Thursday, January 10, 2019

Musings on "Academese" or Tangled up in Words

Inspiration Corner

    December 24th marked the third anniversary of my retirement after 26 years of teaching at a local community college. Okay, let’s say I quit, rejecting Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s declaration to “Carry on.” I would liked to have reached 30 years, but I couldn’t imagine grading one more student paper, especially the god-awful, college-driven--research paper.
    I’d often told colleagues we should do away with the death penalty. Instead, legislatures should enact a law forcing murderers on Death Row to learn to grade research papers and assign stacks for grading every day for the rest of their lives. Not that I am blaming students, the real culprit is American higher education, and its view of “good” writing.
     I once asked students in various college classes how many of them read the professor’s comments after their papers were graded and returned. In one class, out of 25 students, two or three students said they read most of the teacher’s comments. Fifteen students said they read only the teacher’s remarks on the final page, ignoring the ink scratches in the margins. The remaining students said they never read the comments and only looked at the grade. In all classes, the responses were pretty much the same. So, why do teachers spend evenings and weekends reading and often meticulously grading student essays?
    Students told me they find essay writing boring, and, most, figured they were going to receive low scores, anyway. And this was at Santa Monica, one of the better regarded community colleges in LA county. Though, that is open to debate.
    Ken Robinson, noted educator and social critic, said a major problem with higher education is that many professors teach as if their students are all going to become professors. At the time, Robinson’s simple observation came to me as an epiphany, for not only do professors teach as if their students are budding academics, they also expect student papers to be written as dissertations, even short three-page papers from remedial students.
    I was at a conference having dinner with a group of educators. One young, newly tenured political science professor said, his voice stressed, “I almost decided not to attend the conference. Only two weeks are left in the semester, and I still have five chapters to cover.”
    I asked, “How many of your students are political science majors?”
    He answered, thoughtfully, “None that I know of.” He laughed, reaching his own conclusion. Why worry?
    When I passed him on the quad some years later, he told me our brief exchange had changed his way of teaching. Now, he wanted his students to take from the course whatever they thought important or relative to their lives. The problem was the department. It wanted professors to cover every chapter, whether the students understood the information or not.
    In English, professors rate the best student essays according to a formula, the formal use of grammar, syntax, diction, structure, and content, not unreasonable. Professors create the standards.
     I remember waiting for a colleague outside his office one afternoon while he finished talking to a student. In the hallway, I noticed a student paper pinned to a bulletin board. The green-inked extra thick A+ gleaming at anyone passing by, and nary a teacher’s marks in the text, a sure sign of excellence.
    I started to read. A correctly underlined thesis statement, strong sentence structure, sophisticated vocabulary, effective structure, and clear focus; yet, when I reached the bottom of page two, completely bored, I had to stop.
    A few weeks earlier, I’d met with a group of writing teachers. Our task was to evaluate five student essays, scoring them from the best to the worst. “Here is the most engaging essay in the bunch,” one teacher pointed out, most of us agreeing. Another teacher who had given the paper a low score called out, “Engaging is not in the rubric,” and she pointed to a complicated chart diagramming what constitutes good and weak writing. She, then, noted the more obvious writing errors in the student paper. Her argument swayed many of the teachers to her side. The rubric ruled.
     Since university professors determine the formula for good essay writing, teachers in K-12 must follow the mandated formula, a sort of academic “trickle down”. It is a system created over a hundred years ago, and it is difficult to break free, a near-tribe mentality. Who said university teachers are progressive? Entrenched might be a better word.
    To earn any college-level degree, students must conform to a style (or lack of one) of “academic writing”, or academese, as I call it, or maybe I heard it some place in a past life. I don’t want to confuse this with the expository essay, at its best, one of the most beautiful works of art, to me, anyway.
    It is one reason I chose to forgo a Ph. D. I could never navigate the strict writing formula, and, with an interest in creative writing, I feared too many years of academese might stifle any natural style I’d still managed to preserve.
Waiting ten years for an office with a view
    In college, I was fortunate my Cal State professors understood working-class students, and though the professors would bend, they wouldn’t break. They allowed me to use description and narration in my essays, so long as the general tone was “academese” or what the academy required. I distinctly remember one of my favorite history professors telling me, after handing back a paper he’d marked “B+”, “You are going to be a creative writer.” I was relieved he’d accepted my understanding of the material based on my blend of exposition, narration, and description, including a few metaphors, frowned upon in academese.
    This isn’t to say I didn’t work hard, burrowed between library stacks late at night as I sought nuggets of wisdom in the books surrounding me, just like many students who’d passed through my classes over the years.
    As a teacher, I chose to bend even if I didn’t break. Though sometimes, like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I wanted to say to hell with the “rivets” and delve deeper in the wilderness, freeing myself and my students of the “formula,” but tradition runs deep.
    Expository writing was once at the heart of academic writing, about the turn of the 20th century. In the ensuing years, some professors took expository composition and turned it into a narrowly constructed, jargon littered literary form, abstract, obtuse, pretentious, and often vague. A friend once asked me if I’d read the draft of his dissertation. I tried, I really did, and though I was familiar with the subject, I could barely understand. It was like walking outside at night with a flashlight. I could find my way, but there were a lot of shadows and much darkness obscuring my path.
    Another colleague, a respected writer, widely published in both fiction and non-fiction, blurted in a department meeting, after a long discussion on the importance of a thesis statement, “I don’t care if a student can write a thesis statement as long as the writing is clear and makes a point.” Teachers in the room gasped. Sacrilege! Anathema! Heresy!
     He didn’t care what others thought, Mr. Kurtz loosed in the halls of academia. Afterwards, he rarely attended meetings where teachers discussed writing. Yet, he remained one of the most popular and effective teachers on campus, sent many of his students on to universities, but he was, gulp, suspect.
    Another friend, a sociology professor, once asked, “Look, can you find a thesis statement in this paper? It’s a good paper, but I can’t give him an ‘A’.”
    Late in my career, I casually, and half-jokingly, suggested to the department chair that we “blow-up” the writing paradigm, implement new standards, even change the name of our department from English to Reading and Composition. In not so many words, she intimated, it would cause a department rebellion.
    So, when I hear professors say, “Students can’t write,” I think to myself, they can’t write the narrow, limited form academia requires, academese, and if students sent to elite, private high schools by their college-educated parents have difficulty with the form, how much more difficulty would first-generation students from working-class backgrounds and public school educations have?
    On the second day of classes, one particular semester, I tossed aside the academic prompt and asked students to write an essay on the most dangerous situation they ever faced. Their first question, “Can we us the ‘I’? The papers they submitted covered all aspects of what humanists refer to as the “human condition,” experiences ranging from rape to death to extreme challenges, tragic and inspiring papers. Even though most contained common writing errors, some hard to read; nevertheless, the essays opened a window through which I could view these young people's lives.
Where a lone Zapatista stands the post
    I could hear a colleague’s voice, “I never let my students use first-person narration. Effective analysis requires objectivity," hence, academese. Yet, in the human animal, complete objectivity does not exist.
    When some people talk about “art for art’s sake,” I think of George Orwell's, “All art is propaganda.” In fact, Orwell is a perfect example of a master essayist whose thesis always shines through, even if readers can’t identify a particular statement designated as such. Ironically, academics themselves have made Orwell one of the most widely assigned writers in college classrooms, from English to sociology, anthropology, and political science.
    When one reads his essay, “A Hanging,” there is no doubt about Orwell’s position on capital punishment in the English colonies. Or in “Shooting an Elephant,” his ideas of colonialism and acculturation are stretched naked in the Burmese mud for readers to ponder.
    College English teachers want their students to write as they wrote in grad school, mimicking Ph. D. dissertations: an anonymous, objective voice, strict writing form from the opening paragraph to the conclusion, encompassing a specific jargon and sentence structure, of which Orwell observed, “…sentences tacked together like sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house.”
    In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell warns against those who use language to manipulate the public. Even today, seventy years later, we listen to governments and politicians engage in verbal jousting, bombarding us with phrases, such as “alternative truth,” “Peace Keeper” missiles, and “collateral damage.” If a lie is told enough times, people begin to believe it.
    Orwell also cites five examples of weak writing, and professors contribute to three. One example: "Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put with for tolerate, or put at a loss for as bewilder." (Professor Lancelot Hogben, Interglossia)
    Is this how writing teachers really want students to express themselves in writing, or in speech?
    The reason for such type of writing, according to Orwell, “Pretentious diction, words used to dress up a simple statement…give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements,” "The present political chaos is connected with the decay of language," and lastly, "Political disguised to make lies said truthful and murder respectable...."
    Personally, I have tried to internalize, over the years, two of Orwell's practical writing suggestions, 1) "Never use a long word when a short word will do," and 2) if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
    Ah, if I could only learn to edit with Max Perkins' eye.

No comments: