry service, and/or
- To provide politician leadership
After industrialization captured the nation’s economy, a business class grew up and wished for its children to be college educated. Ivy colleges didn’t know what to do with these strange people who used language less aristocratically than the curricula and professors were prepared, so while the business class demanded additional majors and contributed money these growing colleges couldn’t ignore, writing classes were used as a gateway to guard against those who would not adapt their language use toward standardized, if arbitrary, genres. Nevertheless, this remediation wasn’t simply a test to stay in college. Its current-traditional curriculum also required students practice modes of writing: narration, description, exposition, and persuasion/argument. Faculty psychology theorized that these modes were the basis for the standard way people think. This isn’t really true, but the current-traditional did help many in the business class stay in college and succeed in their business practices because it captured industry needs in some degree. Thus, the modes of writing helped business become more organized. And organized business demanded new majors and specialized writing tasks to meet their goals. For example, engineers write differently than accountants who speak differently than professional management, so shouldn’t college majors reflect these differences?
Each new generation in America has added its own class warfare to the mix of demands upon first-year writing. Since writing instruction was handed off to first-year composition, the expanding majors deleted their own writing and rhetoric instruction until many colleges have been left with one course to do the work of four years in meeting the goals of numerous majors. By now, you should get a good sense that the expectations on FYC are unreasonable.
So what can first-year composition do if we understand it can’t do everything?
- First, FYC can help students begin to understand their identities as writers. If students think of themselves as writers they will develop writing practices–similar to how we view doctors practice medicine.
- Second, students can learn to practice writing as a process. Individuals have unique talents and can develop specific procedures for getting writing done. Students can explore how they work best and where different writing tasks should use different approaches. Students can learn to be independent in their writing decisions thus preparing them for tasks where no one will tell them how to write successfully.
- Finally, students can reflect and develop analytical abilities based on inquiry. Curiosity can be enhanced through writing. In learning to write, students can see writing as a medium for learning, researching, and developing new knowledge. Professionals comment regularly that expressing their problems, attempted solutions, and accomplishments lets them know the content in their professions. Language assists in one’s thinking, so if we want to enhance thinking, we have to increase where and how we use language to investigate our world.
Here are a couple of new media videos to consider. The first explains what Google sees as the next step from email, but they’re really talking file-sharing and e-committees.
The second is similar to what we’ve seen before, making the case for social networking as legitimate communication.
Social Media Revolution
October 20th is the National Day on Writing.
Read or contribute to the National Gallery of Writing.
Filed under: History, invention, New Media, postprocess, rhetoric
“It’s not about timing. It’s not about keeping it short. It’s about relevance.” –Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University
Wesch is right. Information is not scarce. But even in an information age, knowledge making can be. Writing is more than a container for knowledge; it can help processing, development and production of new knowledge. For this reason, writing to learn and examining expression might present an attractive study for college students. Students crave forums for expression; they want to be heard. Learning information alongside learning to persuade is powerful and rewarding. Personal purpose and goals make information relevant, but understanding that we have to talk to one another within different social structures is some of what rhetoric and writing provides in its educational long-term.
If we accept the Academic 2.0 argument about the importance of teaching the “how” and not merely the “what” of information, we embrace the importance of writing and rhetorical studies. We can then work to implement communication activities beyond the lecture and can accept communication’s interdisciplinary habits in addition to its residing within the domain of the English department.
That said, community college students often face a wider digital divide than assumed under Web 2.0 arguments. It’s incorrect to assume all students have been naturalized to blogs, wikis, mashups, or mobile networks. This is not to say community colleges give up. The opportunities to write and research with these technologies are likely to accelerate, and ignoring the latest developments because not everyone knows them will only widen the technological divide. However, it is important to acknowledge what many (considering that the majority of students in the country are community college students perhaps I should say “the majority of”) freshmen are not digital natives. And if their professors must immigrate to the digital too, there is a tendency to go with what is most comfortable: chalk and talk, lecture and note take, and read/discuss.
While I see nothing wrong with these classroom approaches in general, academia needs to consider seriously Wesch’s earlier observation that The Machine is Us/ing Us, for our media platforms rewrite how we compose and make language (and therefore knowledge).
Or as one of the comments under the Academia 2.0 video says,
Academia is dead! learning can be done faster and better outside of universities, renting an office space and committing yourself to learning a subject has far less distractions...
Community colleges’ missions center on learning and job training, so I say, Why not put the media machine into the curriculum? It’s influencing how people gather information and make personal, civic, and business decisions. Academica can become more relevant if entry points to the network are practiced in and outside the classroom.
So blog on…
Got an essay to write? Has freewriting given you nothing?
Don’t know how to fill in your outline? Can’t development a thesis argument?
The Widget works, but the videos above don’t play.
If interested in understanding more about Topoi, watch the youtube copies below.
Language is social, no matter how it is used. Writers may have trouble remembering this while alone at the keyboard. But sometimes, we need reminding because knowing it can help us write and help our writing. One of the more quoted passages in composition describes language as a social gathering in a parlor:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
Language provides an ongoing conversation–unending even though it comes to an end for us individually. The point here is that writing, even without the speakers or listeners and their agendas before us, is shaped through social circumstances.
- We step into conversations (written or oral), and need to get our bearings.
- We “read” other people and their talk.
- When we sense where the talk is going and people’s purposes, we participate.
- We may argue points rigorously. We may choose to be silent sometimes. Both are expressions.
- We participate for as long as needed or desired.
- We stop contributing with the understanding that people may act differently because of us.
- And the words go on…
Recent textbooks such as They Say, I Say propose learning to write requires practicing one’s moves, much like a dancer, musician, or ballplayer. Templates are often taught as crutches in learning to write. Mechanics such as grammar and punctuation may be studied. These are part of the listening in Burke’s parlor. Learning conventions isn’t learning to write because it doesn’t directly practices one’s expressions, and writing follows the adage of learning best by doing. Examples are important but only useful if they help us engage with our goals and environment. Moving from dependent to independent student writers requires several mind frames, but the first is appreciating that writing is social, public, and involves persuasion.
Whether they admit that writing is social or not, writers know audiences project a powerful affect, and this can have negative consequences. For example, many students view their writing and expressions as personal–for their eyes only and not to be shared. This protectionism may be addressed by creating safety in the classroom for student expression by respecting them even where counterarguments can easily be pointed out. This can be difficult because healthy skepticism founds academics. Many working class and middle class students come to college having learned deference to authority. Successful students might have learned to follow directions or execute orders in accordance with teachers or bosses. This is not a bad lesson; however, writing only for teachers may discourage risk-taking and narrow their concept of audience while encouraging codependent writing decisions.
Grades are powerful socializers too, but these can also narrow how student writers learn to reach their audiences. So considering all this, I’ll end this post by asking for your input. How would you have students write for larger audiences? With what communities could students engage in order to enter them into a suitiable Burkean parlor?
Rationale for using Web 2.0–In the humanities, Classical Greece gets a lot of attention. Western civilization leapt forward democratically and culturally in part because writing interacted with speaking to produce new ideas and fuel debates. Plato favored speaking and doubted writing much like some people treasure books and paper but doubt webtexts today. But just as writing interacting with oral language produced some of Western culture’s greatest thinking, web-network communication like Blogs and Wikis may be pushing us toward a new explosion of knowledge. Since many students are not digital natives to technology, they need opportunities to immigrate that we can provide as they learn course content.
2009 Full-time Faculty Survey (excludes English) on Writing Expected at Cayuga
Class Management (one-to-many)–The most familiar way to use a blog is similar to a classroom lecture or a syllabus where the teacher communicates unidirectionally with his or her students.
- Have your students forgotten the titles of the required books or lost the course syllabus?
Engage Web 2.0 & Many-to-Many Communication Networks–here, we may not be able to compete with the interactivity of social networking, but we can…
- Encourage interactivity and student expression beyond the classroom.
- Collaborate in groups.
- Use student material for discussions.
Audience Questions? (Ask yourself, what would you like to do with Web 2.0 tech?)