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I expected this to be how things would go when I started a four-year postdoc at the University of Chicago, where I taught a core class for second-year students who had already been through a writing-intensive, two-quarter class the previous year. TAs who themselves had taken a special class in pedagogy at the university’s writing center had helped my students prepare their papers, bringing writing-center expertise into the classroom. But my students were shockingly bad writers. A few could express themselves in clear enough prose that I could concentrate on their arguments, but something like 90 percent of them struggled to write a sentence that could be read aloud without embarrassment.
The worst struggled with grammar — subject-verb agreement, consistency of tense, etc. — but for the majority the problem was style. The students seemed to have all learned together a stilted, awkward, and at times painfully florid way of writing removed both from the rhythms of good prose and ordinary conversational English. It was the voice of someone who wanted very much to seem smart but did not yet know how to do so.
The international students, although they had their own problems, were generally better writers than the native-born, in part because they had less of this clumsily pretentious style. After talking with colleagues at lower-ranked institutions, and looking at the papers they received, I realized that the form of bad writing that characterized my students’ work was a hothouse specimen. They had almost all received what passes for an excellent secondary education, with a great deal of attention paid to their writing. If it was, nevertheless, unacceptably poor, this was a cultivated awfulness.
I was tempted to begin an investigation of how our elite high schools teach writing so badly. Surely there is something to be said about the perverse effects of students’ college application essays, which are almost universally written in often monthslong collaboration with parents, teachers and advisers. Likewise, they have practiced writing for the essay sections of standardized tests, which are graded according to rubrics by tired, busy proctors. College instructors are beginning to worry about a near future in which students’ essays are written for them by artificial-intelligence programs; we might rather ask ourselves how writing became so mechanizable in the first place. Perhaps the most important fact is simply that students at elite institutions have been throughout their lives so overscheduled that they have done almost no reading for pleasure and have no sense of good, or even natural, English.
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. At a certain point in my frustration with my own students’ writing, on the theory that I might as well do the opposite of whatever the writing center did, I handed out copies of one of my (less polemical) essays, and spent an hour asking them what was good and what was bad about its prose. I was surprised how quickly they were able to identify strengths and weaknesses — provocative transitions, exciting variations on sentence structure, bloated verbiage, etc. — lessons they could then begin applying to their own papers. None of their instructors, it seemed, had ever presented themselves as a fellow writer, whose writing, like theirs, could be evaluated and discussed. Instead of teaching writing through writing and as writers, instructors from the writing center present themselves as masters of techniques.
Or — even worse — they present themselves as agents of political and ethical change. 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.
The segmentation of campus life into discrete units that can be managed by administrators leaves instructors free to teach material specific to their areas of expertise and, in an operation necessary for the success of careers that will be evaluated on the basis not of teaching but publishing, to keep students at a distance. There are obvious disadvantages to this system, which gives instructors no incentive to consider their students’ intellectual life (or indeed their own) from a holistic perspective. It would be easy to dismiss such concerns as backward-looking humanistic laments if students were at least better served by cadres of specialists than by faculty given the time and resources to encounter them as unique human beings. But at least at Chicago this arrangement does not seem to help students learn to write.
It certainly doesn’t help them write sentences. Pointing students to some particularly ungainly attempt at self-expression, I would ask them what they had learned about writing in their first-year core class, or from their independent consultations with the writing center (where, indeed, many of them had taken their drafts). They invariably said that they had worked on their “ideas” and “organization,” not “style,” a word they seemed to hold in contempt. They asked, “You mean you’re grading us on style?,” visibly indignant, as if I were perversely ignoring what really mattered — their understanding of the material — to obsess over trivial frippery. No one, I suppose, had ever suggested to them that sentences are where we think.
The idea that a paper is, essentially, an “argument,” of which any particular sentence is only a means of support, is a corollary to the idea that a course is, essentially, a means of delivering information and developing skills separable from those delivered and developed by other segments of the pedagogical-bureaucratic machinery. In both cases we imagine that the point of a college education is to acquire mastery of a predetermined set of concepts and capacities. Style, by such lights, is unimportant; if the manner of a sentence matters, it is only for its being clear and straightforward, phrases being mere vehicles for “points.”
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.