By Duncan Richter
I've been more disappointed with my students' writing this semester than I usually am, but don't know whether it's me or them. It's not just the number of students who don't seem to know the difference between 'then' and 'than', but more the number who seem to expect a good grade on an essay without showing any signs of having read the relevant assigned material. Perhaps I'm doing something wrong (I don't usually notice this kind of thing, at least not in any serious quantity), but when this kind of thing happens I wonder what my colleagues are doing. What kinds of work do they reward and what do they tell students about how to write a good paper? This is the background to my reading a piece linked to by InsideHigherEd. In it Douglas Hesse offers advice to a high school student on how to write "at the collegiate level". I think it is almost completely wrong.
Hesse has "published about 70 articles and book chapters and [...] co-authored four books," so he's someone that people seem to listen to. What's his advice? I'll let some selected quotes tell the tale.
One thing that consistently improves a lot of first year writing is more complex thinking and not being satisfied with a first draft version that happens to satisfy formal requirements. People write in college in order to create knowledge.
Style is crucial because it conveys the writer’s ethos, his or her projected sense of self.
I could glibly say that, as far as reading, incoming first year students should read one of my textbooks, Creating Nonfiction, The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers, and so on. However, there’s no magic single text. Instead, read a plenitude of stuff.
Not being satisfied with a first draft is good advice. I always let my students re-write and encourage them to revise a lot. This is not always possible for other people, I realize, but I am lucky enough to teach small classes. (It's extra surprising to get a revised paper that still makes no reference to the assigned reading after I pointed out this flaw in the first draft. Oh well.) But "more complex thinking" seems like terrible advice. For one thing, it's far from clear what it means. Hesse says "analyze, synthesize, critique, and apply," but that's not much help. For another thing, the most likely result of students' trying to heed this advice seems to be pointlessly complicated sentences. Not good.
Secondly, if I can be forgiven for venting about a pet peeve, will everyone please stop talking about "creating knowledge"? Knowledge is something like justified true belief. You can't create belief. Nor can you make a given belief true. You can discover, although undergraduates are unlikely to discover much that was not already known (another thing not to get me started on: "undergraduate research"). And you can attempt to persuade. But "creating knowledge" is bullshit.
Thirdly, is style really crucial in student writing? I would think that in most subjects professors look for clarity and objectivity, an impersonal approach that of course is not no style at all but that is very misleadingly talked about in terms of style. If I were giving advice on how to write a lab report or an essay in history or philosophy, I would not say that style is crucial. I might even advise against thinking about style at all.
Finally, the advice to read a lot, and of good stuff, is sound. But Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," for all its limitations, comes close to being a magic single text. His rules, I would think, constitute good advice for most academic writing:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.