The essay below in The Chronicle of Higher Education (click screenshot below to read) is a beef about the poor quality of writing turned out by University of Chicago students, and about the futile efforts of the university’s Writing Program to improve student prose. It’s written by Blake Smith, identified as “a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia,” and someone who found, in teaching a “core” class for undergraduates, found that his students didn’t write at all well. I too experienced a lot of bad writing teaching undergraduates, as most of my exam questions were thought questions, short essays, and stuff that required writing. On the other hand, a science teacher isn’t looking for scintillating prose in such answers, so I never bothered to correct the English. But it was just as bad on the lab reports, and it was up to the teaching assistants (t.a.s) to correct writing if they wished.
Blake discovered his own problem quickly:
I think this is true in general, though I have no idea whether the ability of college students to write has decreased over the years.
If you’re a science major, you’re almost never given the chance to have your writing vetted, and it’s even worse of you get a science degree from a foreign university that requires almost no non-science courses your degree.
The result was that some of our grad students, though smart as whips, couldn’t turn out readable prose, which is definitely a skill you need as an academic, especially for writing grant proposals. Scientific papers are expected to be turgid, though I’ve always tried to emphasize that they don’t have to be, and if you want someone to read your papers you should write them in an engaging manner. Doug Futuyma and David Sloan Wilson are my exemplars of people who know how to write a science paper.
Decent writing, though not stylish prose, is also required when writing grant proposals, for if you don’t describe clearly what you’re going to do and why, but muddy up the whole thing with jargon, you reduce your chances of being funded. I therefore decided to teach a one-quarter class to the ecology and evolution students about how to write well and clearly.
It was a miserable failure, mainly because I didn’t know how to teach writing! I learned to write tolerably well not by taking formal courses, but by reading, and figuring out why I liked something. There are sources of advice for good writing (I recommend Orwell’s Essay “Politics and the English Language” (free online) and especially Steve Pinker’s recent book A Sense of Style, which didn’t get much publicity), but if you teach yourself, as I did, then you don’t really know learn to teach others. I imagine it would be very hard to teach good writing unless you’re starting with people who’s pretty good at the outset. By the time you get to college, you’ve already developed the ability to write decently or poorly.
Anyway, below Smith’s beef. I’ll give a few quotes, but the thing that surprised me was that how poorly written his own essay was, especially for one who assesses writing.
Now a lot of the essay is just a critique of the U of C’s writing program, and I know little about it. I’ll just give his words, whose are grouped into paragraphs that I see as rather clumsy:
To find out why the lauded writing and core programs were failing students, I acquired the course materials for HUMA 5000, “Pedagogies of Writing,” the course in which graduate students learn to become tutors for the writing-intensive core class for freshmen. I was appalled at what I read. The course was organized around graduate students’ acquisition of a bespoke jargon for analyzing undergraduates’ writing. Would-be writing instructors learned that a paper is a means of expressing a “point” through stages of argumentation — “stasis,” “destabilization,” “grounds,” “reasoning,” “warrant,” etc. They were trained to read introductions (called “indexes” in the course material) for keywords (“themes”) that could then be tracked throughout the rest of the paper (following “lexical strings”). A good paper, they were told, has strong themes presented upfront to prepare readers for the trajectory of its argument — or, as the writing center gracefully put it, “In our sessions, we have diagnosed coherence based upon the presence or absence of strings of repeated themes.” Undergraduate writers might, if they dared, choose not to front-end their themes, but one should warn them that “deconstructing the logos — opening space for the play of the signifier — is likely to make prose harder to read.”
Although its longtime head eschews “rules,” Chicago’s writing center puts between writers and writing an opaque mesh of neologisms, injunctions, and its own shoddy prose. It is as if the sort of advice that could be usefully given by writing tutors were embarrassingly simple and unintellectual, and needed, for the sake of the self-esteem of those running the center, to be converted into a proprietary brand of pseudo-learned nonsense. The most helpful comments I received on my writing over the course of my education were the apparently simple, even crude, comments of my graduate adviser, who punctuated my cumbersome drafts with remarks like “huh?” and “be clearer!” These do not “sound smart” or appeal to any loftier principle than a common understanding of ordinary English; their authority rests not on a set of concepts about the function of “lexical strings” or “warrant” but on the recipient’s belief that the person who says them is, in her own right, a writer.
Many of the instructors working at or trained by the writing center are not writers in this sense. They have never, perhaps, written anything that anyone has ever read for pleasure. Even if they have, their authority in the classroom does not rest on this work, which they do not show students.
. . . Much of what passes for scholarship in venues like The Writing Center Journal in recent years consists of appeals to transform the supposedly oppressive writing center into a site of radical contestation, either conceived in racialized or anti-capitalist terms. It is as though instructors at writing centers, chafing at their low status within their institutions and fields, and resenting that they are often called upon to bring students up to speed rather than to do what is perceived as more serious intellectual work, try to give some gravitas to their positions by charging the simple but difficult work of writing with a complicated new conceptual vocabulary or pompous assertions of their own social importance. As Anne Ellen Geller and Harry Denny explain, writing-center administrators find themselves “on the outside of academic culture looking in, yearning to contribute and complicate conversations.” At the University of Chicago, certainly, they have managed to complicate.
Again, I can’t say whether what Smith says is true. But did you notice that his own essay isn’t exactly a model of clarity and engaging prose?
Anyway, Smith found that the best thing he did was pass around one of his own essays to students and ask them to identify the good bits and the bad ones. And, I suppose, that’s the way one should teach writing: by giving students examples of good and bad prose and let them figure out, with guidance, how to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I’ll close by saying that students these days do need to be taught how to write, as it’s a skill you can use throughout your life, but they don’t seem to be getting that expertise. Here’s Smith’s last sentence, which I present not because it says something profound, but because it is not good writing:
Nor does it matter whether an instructor is himself a good writer, or how he understands the relationship between writing and thinking in his own work. The individuality of style, as a pursuit of the beautiful at once personal and public, and the individuality of the instructor as writer, with his own fraught, anxious, and only ever occasionally easy or triumphant relationship to writing, are effaced. To teach and to learn how to write, instead of being an intense relationship of imitation, critique, and emulation directed toward admired writers and texts, becomes instead a technical process of “diagnosing coherence based upon the presence or absence of strings of repeated themes.” From the simple truth that to teach writing one must be oneself a writer — one with the time and institutional incentives to care about students’ writing — thickening networks of pseudo-experts try to avert our collective attention.
There are too many long sentences and big words, as well as jumbled phrases (what is a “thickening network”?). As Orwell said in the essay cited above:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.
On beyond zebra!