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May 31, 2005 4:30 PM   Subscribe

According to Stanley Fish, "Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are." The solution: make them invent their own language. After a generation that privileged content to the exclusion of form, is the pendulum swinging back the other way?
posted by myl (134 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
posted by exlotuseater at 4:36 PM on May 31, 2005


[vil bana da]
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:36 PM on May 31, 2005


whom is the doee

Whoops. I'm surprised he goes to this extreme, but something in this direction is needed (probably before students arrive at college). It is quite possible to go to an excellent college & major in English & graduate without acquiring the mastery of syntax that, with a good education, you should be able to take for granted.
posted by Zurishaddai at 4:37 PM on May 31, 2005


*giggles at Faint of Butt*
posted by Specklet at 4:39 PM on May 31, 2005


In the languages my students devise, the requisite distinctions are signaled by any number of formal devices - word order, word endings, prefixes, suffixes, numbers, brackets, fonts, colors, you name it. Exactly how they do it is not the point; the point is that they know what it is they are trying to do; the moment they know that, they have succeeded, even if much of the detailed work remains to be done.

Seems a lot of effort to accomplish what teaching Green and Latin used to do on its own, without the benefit of all the "content" that is classical civilization.
posted by felix betachat at 4:40 PM on May 31, 2005


"Greek"

*scowls at exlotuseater*
posted by felix betachat at 4:41 PM on May 31, 2005


I've said this time and time again. If they taught kids phonics and the lost art of sentence diagramming, this would not be a problem. Also... every child should be able to read by age 5, IMHO.
posted by banished at 4:45 PM on May 31, 2005


I remember all the teachers in elementary school never caring at all about the content of what i wrote--it sucked enormously. They would only mark up grammar and spelling and ignore what actually mattered. It took years before i stopped seeing writing as a chore or a school thing.
I was so glad to see that the actual story and telling parts of writing were being focused on in schools, and that it would make kids more eager to write (or at least not afraid of writing even if it didn't make them good at structure).

I guess it didn't? Maybe there's a happy medium? This Fish sounds like a lousy teacher--training his students to call out "content" like it's a bad thing--WTF?
posted by amberglow at 4:47 PM on May 31, 2005


Isn't this same thing achieved by foreign language courses which are requisite for every high schooler? Does learning a new grammar make them better writers? Maybe. Does it transform godawful writers into pros? Definitely not.

What evidence does Stanley provide, in any case, that his method contains this transformative property, whereby tyros are rendered Shakespeares? None.

Color me unimpressed.

IMHO, asking why there aren't better writers about is like asking why half the population has an IQ below 100.
posted by mowglisambo at 4:49 PM on May 31, 2005


Content is a lure and a delusion

Isn't this the basic premise of pron site's "trial" memberships?
posted by fenriq at 4:49 PM on May 31, 2005


The thing is, i guess, is that we--even as children--really are natural storytellers; we're not natural writers.
posted by amberglow at 4:51 PM on May 31, 2005


Isn't this same thing achieved by foreign language courses which are requisite for every high schooler?

It would be, except that almost no-one ever actually learns a second language in a U.S. high school.
posted by gimonca at 4:54 PM on May 31, 2005


This is such a cool idea. In computer science it is fairly common to have a class where you create a simple computer language so that compilers are understood and an appreciation of what a language does is created. This is analagous.

The other way to teach why structure matters is to learn another language. As felix betachat points out that could be a language of the ancient world, or it could be Spanish or whatever.

But learning a language involves an enormous amount of rote memorization. Admittedly, there are many advantages, but until people see a need to learn another language by being immersed in it or exposed to it, it is a difficult and artificial thing to do. Unfortunately speaking English reduces that need more than any other language, given that it is now the international language.
posted by sien at 4:58 PM on May 31, 2005


The thing is, i guess, is that we--even as children--really are natural storytellers; we're not natural writers.

This is what I feel to be true. Anyone who has something to express will only be aided by a solid education in grammar. I understand your point, amberglow, that such dry material can suck the joy out of writing and discourage even those with the creative instinct to write, and I'm sure there is some happy medium - but the fact remains that not having a current protocol in place for explicitly teaching basic grammar (as is pretty much the case in New York state right now) is ultimately damaging to children.

Maybe I'm bitter because I was a victim of "content without over form" English education, but I think grammar is something that deserves reintroduction into American schools.
posted by invitapriore at 5:05 PM on May 31, 2005


I wish i (and everyone else my age and older) would have had that, invita--i really do. It was all "form--content doesn't matter" when i was in elementary school (in junior high and hs it was both), and it was still supposedly better than what my parents went thru, with much more rote memorization/recitation of "classic" poems and stuff, and very little creative writing or longform writing at all.

It seems to me that it's even more of a "teaching to the tests" thing nowadays, and that would naturally encourage form over content--filling in dot a, b, or c is usually about identifying correct grammar, structure or spelling, isn't it?
posted by amberglow at 5:11 PM on May 31, 2005


I'm sure his logical implication is that this work helps his students' English skills, but I do find it odd that he never mentions that. He goes from "Kids can't write proper English" to "I make them write a new language", and concludes not with "Their efforts in writing a new language improve their English", but with "They make amazing new languages!" Either he composed the article poorly or he's lost sight of his objectives.
posted by Bugbread at 5:11 PM on May 31, 2005


One reason writing skills are not better in general has to do with what was pointed out to me in a great essay I read a few weeks ago:

...due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.


The co-mingling of literature and writing certainly turned me off to both during my highschool years.
posted by Bort at 5:16 PM on May 31, 2005


Over at Language Log the linguist Geoffrey Pullum points out that Stanley Fish is unwittingly teaching a linguistics class.
posted by ludflu at 5:21 PM on May 31, 2005


...over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships.

Sigh. His idea is a good one; too bad he doesn't know more about language. A sentence is not a structure of logical relationships (what is the logical relationship between "fuck" and "you" in "Fuck you"?), it's a grammatical structure, where "grammar" is "the way Language X arranges things." It has nothing to do with logic. But that's not all that important in this context; I'm sure the students are learning a tremendous amount from this exercise, and I applaud him for it. (I must say, I never thought I'd be applauding Fish, who believes there's no such thing as free speech and in general is one of the more annoying postmodernists.)

The thing is, i guess, is that we--even as children--really are natural storytellers; we're not natural writers.


Exactly, which is why you have to teach students how to write -- you don't have to teach them to express themselves, they're all too good at that anyway. Getting rid of content is an excellent start. "What? You mean I can't talk about what I did on my summer vacation or why I hate the president?" "That's right. Now get to work."
posted by languagehat at 5:21 PM on May 31, 2005


I think a quick look at any number of livejournals will show a generation that thinks writing is fun, but lacks knowledge.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:25 PM on May 31, 2005


This Fish sounds like a lousy teacher--training his students to call out "content" like it's a bad thing--WTF?

Nope. It's not a bad thing, it's simply inconsequential to the practice of using language well. I'm not great at analogies, but I see language like any instrument. You need to learn how to play the darn thing correctly before you start improvising or composing.

I think he's absolutely right.

Exactly, Bort. Yay for postmodernism. Thanks for the link.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:26 PM on May 31, 2005


I agree with felix betachat that this is a modern substitution for the role that Greek and Latin once played; and with other commenters that this is a sign that the cultural pendulum, having swung to an unprecedented extreme of content over form, has now begun to swing inexorably back the other way.
posted by myl at 5:36 PM on May 31, 2005


I used to have long arguments with english teachers from elementary school to college that grammar is dynamic & is dictated by useage.
(We no longer for example speak as Elizabethans did)
Content drives the language. An infant doesn't have the words, but we know when it's hungry or needs to be changed. Admittedly form is crucial. But l33t5 not forget it's teh usage and context which makes something worth saying.
Students can't write clean English sentences because they don't see the relevence. Not to go deconstructionist on Fish's ass, but those meanings aren't fixed. He demonstrates that by having his students make up language. The objective is to be understood.
As an exercise I think what he's doing is useful, but to divorce content from form (in addition to ignoring McLuhan,Husserl and Heidegger) ignores the dynamic nature of English.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:42 PM on May 31, 2005


From a rating seen today (the university shall remain unnamed) at ratemyprofessors.com, which should show you what teachers are often facing these days (although I've seen plenty of brilliant writing from college students too):

"He is a really hard teaher. He doesnt teach well so I am not sur eif he should be called a teacher. He is very condiscending towoard the students. I am not sure how he still teaches. he is a stickler for grammer. No one got above a C on the papers we wrote. Very vague about what he wants."

Grammar should be taught in "grammar school" and reinforced through junior high and high school. It should not be up to colleges to teach students how to make their way through simple sentences. By then, content should definitely matter more, as should the structure of a formal research paper, or an essay. Students who have trouble should be asked to take remedial courses, or sent to a writing lab or advised of computer programs that can be of assistance.

I agree, as someone noted earlier, that the teaching of writing should not be left solely to English departments. Writing is, in plenty of students's eyes, an uncool thing to do, a chore. But, the teaching of writing shouldn't be left solely to colleges and universities either. Fish should have used this column as an opportunity to point that out.
posted by raysmj at 5:47 PM on May 31, 2005


Nope. It's not a bad thing, it's simply inconsequential to the practice of using language well.

It's not at all inconsequential--it's essential. "Using language well" doesn't mean you know that adjectives come before nouns--that's irrelevant. It means that you as an individual can communicate clearly and effectively (and that has changed over the years towards a much more succinct and to-the-point form). Getting kids to learn how to do that should require more than just structural lessons, but lessons that reflect how the students will actually use language in their lives. I recognize the value of structure and grammar but think that the learning how to express is what's really important. Think about how little kids acquire spoken language and how their use of speech refines over the years to become actual coherent sentences. Why is writing acquisition set out so differently? Why can't kids just do it and then slowly refine it?
posted by amberglow at 5:50 PM on May 31, 2005


languagethat: he's being very partcular when he says "there's no such thing as free speech"; he defines "free speech" as:

speech that has as its rationale nothing more than its own production.

He's not arguing that the political right to freedom of speech doesn't exist, but rather that speech is always intended to inspire action fo some kind, and so the idea that, for instance, a member of the KKK could speak on behalf of that organizatioin without calling others to actions that would undermine the kind of society we belive is in everyone's best interests, is false - speech isn't neutral. James Dobson has the right to freedom of speech int his country, but his speech is not the kind that merely invites speech in reply - it invites action that would, if successful, eventually result in the destruction of the society we hold dear including, of all things, the political right to freedom of speech. It's a deep contradiction in liberalism that often undermines liberal causes.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:50 PM on May 31, 2005


and what Smedleyman said. : >
posted by amberglow at 5:51 PM on May 31, 2005


Students can't write clean English sentences because they don't see the relevence.

When it comes to getting what they want--as in, a job, or getting into graduate or medical or dental school--they do see the relevance. As in, "If you could look over this carefully for me, I'd appreciate it, because I have trouble with sentences sometimes, and this will be going in my file (that will be sent to graduate schools), and I want it to be nice." Or, "Please don't punish me over the grammar. I just don't write very well, and I need an A in this class for med school."

Maybe the solution to problems in this area at least partially involves a better incentives structure.
posted by raysmj at 6:03 PM on May 31, 2005


The thing is, i guess, is that we--even as children--really are natural storytellers

If you ever taught fourth graders (as I have) you'd know this isn't true. Many fourth-grade teachers have trouble sleeping at night because every time they close their eyes they see a 9-year-old walking up and saying "Mr. X, I saw this movie..." or "Guess what I did this weekend?"

Being able to tell a story is something that improves vastly through extensive practice with language in a variety of settings (having a life beyond video games helps, too.) It isn't "natural." In point of fact, children aren't "naturally" much of anything -- but that's a subject for another time.

As for the grammar vs. content issue, it should be obvious that a good teacher demonstrates how grammar generates content as much as expressing it. Pulling the two apart now and again is a worthwhile exercise, but they really are indivisible.

And Fish seems to take the fact that his students tend to lapse into canned content as a sign that they can't do anything else. He might want to consider that arriving at good, deep reasoned thought takes as much practice as understanding grammar.
posted by argybarg at 6:10 PM on May 31, 2005


If you ever taught fourth graders (as I have) you'd know this isn't true. Many fourth-grade teachers have trouble sleeping at night because every time they close their eyes they see a 9-year-old walking up and saying "Mr. X, I saw this movie..." or "Guess what I did this weekend?"

I think that shows it is true, actually--they may not be good storytellers, but they're itching to share it all.
posted by amberglow at 6:12 PM on May 31, 2005


But learning a language involves an enormous amount of rote memorization.

Learning one's (sorry, your) first language involves your parents, older siblings, and peers talking to you and listening to you.

Learning to use that language effectively involves learning to read, and then reading a lot.

This way, when the formal structure of well-composed sentences and paragraphs is taught, the individual will be ready to understand.

Then she or he will be equipped to learn other languages such as Chinese, Esperanto, or Klingon, or invent a new language.

P.S. why isn't the word "Klingon" in the spell check?
posted by longsleeves at 6:12 PM on May 31, 2005


Oh, and raysmj --

Incentive structures usually just invite a lot of negotiating the incentive structures. Many of us spent our school years gaming the system, looking for the right grades. Not much quality learning follows.

The incentive in writing ought mostly to consist of the pleasure involved in writing a clean, well-considered thought and finding that someone else appreciates it.

On preview: Thanks, amberglow. I like that way of seeing it.
posted by argybarg at 6:14 PM on May 31, 2005


longsleeves has a really really good point about reading--it definitely is enormously important--you absorb clean, well-considered thoughts while reading constantly and almost unconsciously.

argy : > (i'm an 8-year-old at heart)
posted by amberglow at 6:19 PM on May 31, 2005


My junior year high school English teacher had us do this as our first assignment. Not as involved, mind you. It was more like creating a pictographic system. It did involve creating syntax and constructing characters out of multiple concepts for a limited number of words. Coolest f'ing assignment ever. Unrestrained endorsement from this corner.
posted by furiousthought at 6:29 PM on May 31, 2005


argybarg: True. I should point out, however, that the latter student came to me in grade-grubbing fashion (I need to get into med school!), while the first seemed outright embarrassed about her writing skills. For some students, writing definitely does not come naturally. Then, no one's been either hard enough on them, one, or hasn't instilled in them any sense of the joy to be found in expressing ideas clearly. For these students, making your way through a sentence is akin to working your way through an advanced calculus problem. They get all hung up on and nervous about rules they can hardly remember, and suddenly everything's a blur, and their sentences come out hyper-mangled.
posted by raysmj at 6:34 PM on May 31, 2005


Well, let's send them all to upper-crust British private schools, so they all come out talking like Prince Charles:

"I wouldn't be talking to you about this if I didn't think that I wasn't alone in my views."

Now, isn't that better?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:59 PM on May 31, 2005


What evidence does Stanley provide, in any case, that his method contains this transformative property, whereby tyros are rendered Shakespeares? None.

What mowglisambo said. Fish is obviously very pleased with himself, but frankly I'd be shocked if his approach really does much to improve students' writing. It's not clear exactly what skill is being trained by having students 'invent' a language. As languagehat points out, there's a world of difference between the real syntactical rules governing language, and the kind of rules students can consciously make up in a class exercise.

It's also not really clear that there's a problem to begin with. How does one operationally define or test Fish's claim (and it's one that's heard often) that college students are horrible writers? What's the comparison group? Many people like to claim that students' write more poorly now than they did 50 years ago, but that certainly hasn't been empirically established. Moreover, it wouldn't be surprising if there were more bad writers today than there used to be, given that higher education is vastly more accessible these days. As mowglisambo also pointed out, there have to be lots of bad writers by definition, just as there have to be people with low IQs.

Since no one's opened the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist can of worms yet, it's also worth pointing out that part of the reason people like Fish think there are lots of bad writers out there is that the standards they hold up as good English are almost completely arbitrary, and have relatively little to do with aiding the readers' comprehension. As people have pointed out above, language didn't evolve for people to write down long sentences that don't end with prepositions. It evolved for people to tell each other stories and point out that big animals with sharp teeth were coming. There are any number of people who speak perfectly good English, can communicate with each other just fine, and yet--justifiably--split infinitives like there's no tomorrow.

That all said, it's clear that there are sentence constructions that are cognitively more difficult to process and tend to sow confusion. But (a) there's no indication that they're the ones that students commonly make the mistake of using (conversely, plenty of structurally-sound academic writing is impossible to comprehend), and (b) it's not clear what Fish's approach is really doing to amend the problem, even if his diagnosis is correct.
posted by heavy water at 7:08 PM on May 31, 2005


Also... every child should be able to read by age 5, IMHO.

Not to pick on you, banished, but alas, there is up to a five-year developmental spread at that chronological age (say, from 3 to 8). Many 5-year-olds do learn to read, at least at my school, but there are those whose brains just resist all kinds of phonics instruction until later. I have one kid in mind who could not read—could not read—until he was in the third grade. Then one day, he could. He's now in the gifted program.

I say, teach 'em as if they are going to learn by 5, but be damned ready not to leave any child behind, whatever it takes, after that.

/offtopic

I read this article in the Times today and was most impressed. One of the best strategies I used at the high school level was simply "sentence combining," which again just taught students strategies to deal with structure without necessarily tangling with content.
posted by ancientgower at 7:08 PM on May 31, 2005


In Quebec (and maybe this is also true of the rest of Canada) you can't graduate university without showing that you can write an ordinary short essay in either English or French.

This is done by means of a test which can be taken in either language. If a student fails the test he is given a course in composition (English or French, it's the students' choice). This makes a lot of sense IMHO.
posted by clevershark at 7:11 PM on May 31, 2005


clevershark, every high school and college in the U.S. has the same requirement. The problem is that the bar is set so low. The ability to "write an ordinary essay" is defined down to the ability to transcribe your dorm-room bull session, as Fish says.

that could be a language of the ancient world, or it could be Spanish or whatever

I don't think you can compare learning Spanish to learning Latin or Greek in terms of the degree of provocation a student gets to think about the structure of language, the meaning of language, and how the two relate!
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:25 PM on May 31, 2005


I have to say that learning the unnecessarily-complex grammar of latin was a huge help in my learning other, current languages.

Then again I don't think that forcing unwilling students to take a latin course would be of any substantive help down the line...
posted by clevershark at 7:28 PM on May 31, 2005


It seems to me that it's even more of a "teaching to the tests" thing nowadays, and that would naturally encourage form over content--filling in dot a, b, or c is usually about identifying correct grammar, structure or spelling, isn't it?

Speaking just for New York, the English assessment is a collection of four essays. You're basically still correct, though, because classes are still organized around teaching to the test. This is made possible by the fact that the essay requirements are so formulaic and simple that teachers usually create a rather specific outlines that are applicable to all possible questions. Maybe it's not so much the elevation of content at the exclusion of form, but rather, the exclusion of both things. Hey, that's education.

Learning to use that language effectively involves learning to read, and then reading a lot.

The key word, I think, is a lot. I think if students had more exposure to literature than they currently do, they might have a better intuitive handle on how to write.

Also... every child should be able to read by age 5, IMHO.

Not if you go to the Waldorf schools! You see, learning abstract alphabets before the age of 7 encourages the dominance of the left brain, and then some stuff happens, and I'm sure it's bad, you know...
posted by invitapriore at 7:32 PM on May 31, 2005


You know, there is a sweet irony in a post-modernist complaining about abuse of the English language.

(Not that Fish is a terrible writer - I haven't read anything of his - just that post-modernist writing hurts my little brain more than just about anything other than nineteenth century philosophy.)

Personally, my first reaction was, yes, of course writing is much worse today than yesterday. And kids are more out of control, and people are ruder and no one has any respect! We're all going to hell in a handbasket. (I think I heard that one of the oldest Sumerian cuneiform tablets said something to that effect.)

There is a happy medium to teaching grammar and getting kids to write well. I actually took an English grammar course in university - it was really an intro to linguistics with an emphasis on syntax. I loved it, had a lot of fun, but I don't think it actually helped my writing (I took it in conjunction with a creative writing major). Whereas the years of writing content-ful material and having my work corrected were much more useful to my writing ability.

The best thing recently for my writing has always been reading it aloud, and asking other native speakers of English to read it. But I know this is on a base of years of reading English and being a native speaker, of course. The advice I give my college students (I was a TA this year) is to read their work aloud; most know how to speak perfectly well, and just need to learn how to translate that into their writing.

However, I would have not have thought that grammar was the most serious writing problem among students in higher education. I have a very biased sample, only having taught at one university, but the biggest problem my students have it not with grammar at all, but with argument structure. All of the lowest grades in my class went to papers with fine grammar but no structure, or a weak and unconvincing argument and structure.

But that is another thread.

(I am now, of course, paranoid that my comment is filled with grammatical errors, as always happens in threads on grammar. Or Speling.)
posted by jb at 7:36 PM on May 31, 2005


No, goddamnit! Kids need to be read to to and start reading early and often. That's it. Then get them to start writing as soon as possible.

Wasting English class time with boring-as-shit grammar and linguistics lessons has never helped. Get the kids reading and writing. That can be a challange, but that's what is needed.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:37 PM on May 31, 2005


languagehat: A sentence is not a structure of logical relationships (what is the logical relationship between "fuck" and "you" in "Fuck you"?), it's a grammatical structure, where "grammar" is "the way Language X arranges things."

Now I know that arguing about linguistics with languagehat is like getting into a land war in Asia, but...
I think perhaps this is an issue as to the way the term "logic" is being used. I don't think Fish is using "logic" in the sense of symbolic/formal logic. I think the two of you basically agree but are using different terms. I believe that Fish is referring rather to the internal logic of a language, that is, the structure and rules it has in place to arrange words/sounds/etc in order to express meaning.
Somewhat off-topic, I never considered Fish to be a postmodernist, at least on the order of a Baudrillard or something. More like a fairly traditional critic who adopted some poststructuralist perspectives, but I'll admit that most of the Fish I've read has been his Milton commentary, not so much any of his theoretical works.

As for what Fish is doing, I have to say that while I don't know if his specific methodology really accomplishes his goal (I'd love to see a copy of his course syllabus, though), but something needs to be done.

For the last year, I worked in the writing lab at my University, and about 50% of the students I worked with were from the intro freshman comp courses. After the 5000th essay about "what 9/11 meant to me" I wanted to slit my wrists. Not only was the writing for the most part really horrible, it was the same crap over and over again.

As Fish says, these classes tend to churn out the same poorly thought-out and incoherently written papers over and over again. I always, ALWAYS attacked grammar, mechanics, and style first, because form really does drive content. Once a student began to improve their writing, it changed the way they would think about the issues in their paper. When their writing became more sophisticated, so too did their thinking. The problem was, very few students could get up to the level of "sophisticated." For the most part, it was a struggle to get them to "coherent." For the 2 that would end up actually "good" writers (relatively speaking) there's be 10 that were teetering on decent, and a few that were still horrible, or at least pretty bad.

It wasn't that students didn't care or didn't want to get better. Sure, there were always a few who just came to the lab because their teacher made them, or who wanted me to do all the work for them. The majority, however, just shut down. They assumed they couldn't do it, that grammar was some foreign skill that they couldn't learn, that was only available to mysterious scholars with natural grammar skillz. I'd have to constantly remind them, "this is YOUR language! This is just a formal way of expressing the things you say and think every day." Most of them, however, had never learned the basics, and both neither had the patience nor the time to pick up a copy of the Little, Brown handbook and figure out what the difference between an adverb and their assholes.

The problem seems to be that the first semester (or two) of college writing is now expected to teach what students should have been learning throughout their elementary, junior high, and high school careers. I graduated from high school in 1994, and by that time I had learned English grammar, diagrammed sentences (in Jr. High & High school... we even diagrammed the first sentence of Paradise Lost as a group in 9th grade), learned how to write about the basic features of literature, learned how to organize essays, learned how to do research, and done major research projects. All of this is now expected to take place from September to May of students' first year away from home. Sure, I hated diagramming sentences, but now I realize how much learning that skill helped me understand how to communicate effectively. When I started working at the writing center, I realized that while I intuitively understood English grammar, I had forgotten how to talk about it, so I took it upon myself to do a little remedial study. Even that little effort, plus my current on-again-off-again study of basic linguistics, has sharpened my writing even further (this rant notwithstanding).

I've come to realize that understanding how I write something is crucial to understanding why I write it, what it means, how I can write it better, and if I should write it at all. While Fish's exercise may not be the best way to accomplish the goal of teaching students to understand how their language functions, but it is at least a start.
posted by papakwanz at 7:39 PM on May 31, 2005


due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature

This is an excellent point. Unfortunately, the common wisdom dictates that students get better at writing by being exposed to what is generally perceived as "good" writing.

I'd suggest that mimicry is only a brief middle-stage to the process of learning to write well. The first is structural education--letters, words, nouns and verbs, agreement, etc. The last stage (that continues throughout one's life) is the practical application: writing, writing and writing some more. As a professor once told me, "You must write until the shit has been wrung from your sentences."

The shit for most people is the preponderance of cliche'. It's mimicry gone bad; a chain of common phrases that have been used so much that the individual words no longer have meaning.

When it comes to getting what they want--as in, a job, or getting into graduate or medical or dental school--they do see the relevance.

I agree. But the little bastard nihilists that occupy the desks these days don't give a flying fuck about consequences. Screw 'em... let the Indians or British bear the torch for the English language. It's been extinquished here since rap culture became mainstream, yo.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:41 PM on May 31, 2005 [1 favorite]


heavy water: What mowglisambo said. Fish is obviously very pleased with himself, but frankly I'd be shocked if his approach really does much to improve students' writing.

Yeah, while the exercise in itself may be interesting, Fish needs to show how it makes people better writers. That said, mowglisambo's statement of tyro->Shakespeare is a pretty big leap. It's not necessary to turn everyone into Shakespeare. It IS necessary to make everyone, or most of them, capable of expressing themselves coherently.

it wouldn't be surprising if there were more bad writers today than there used to be, given that higher education is vastly more accessible these days.
All the more reason to make sure that students have the basic building blocks to communicate effectively.

There are any number of people who speak perfectly good English, can communicate with each other just fine, and yet--justifiably--split infinitives like there's no tomorrow.
Granted. As someone up-thread pointed out, grammar IS dynamic. Many things that were once prohibited are now accepted. However, while splitting infinitives is a fairly minor, and now often ignored, grammatical error, others are more serious and DO impede communication. Maybe a student of Fish would tell you that he was an asshole for making him check pronoun-antecedent agreement, but he would probably realize one day that he was right. ;)

jb: I have a very biased sample, only having taught at one university, but the biggest problem my students have it not with grammar at all, but with argument structure.

I've seen it as a mix of both. I find that students are sloppy with their grammar, which in turn leads to them getting confused about what they were intending to write in the first place, leading to arguments that make little to no sense. Building blocks.
posted by papakwanz at 7:51 PM on May 31, 2005


This just strikes me as the typical "lowest-common-denominator" approach that schools take these days. This idea seems to me to play to students' weaknesses, allowing them to run without first making them warm up.

The concept that style and content can be separated is mind-boggling to me. If content is irrelevant, then why would anyone need any language skills? The whole idea behind writing a language is to express ideas. If the idea is gibberish, then who cares what the sentence construction is?

Good writing is exceedingly difficult, even for professionals. Not every student will be a good writer, but I don't think it's too much to ask that they learn to learn the tools necessary to present simple, logical ideas in a cogent manner. That requires that they learn grammar and logical presentation.

A lot is at stake here. It's been said (and I believe) that the men who control the words control the world. People who have not been properly impressed with the power and logical construction of the language are much more likely to be duped by the people who have.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:04 PM on May 31, 2005


Benny- I don't see how this plays to their weakness. If students' have difficulty with grammar, and you are teaching grammar, then...?
posted by papakwanz at 8:06 PM on May 31, 2005


You know, having worked in publishing, I can guarantee you that most published writers are so much worse than you'd suspect from the finished book. So there may be a bit of a disconnect here, where people compare published work to an essay that a student may have read over once.

Anyway, am I the only person who loved diagramming sentences? It's brilliant. The connections between the words are all laid out in a glorious clean form. To that end, I wonder if the argument about *what* teachers teach isn't looking in the wrong direction. When school is made to be drudgery anything can seem dull. Likewise, anything can seem fun--especially to smaller kids--if you present it well. Of course, that American culture is decidedly anti-intellectual guarantees selling school as fun is a doomed task. But maybe if you got their interest when they're too small to be cool . . .

I do have to say I think I got an excellent writing education. When I was small, I did phonics and straight-up grammar (from circling the noun through diagramming), then in junior high, we had CORE, which was three periods in the same room of English, history, and writing. We mixed them all together and so wrote essays, research papers, and then, in writing workshop, whatever we wanted as we sent it through the draft cycle, compiling portfolios for the year. A good foundation and then loads of practice on any form imaginable.
posted by dame at 8:07 PM on May 31, 2005


After a generation that privileged content to the exclusion of form, is the pendulum swinging back the other way?

huh
posted by mcsweetie at 8:12 PM on May 31, 2005


Civil_Disobedient: This is an excellent point. Unfortunately, the common wisdom dictates that students get better at writing by being exposed to what is generally perceived as "good" writing.

There is something to be said for learning from other good writers. Really crafty writers seem to also have a good love of reading, and a part of that is finding beautiful sentences and paragraphs.

But this essay reminds me of something a teacher told me once long ago, "The best way to make a name for yourself, is to loudly and boldly claim that everyone else is wrong, with no hope for compromise."

My best writing course was all five-paragraph essays. Remembering that strict essay structure is sometimes helpful for me when I'm stuck putting together a discussion within a larger paper. On the other hand, I got the structure and phonics as a kid. If it wasn't for the fact that I got a lot of blank books and time to myself to write, I think it would have sucked the joy out of writing to an incredible degree. I also flunked four straight years of penmanship in spite of my best efforts. Fish's inquiry-based method certainly seems to be a bit better than the drill and practice that I loathed.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:14 PM on May 31, 2005


Benny- I don't see how this plays to their weakness. If students' have difficulty with grammar, and you are teaching grammar, then...?

I just think the approach is selling the students short, because it assumes that they aren't capable of viewing both content and style as necessary and complementary.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:14 PM on May 31, 2005


I've seen it as a mix of both. I find that students are sloppy with their grammar, which in turn leads to them getting confused about what they were intending to write in the first place, leading to arguments that make little to no sense. Building blocks.

I think my sample may be very biased - it's a pretty good university, and we only really get students who did well in highschool (as opposed to where I went to undergrad). But what I saw were impeccable, even elegant sentances, in arguments with no framing or incoherant framing. Kind of like one of my metafilter comments, only with actual grammar and elegance.

I thought it might be that it's very hard to write an argumentative paper longer than about 2-4 pages without outlining ahead of time, and also that they hadn't really been taught the difference between making a point and having a topic (in a paragraph, specifically). So they had done lots of writing, and could write, but no one had taught them how to argue (as in setting up a thesis, supporting it with clear points, signposting your argument, etc). I didn't really learn that until my last year of highschool, and that was in an optional essay workshop - it helped me enormously. I think. Except for the incoherant blog comments.
posted by jb at 8:25 PM on May 31, 2005


I don't know if anyone noticed, but the article isn't grammatically correct, itself. He starts at least one sentence with "And..".

That's not the point.

It has previously been thought that through extensive writing and reading, using content as a motivator, you'll eventually be able to abstract from your work the rules of good writing. Similarly, Mr. Fish is operating on the idea that through extensive creation of forms, you'll abstract, not a list of rules, but the essence of what form is.

Like our friend Amberglow, whose comments are most certainly never devoid of content, I was turned off from grammar as a static list of rules. Of course, grammar still needs to be taught. Mr. Fish's method is teaching how to take your natural drive to express yourself and channel it most effectively through the form appropriate for your audience, be it English, Chinese, Klingon, or Yoda

mrgrimm is right about the instrument analogy. It's just another form through which you express.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:27 PM on May 31, 2005


Fish's inquiry-based method certainly seems to be a bit better than the drill and practice that I loathed.

I'd be careful about assuming that just because you loathed one side the other is superior. I really hated it when I forced to do "inquiry-based" work, as I felt like the teachers were wasting my time.
posted by dame at 8:31 PM on May 31, 2005


I was forced.
posted by dame at 8:32 PM on May 31, 2005


I don't know if anyone noticed, but the article isn't grammatically correct, itself. He starts at least one sentence with "And..".

"And" can be used to begin a sentence, on occasion.

:)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:33 PM on May 31, 2005


It's totally fine to use to "and" to begin a sentence, as long as it's a complete sentence. I think people tell kids to avoid "and" and "because" because their use can lead to fragments.
posted by dame at 8:43 PM on May 31, 2005


I don't know if anyone noticed, but the article isn't grammatically correct, itself. He starts at least one sentence with "And..".

That's perfectly acceptable--or, more accurately, acceptable to most but not all. It is certainly done in formal academic works all the time. I used begin sentences with conjunctions too often, however, just as I use transitional words like "however" as a crutch.
posted by raysmj at 8:49 PM on May 31, 2005


well, I learn something new every day...
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:57 PM on May 31, 2005


dame: I'd be careful about assuming that just because you loathed one side the other is superior. I really hated it when I forced to do "inquiry-based" work, as I felt like the teachers were wasting my time.

Well, actually I wasn't going to go there but...

There is some evidence out there that "drill and practice" methods work better at lower levels of cognitive complexity: reflex response and memorization. However, inquiry-based methods win out at higher levels of cognitive complexity: evaluation, synthesis, and theory-building.

So I can make a strong argument that in many cases, it is better for learners to develop and test hypotheses with scaffolding from the instructor. In the case of English grammar, it wouldn't surprise me if letting kids discover dependent clauses works better than showing kids a dependent clause, and then diagram 20 sentences with the exact same dependent clause structure.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:57 PM on May 31, 2005


the article isn't grammatically correct, itself. He starts at least one sentence with "And..".

This is perfectly grammatical in English (and in most languages) - people do this all the time when speaking, even when speaking formally. However, there is a prescriptive rule that seems to be fairly well ingrained, for whatever reason, stating that this shouldn't be done when writing.
posted by advil at 9:05 PM on May 31, 2005


KJS: There is some evidence out there that "drill and practice" methods work better at lower levels of cognitive complexity: reflex response and memorization. However, inquiry-based methods win out at higher levels of cognitive complexity: evaluation, synthesis, and theory-building.

Okay, I'm going to ignore the insult there. But really if that's the case, then I think my point stands. I was always miffed that teachers were making me "reason out" basic shit when the answer was simple and apparent. (If I could go back in time, I'd destroy all those stupid math blocks right now.) Grammar falls into that category. Writing doesn't, and we have kids write over and over to find out what works.

I diagrammed in junior high, and it was helpful i guess, but sort of weird--it was like a game you could play, but to what end? . . . Maybe if i had had a clearer understanding why, and what its connection to writing was--it was always something we did with other people's writings.

The point is that it's a way to make plain the relationships between words and to unravel the logic behind complex and sophisticated sentences. If you break down these sentences in a diagram, it becomes clear how to construct them yourself. In that sense, it is "inquiry-based"; as you investigate the innerworkings of a excellent sentence, you form an idea of how to create your own. It's a little blueprint.

If that sounds unintersting than either one is just uninterested in language (personally, I could give a flying fuck about physics) or a teacher fucked up and didn't communicate the pleasure--maybe because she too saw it as drudgery.
posted by dame at 9:44 PM on May 31, 2005


The point is that it's a way to make plain the relationships between words and to unravel the logic behind complex and sophisticated sentences. If you break down these sentences in a diagram, it becomes clear how to construct them yourself. In that sense, it is "inquiry-based"; as you investigate the innerworkings of a excellent sentence, you form an idea of how to create your own. It's a little blueprint.
Thanks--no one ever said anything like that at all when we did it. It was just something we did, and had to go up to the board and do. But--does anyone on earth actually diagram in their heads?
posted by amberglow at 9:50 PM on May 31, 2005


As Andre Marmor would say, "This is Fishy."
posted by psp200 at 9:54 PM on May 31, 2005


no one ever said anything like that at all when we did it. It was just something we did, and had to go up to the board and do. But--does anyone on earth actually diagram in their heads?

I think that's the problem with a lot of things people hate as rote. Teachers are often poor at explaining and communicating the passion behind the exercise. It's not because they are hacks either (well, some are, but . . .). Rather, I think it's a case of all the crap we throw on teachers dulling the joy or chasing out the really passionate ones. Throughout my life I was told I'd be a good teacher, and I was a good tutor, but I could never see my way through the disrespect, the crap hours, and the crowd control parts. And I can't be the only one.

I used to diagram sentences for fun, though not in my head. Sometimes I think I'd like to brush up on it so I could do so again. But I'm a weirdo. In general, I'd hope diagramming sentences would be just a step, like going up to the board and circling the adverb. In the end, it should sink in so that one can intuitvely see the parts of sentences, reducing subject-verb errors, dependent and independent clause errors (which often show up as totally illogical commas), etc.
posted by dame at 10:11 PM on May 31, 2005


amberglow: I think it's OK. Just threw up a pop-up, which in Firefox usually indicates spyware--and it's done it to me with those lyrics sites, given that I tend to look them up a lot.
posted by raysmj at 10:22 PM on May 31, 2005


The more I think about Fish and this "artificial language" stuff, the more certain I become that, like much of recent pedagogical theory, it is one part pandering, one part condescension, two parts bullshit, mix liberally with ego and serve.

Although I agree with Fish about the need to overcome the distractions of content, I don't really see the point in constructing an artificial language to do so. Instead, as many have pointed out, students could be forced or encouraged to take Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, or even German. It seems like any language not taught via immersion or semi-immersion would serve this goal.

Maybe a hundred years ago most students in the English speaking world learned composition by reading English essayists, especially Macauley. Why don't we do that anymore? In all likelihood, regular reading of any texts where structure and form are complex, difficult, and tortuous would be helpful for learning composition. What Fish lauds as some creative leap just seems like a waste, when, without any loss in results, that time spent "creating an artificial language" could be more profitably spent learning something lasting and real.
posted by mokujin at 10:41 PM on May 31, 2005


I'm not sure what's a more depressing notion, a terribly inefficient education system, or one that is maximally optimized.

I mean, how many first-year college courses could you call lasting and real? This one, the students are in danger of actually remembering. That said, I'm sure a large portion of its benefit is that it is unusual.
posted by furiousthought at 11:20 PM on May 31, 2005


Please don't use Macauley to teach writing. He may write wonderfully or not, but the student I had who tried to use Macauley as a model for his writing produced turgid, bombastic prose that was like eviscerating yourself with dull spoon to read, while a bucket of mud was being poured over your head. I realise I have a sample size of one, but it was a traumatic experience.

Orwell - Orwell's good. Swift is even better. Anyone but nineteenth century Whig historians :)
posted by jb at 11:27 PM on May 31, 2005


Children are not natural story-tellers; they need to hear stories, told to them in emotionally warm settings, in ways in which the stories connect. Not all children have such advantages. Bernard Lahire, a French sociologist, in 'Culture écrite et inégalités scolaires', shows how some children miss out on the meaningful construction of story, and how this impacts on their ability to learn to read and write. Essentially, they are unable to sequence in meaningful ways either at the level of the story itself, or of sentences within stories.

On the other hand, some children are brought up in homes in which they are read to, in which they are told stories and in which they are encouraged to tell their own. These children learn to read and write. (See, for example, the work of Huttenlocher.

Family literacy is crucial. Many years ago, a study of success and failure in the English 11+ exam found that one of the best predictors was the number of books that were in a child's home; if there were ten or more books, the child passed the exam, if there were less s/he failed.

A number of children actually learn to read before they come to school, and of these most end up mastering the written system with little help from their teachers. Mothers teach children by the simple method of sitting them on their knees and reading to them, following the words with their fingers. This works. Obviously, this "natural method" cannot be applied in schools - unless class size were to be cut down to two or three children, which is unlikely.

As evidenced by reactions to this thread, there are different roads into literacy for those who have not acquired it before school age. There are also different phases in the learning process. Unfortunately, it is rarely the case that all children in a class will have the same preferred road, or be at the same point in the process. Much classroom time is wasted by treating the class as a unit rather than ensuring that different pupils are given different exercises and tasks.

In my experience, it is not true that grammar-teaching has ever been dropped in schools. Although teacher-training courses may stress content over form (when I was a teacher-trainer, this was not the case, but it may be so in the United States), on-site teachers tend to adopt the styles of teaching to which they were habituated as students. There is considerable pedagogical inertia within the school system. Whether this is a good or a bad thing I do not know. Certainly, if every teacher were to adopt the latest fads handed down by the less scrupulous pedagogical theorists, chaos might well ensue. On the other hand, it is very difficult to get teachers to use approaches that are based upon reasonably scientific approaches to learning if those approaches demand anything more than moderate tinkering with the actually existing system.

Finally, it needs to be said that much of the perceived decline in the ability to write is illusory; as more and more people arrive at college, so more and more of them are likely to have come from backgrounds which have not naturally propulsed them into literacy. Some of these young people, through hard graft, through good teaching, through luck (never to be underestimated, as Jencks found in his study of the factors underlying school success and failure in the USA) will have made up the deficit. Many will not. Teachers will find themselves confronted with an increasing number of semi-literate students.

I still remember the shock that I experienced as a young teacher when I read, for the first time, school essays produced by ordinary school-children. Mr. Fish may be coming to terms with the same phenomenon as I did, in a working-class school district, many years ago. It is useful to him to blame the school system. For my part, I'd see it as a measure of the increasing downward reach of the educational system. How good a thing that is is, perhaps, open to discussion.

Oh, and Fish is one of the earliest anti-postmodernists. But that's for another thread.
posted by TimothyMason at 11:46 PM on May 31, 2005


Yeah, I never recommended writing like Macauley; I just meant to suggest that reading things that are well removed from the vernacular would help people look past content to the structure of language. Just suggesting it as an example of well crafted writing that has little to do with the standard current events, issues, and controversies that most freshmen composition ends up falling into. I like Swift and Gibbon too, but I think Orwell already has way too much polemical content to do anything like what Fish is talking about. He is just too contemporary and too relevant.
posted by mokujin at 11:52 PM on May 31, 2005


dame: Okay, I'm going to ignore the insult there. But really if that's the case, then I think my point stands. I was always miffed that teachers were making me "reason out" basic shit when the answer was simple and apparent. (If I could go back in time, I'd destroy all those stupid math blocks right now.) Grammar falls into that category. Writing doesn't, and we have kids write over and over to find out what works.

I don't see the insult there and certainly none was intended.

There are also plenty of individual differences that come into play as well. The big problem with "drill and practice" techniques in math is that transfer from worksheets to the same task in a different context is rather poor. And they are also poor at developing math sense and basic number theory.

But I'm a biased person because I got multiplication drills when I was already exploring basic algebra. From my personal perspective, I didn't see much point in homework that involved digramming two dozen noun->linking verb->adjective sentences. After seeing the relationship in "the ball is blue" did I really need to spend a lot of time on "he is sad," "she is happy," "I am hungry," and so on? I'd be the sort of kid who would ask halfway through the worksheet, about what to do with "He is sad, but she is happy" and "He noticed that she is sad."

I think that's the problem with a lot of things people hate as rote. Teachers are often poor at explaining and communicating the passion behind the exercise.

I think the same thing can be said for inquiry-based methods. But I think you are hitting on a problem that goes accross all instructional methods. If something is, "basic shit" for a learner, then there is not much point in either inquiry to get an obvious answer, or rote practice over what the learner has already mastered. Even in "rote" instructional theories you increase the difficulty to match the skill of the learner. However, most traditional classrooms don't provide much opportunity for dealing both with the person struggling with the basics, and the person wanting a greater challenge.

amberglow: Thanks--no one ever said anything like that at all when we did it. It was just something we did, and had to go up to the board and do. But--does anyone on earth actually diagram in their heads?

I do it when editing sometimes. I don't diagram out every sentence, but it is helpful for helping to weed through some of the monstrosities that appear in academic discourse.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:52 PM on May 31, 2005


TimothyMason: As evidenced by reactions to this thread, there are different roads into literacy for those who have not acquired it before school age. There are also different phases in the learning process. Unfortunately, it is rarely the case that all children in a class will have the same preferred road, or be at the same point in the process. Much classroom time is wasted by treating the class as a unit rather than ensuring that different pupils are given different exercises and tasks.

This is a wonderful statement.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:59 PM on May 31, 2005


I am glad I am not one of his freshmen test subjects. I did not learn English via conscious meditation on its structure. Instead of poring over the blueprints, I groped in the dark until I could get by with sufficient agility and without bumping into things.
posted by ori at 12:18 AM on June 1, 2005


TimothyMason - thank you, that's a wonderful and informed comment.

I'm curious about your Jencks reference - what is that study?

mokujin - I was thinking of Orwell's "Politics and the English language", which was the first thing I read in a university level English class. I remember writing a paper comparing that essay with Swift's "A modest proposal", arguing that Swift followed Orwell's "rules" for good writing better than Orwell did. Thatwas at the style end of things, not really with the nuts and bolts of grammar. But I still really do like Swift to this day.
posted by jb at 12:21 AM on June 1, 2005


Omit needless words.
posted by bigbigdog at 1:26 AM on June 1, 2005


All words are needful and should be cuddled regularly. Omission is a sin.

Jencks et al, Inequality (NYRB subscription needed for full review), 1972 - old but still worth looking out. Jencks talks about some of the background here (he does not directly address the question of literacy in this interview). He and his team found that a great part of success in life could be attributed to 'luck', by which they meant, I think, 'factors that we have not as yet been able to identify'
posted by TimothyMason at 1:54 AM on June 1, 2005


It should be pretty obvious to all of you simpletons that the REAL problem with our society is not an inability to write, it's language itself.

I personal abhor both the written and spoken word, which are collectively responsible for every single war ever ever ever. That's why I never use them.

What we need is to completely do away with "words" and the like, and communicate like the fish do: with a combination of telepathy and fin-movements. Thus I applaud this school that has employed a fish named Stanley to teach these superior sub-aquatic skills to their students.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:48 AM on June 1, 2005


TimothyMason: Even at elite colleges, there have been complaints from the faculty about student writing, and changes in freshman writing programs. It's not a "great unwashed entering college and wreaking havoc, although some will turn out OK" thing.

Next, consider Mark Twain's advice on economy in writing. When you feel tempted to use the word "very," substitute the word "damn" instead. (His idea was that the editor would take "damn" out and you'll have just as good a sentence. The part about your editor will no longer hold true, maybe not even if you use "goddamn motherfucking" in place of "very." His advice on throwing out "very" is sound nonetheless.)
posted by raysmj at 5:23 AM on June 1, 2005


I think the problem is more complex than "they have bad grammar". I'm a Linguistics undergrad and I edit my friends' papers quite often, and what I generally find is that they write the way that they speak. This is "bad" grammar because spoken English is changing faster than written English, so they have different grammars. While you can say "I ain't got none" or "She's a nice girl, helps us out a lot" in certain regions of English speaking countries and it's perfectly normal and everyone understands you (which is the point of language), universities won't accept those as correct. It's not part of the English dialect that universities and academia in general use, so it's "wrong."

We see this problem especially when dealing with students who speak BEV (Ebonics) and receive schooling in a different form of English, and then are punished for using the wrong grammar when writing, or failing to understand the teacher because they are actually speaking different dialects.

The problem isn't that students don't know grammar, it's that they know a different grammar—the one they use for speaking—and they don't necessarily recognise that this is different from the grammar used in writing. I happen to be the kind of person who picked up on that by being a bookworm all my life, but I'm sure there are those who could read a million books and still write the way they speak, just as they spell the way they speak rather than the way that they've seen the word spelled a million times. Some people just don't notice the things that drive me crazy (comming, threw for through, they're for their for there, etc.).
posted by heatherann at 6:14 AM on June 1, 2005


KJS: I'd be the sort of kid who would ask halfway through the worksheet, about what to do with "He is sad, but she is happy" and "He noticed that she is sad."

Yeah, I guess when I was doing stuff like that I had good teachers: I'd ask and they'd tell me and probably let me make up my own sentences, or else I'd just blaze through and either read or help other kids.

Even in "rote" instructional theories you increase the difficulty to match the skill of the learner.

I'd argue that--as currently practiced--work dismissed as rote allows greater latitude for personalization. Generally, that's because you're doing it yourself, so you can go at your own speed and you can just blaze if you want to blaze. Generally, inquiry-based work is set up as group work and there is nothing more torturous than group work.

That's a good point about registers, heatherann, but I would argue that, by definintion, not understanding that writing has its own grammar makes someone a bad writer. Especially by the time he makes it into college.

everyone understands you (which is the point of language)

And ideas like this makes register-confusion all the more likely. People use the "understanding" card to get out of learning to write well. It's like saying, "Shelter is meant to keep you warm and dry" when learning about architechture: the finer points are discarded in favor of the most obvious use and the entire practice suffers. Sure language is about communication. But writing is also about provoking thoughts in others' heads, creating beautiful structures with the slightest of tools, and investigating both your and other writers' ideas. There is a value in writing that you never show to anyone.

Obviously, if you study linguistics, you see a value in language beyond communication. Yet the precriptivist repetiton of "it's for communicating stupid!" gives those less inclined a reason to never look closer. And it makes me itchy.
posted by dame at 7:34 AM on June 1, 2005


I'd like to throw in that many many successful and powerful people (far more than people would think) from middle-management to CEOs to Presidents to stars, etc--can't write well at all either, but they have people to clean it all up for them.
posted by amberglow at 7:47 AM on June 1, 2005


Hey, baby, even "real" writers are worse than you suspect. And that's the first thing I said. But so what? Is that an excuse not to push for people to do better?
posted by dame at 8:00 AM on June 1, 2005


well, what's in it for people? we certainly don't have a culture that encourages either good writing or good public speaking. it's a personal thing that someone can be proud of, but that and 2 bucks will get you on the subway.
posted by amberglow at 8:03 AM on June 1, 2005


One of my favorite writing mistakes in a student paper:

"But like they say, it's a doggie dog world."
posted by tr33hggr at 8:05 AM on June 1, 2005


amberglow: We'll find out if, as predicted, China catches up and is posed to overtake the U.S. economically or America has a deep economic crisis. Bad writing and grammar could come to be seen as another symbol of carelessness or laziness, the things putting America behind.
posted by raysmj at 8:23 AM on June 1, 2005


Even at elite colleges, there have been complaints from the faculty about student writing, and changes in freshman writing programs. It's not a "great unwashed entering college and wreaking havoc, although some will turn out OK" thing.

I would be very wary of such judgements; the young have been going to the dogs since the year dot. I keep in a drawer some student work from years back; whenever I feel the urge to play the good old standard, I take it out and compare it to what I'm getting now. There *are* differences - in some ways, the more recent are better, in some ways they are worse - but these are minimal. As far as I know, objective measures of children's language skills show very little change through time; I haven't looked at this in a while, but when I have a moment, I'll Ask Eric. (We had the same argument in France; Baudelot and Establet (Le Niveau Monte; réfutation d'une vieille idée concernant la prétendue décadence de nos écoles) concluded that skills were improving overall, but that those at the bottom of the heap were still being left behind).

And there are times when a word like 'very' is very useful.

dame, writing has to be different from speaking because you have only the one channel; ambiguities cannot be cleared up by hand-waving, eye-brow wriggling or reformulation. In what you write above, one could substitute 'speaking', and come to the same conclusion - although speaking well calls on rather different skills from writing well. Although a good speaker has more chance of becoming a good writer than a bad speaker does, it does take work.
posted by TimothyMason at 8:26 AM on June 1, 2005


well, what's in it for people? we certainly don't have a culture that encourages either good writing or good public speaking. it's a personal thing that someone can be proud of, but that and 2 bucks will get you on the subway.

Being a better person by thinking clearly and more subtlely? Reaching a richer understanding of oneself? Not being deluded by advertisers and other people who prey on your poor understanding of yourself and your motivations? The satisfaction of creating beauty?

I mean, yeah, it won't make you money. But does anything worthwhile? And what does it being personal have to do with anything? When you're left alone in the dark with your conscience, the personal is all you have. I find it really sad that you would denigrate something like that. I wouldn't have expected that from you, amberglow.
posted by dame at 8:27 AM on June 1, 2005


TimothyMason: And I wouldn't disagree if you substituted speaking. The point is that one doesn't map to the other, and most often people attempt to judge writing by the criteria of effective speech, then just yell, "It's about communication!" when called out on it.

Besides, I don't know that things are worse now. I'd just like to see them get better, in the same way my math-loving friends wish math was better taught and better understood. It's a case of being convinced that something that enriches my life would enrich everyone else's if only they could see it. I know it isn't entirely true, and if there were as many writing evangelists as Jeebus evangelists, I might not bother. But I gained a great appreciation for math from the math evangelists I know. I'm better off for it. So I go on hammering in my own stupid way.
posted by dame at 8:38 AM on June 1, 2005


there is a sweet irony in a post-modernist complaining about abuse of the English language. (Not that Fish is a terrible writer - I haven't read anything of his - just that post-modernist writing hurts my little brain

The irony is in your woefully self-contradictory words, my friend! Read his book on Paradise Lost (Surprised by Sin), and tell me that you can still deride him as an empty, brain-hurting postmodern theorist. When he's wanted to be, Stanley Fish has shown himself to be an excellent literary critic by standards that transcend complaints & divisions about "postmodernist" etc.

Reading Milton with this kind of care, precision, and penetration is exactly what I'm worried you can fail to learn in college, even as a humanities major. Fish's remedy is extreme—I wouldn't try it myself—but it's thought-provoking and contains a good basic idea, a corrective to the denial of grammar that has been common for many years now.
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:39 AM on June 1, 2005


I doubt that amberglow meant it.

In choice spots, being able to write persuasively (especially when no one can) can give you the temporary powers of a god within an organization, particularly a small one. People are suckers for the hortatory mode.
posted by argybarg at 8:46 AM on June 1, 2005


TimothyMason: I thought you were making a judgment--that the reason for any perceived change was that more people had entered college. In the U.S., the perceptions of many faculty members are at odds with that judgment. Maybe, you could say, the perception that students are doing worse is wrong, that they only do things different. From what I'm reading and hearing, however, the democratization of education in the U.S. has very little, if anything, to do with this perceived difference. It's a culture-wide thing.
posted by raysmj at 9:05 AM on June 1, 2005


He's not arguing that the political right to freedom of speech doesn't exist, but rather [...]

I know what he's arguing, eustacescrubb, but I happen to think he's a cynical, egomaniacal blowhard who would argue that his mother was a Tasmanian devil if he thought it would get him press and/or coeds. (Note to S. Fish: The above is, of course, not meant to be read for whatever "content" it may "possess" but purely as a rhetorical exercise.)

Not that Fish is a terrible writer - I haven't read anything of his - just that post-modernist writing hurts my little brain more than just about anything other than nineteenth century philosophy.


He's actually a pretty good writer, which makes him all the more dangerous.

I believe that Fish is referring rather to the internal logic of a language, that is, the structure and rules it has in place to arrange words/sounds/etc in order to express meaning.


Nah, he obviously knows nothing about linguistics, so I'm pretty sure he intends "logic" in its ordinary sense. But I could be wrong.

I'd have to constantly remind them, "this is YOUR language! This is just a formal way of expressing the things you say and think every day."

Bravo!
*awards Languagehat Seal of Approval*

The concept that style and content can be separated is mind-boggling to me.

Well, your mind is easily boggled, because this concept has been a commonplace since the ancient Greeks if not before. Note: to say that style and content are separable and can be studied separately is not to say that they have nothing to do with each other; ideally, they should work together in perfect harmony, like two horses in harness. But they're still two different horses.

Being a better person by thinking clearly and more subtlely? Reaching a richer understanding of oneself? Not being deluded by advertisers and other people who prey on your poor understanding of yourself and your motivations? The satisfaction of creating beauty?

I ♥ dame.
posted by languagehat at 9:07 AM on June 1, 2005


Think about how little kids acquire spoken language and how their use of speech refines over the years to become actual coherent sentences. Why is writing acquisition set out so differently? Why can't kids just do it and then slowly refine it?
The argument goes: little kids have all the linguistic apparatus for speech ready-made, they just need two things: 1) exposure to a particular language and 2) the physiological capability. These things happen by the time the kid is 2, and bingo, the kid can speak. Pretty much all neurologically normal children who are not deprived of linguistic input (and it doesn't take much input) develop in this way - i.e. children are not really 'taught' to speak. (all the above is arguable, by the way)

Writing, however, is a more refined process and does need to be taught explicitly. It requires the knowledge of the relevant symbols, ability to transcribe these (and all the motor skill that this entails). Not to mention English spelling! It is a more concrete way of linking ideas together than speech usually is.

The process of writing itself can improve the way children formulate ideas, and is probably very helpful for children who already read a lot. I'd say that what Prof Fish is doing - showing the abstract relations embodied by language - could also be effective in making clear the link between how we write and how we think, and how the one can inform the other. Banning 'content' for just this one class is a way of reinforcing the separateness of form and content, before the two are reunited again, at which point, with any luck, both aspects of communication are reinforced in the student.

Such a class could be taught to primary-age children, in my view, and be useful. My somewhat formless £0.02...
posted by altolinguistic at 9:55 AM on June 1, 2005


I would wholeheartedly agree that, ideally, students should learn careful thinking about language through real language. When I said Fish's method is thought-provoking, I meant precisely that I hope it provokes some embarrassment over our unreadiness to read Milton or Hobbes with love (or even Macaulay for that matter, as one poster suggested)...

I have been teaching Thucydides and Demosthenes in Greek. It is evident that many of the students who are quite excited by these authors' power of expression have little inkling of the range of their own English tongue, which makes encountering a Thucydides even more of a mind-blowing revelation than it would be otherwise.
posted by Zurishaddai at 10:01 AM on June 1, 2005


Moreover:

Hotness Total: 0
posted by mabelstreet at 10:08 AM on June 1, 2005


amberglow, sorry: didn't take into account your 'use of speech refines over the years' - that brings your point closer to mine, but I'd stand by the point (which I didn't make properly) that speaking is something that comes more or less naturally, whereas writing is by its nature a much more studied endeavour.
posted by altolinguistic at 10:09 AM on June 1, 2005


let me get this straight. stanley fish is writing about clear and coherent English sentences? and students who know nothing about sentences will construct languages? no wonder he had to resign. maybe these students can invent sentence diagramming for their pretend languages, assuming these languages have sentences.
posted by 3.2.3 at 10:21 AM on June 1, 2005


dame: Obviously, if you study linguistics, you see a value in language beyond communication.

Most of the linguists I work with and read as part of my research in discourse analysis are primarily concerned with the grammar and vocabulary as used in vivo for the purpose of communication, rather than the idealized grammar and vocabulary that writers, editors and speechmakers consider "good language." For example, the linguists I work with wouldn't say that New Yorker essays have a "better" use of language than internet chat. Instead, they would argue that the lower complexity of internet chat is an adaptation to the medium and culture.

In addition, I think it's pretty hard to get very far in linguistics without the realization that many "rules" are arbitrary markers of social status. For example, there is nothing inherently wrong with a double-negative in a sentence. In other languages, double-negation serves to expand tense or add emphasis to the negation. We teach that they are wrong because they don't conform to the language that is associated with the dominant social class. If that language was Chaucer's English, then we would be teaching that double-negatives are good.

Being a better person by thinking clearly and more subtlely? Reaching a richer understanding of oneself? Not being deluded by advertisers and other people who prey on your poor understanding of yourself and your motivations? The satisfaction of creating beauty?

Is it really the case that adopting the norms of a specific linguistic register makes one a better person, allows one to think more subtly, leads to a richer understanding of oneself, or to a skepticism of advertisers, or necessarily to "creating beauty?"

At least to me, most of the battles over grammar are less about creating beauty, knowledge, or reflection, and more about conforming to a set of dominant linguistic norms. I don't see in as a major problem to teach people to write and speak for the linguistic communities that will provide long-term employment. If you want to get a job in the business world, you are better off learning to write and speak the language of business. But I'm highly skeptical that we can guage something like subtleness of thought by fluency.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:28 AM on June 1, 2005


The concept that style and content can be separated is mind-boggling to me.

Well, your mind is easily boggled, because this concept has been a commonplace since the ancient Greeks if not before.


I understand that in a philosophical discussion. In fact, separating substance and style is necessary to study rhetoric, or logic, or any number of things. But we are not discussing that- we are discussing teaching students how to write. A grammatically correct and coherent sentence, paragraph or paper requires content.

If either the structure or the content are meaningless, then the result is worthless. Communication is not accomplished or,worse, the wrong concept is put forth. Anyone can write drivel with no effort at all. But, to use the musical instrument analogies above, you have to learn the notes and chords and scales and structures before you can be an effective soloist.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:47 AM on June 1, 2005


KJS, do you misunderstand everything I've ever written on purpose? Is this performance art? Are you EB in disguise? Because I swear no one could be like this on accident.

I know what linguists do, even without your condescension. I would still maintain that someone who spends all her time on words, even if she is mainly interested in how they are used to communicate, can be assumed to have a certain affection for words as words and other aspects of their deployment. I spend a good part of my working life making others' words conform both to the rules of standard English and to house style, yet I am also interested in other aspects of language. Complexity much?

For example, the linguists I work with wouldn't say that New Yorker essays have a "better" use of language than internet chat. Instead, they would argue that the lower complexity of internet chat is an adaptation to the medium and culture.

Yeah, because their job is to describe--not make value judgements. Lucky for me, I'm not a linguist and I love to make value judgements. In fact, I may make up to twenty in a single hour. And in my magical fucking world being able to read and write complex sentences is a fundamental part of complex thought. If you cannot do the former, than there is no way you are doing the latter. (Then again, I'm of the opinion that it isn't a thought if it isn't in words--it's just a fuzzy notion.)

Is it really the case that adopting the norms of a specific linguistic register makes one a better person, allows one to think more subtly, leads to a richer understanding of oneself, or to a skepticism of advertisers, or necessarily to "creating beauty?"

Yes. Well, not merely adopting, but understanding and engaging, yes. Is it the only way to get at those things? Probably not. Look, there is a vast universe of worthy and varied thought on the human condition in that register. With reading and writing, you can engage in a crosscultural and crosstemporal discussion about the character of life in both tiny and giant scope. I don't think you can do so in the same way anywhere else. It's worth fighting to make sure everyone has access to that discussion, even if they choose not to make use of it.

I really hate it when people pretend to defend the less privileged while really keeping them out. I see it in activist circles where people with broad vocabularies are pressured to hide them, even at the expense of precision, whereas we would all be better served by making it okay to ask and learn. Does anyone benefit by writing off a register as privileged and unimportant?

It's like I was arguing in the canon discussion many moons ago: as marginalized groups gained access to that register through the opening of higher education, those groups' concerns, thoughts, lives gained wider recognition and understanding and generated new cultural discussions.

If you want to get a job in the business world, you are better off learning to write and speak the language of business.

Why does this always come back to business? Who fucking cares? I mean, yeah, money is kinda essential, but it's a shitty rationale for anything. How dirty and miserable life would be if money were the only reason to do most things.

But I'm highly skeptical that we can guage something like subtleness of thought by fluency.

I'm not. Because if you can think subtly but not express those thoughts with the precision and complexity they deserve, then those thoughts live stunted and pathetic little lives.
posted by dame at 11:19 AM on June 1, 2005


That's a good point about registers, heatherann, but I would argue that, by definintion, not understanding that writing has its own grammar makes someone a bad writer. Especially by the time he makes it into college.

Yeah, that's what I was saying. The problem isn't that they have bad grammar, the problem is often that they're using one correct grammar in a situation which requires a different correct grammar.

And ideas like this makes register-confusion all the more likely. People use the "understanding" card to get out of learning to write well. It's like saying, "Shelter is meant to keep you warm and dry" when learning about architechture: the finer points are discarded in favor of the most obvious use and the entire practice suffers. Sure language is about communication. But writing is also about provoking thoughts in others' heads, creating beautiful structures with the slightest of tools, and investigating both your and other writers' ideas. There is a value in writing that you never show to anyone.

I wasn't disputing any of that. I was saying that there are different grammars for spoken and written English, so some sentences which are unacceptable in academic written English are perfectly fine in other variants. I'm not saying that we should ignore the grammar of academic English when trying to write a university thesis, I'm just saying that neither is "bad" -- just suited to different environments.

Obviously, if you study linguistics, you see a value in language beyond communication. Yet the precriptivist repetiton of "it's for communicating stupid!" gives those less inclined a reason to never look closer. And it makes me itchy.

The chosen register is part of communication. If I write an academic essay in redneck English, then I'm signalling that I don't really give a shit about it or that I'm uneducated in academic English. (see also: Gatekeeping Interviews) Obviously, "Me Tarzan, you Jane" communicates something slightly different from "Pleased to meet you, Jane, my name is Tarzan".

I think we're talking past each other a bit. I'm all for elegant use of language, and yes, that's one of the reasons I'm in linguistics. However, I count that as part of communication. The difference between just getting the message across and really hitting it home is, in my mind, one aspect of the communicative nature of language. The fact that certain sentences will communicate beautifully in one situation and fall completely flat or be inappropriate in another is just part of the complexity. In the world of the Trailer Park Boys, academic language just serves to confuse and alienate. In the world of academia, Trailer Park Boys-esque language won't get you anywhere near graduating.
posted by heatherann at 11:38 AM on June 1, 2005


I'm all for elegant use of language, and yes, that's one of the reasons I'm in linguistics. However, I count that as part of communication.

I guess I'm just confused as to why you would call writing only for yourself "communication." Seems like that's making "communication" too broad to be practical.
posted by dame at 11:48 AM on June 1, 2005


Bravo, dame!

You rock. ( So does your structure and content) : )
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:51 AM on June 1, 2005


I guess I'm just confused as to why you would call writing only for yourself "communication." Seems like that's making "communication" too broad to be practical.

I said something about writing only for myself? I've just been talking about register being part of the message, I don't know when we started talking about something else.
posted by heatherann at 11:58 AM on June 1, 2005


dame: Well, I don't know. It seems to me that you are misunderstanding me on purpose. Perhaps we should cut each other some slack rather than assume a malicious intent.

In my magical little world, I do a fair quantity of collaboration with people who do not speak or write English as a primary language. I also do a fair quantity of work with native English writers. If I judged quality of thought or theoretical insight according to how well that person's writing conformed to idiomatic academic English, I would frequently have underestimated some of my best collaborators, and overestimated some of my worst. The ability to construct a complex sentence is no indication that the person is not full of shit, and the inability to construct a complex sentence is no indication that the person's ideas live "stunted and pathetic little lives."

I have a radically different belief about the relationship between quality of thought, and complexity of sentence structure. Far too often, I'm forced to read overly-complex sentences that only serve to obsfucate a basic lack of importance or understanding. Too many people are in love with complexity for the sake of complexity in their academic writing. In fact, I would say that many complex ideas can be better explained using less complexity.

I'm not certain where you get the idea about writing off a register as "unimportant." In fact, I think we both agree that there are some pretty strong reasons to learn the "official" registers through which we enagage in discourse. However it is a pretty huge leap from saying that there are economic, political, and pragmatic benefits to learning an "official" register, to saying that one's skill in adopting a register can be used to guage the worth of one's ideas.

From what I can tell, I know too many people who are good theorists but bad writers, and too many people who are bad theorists but good writers to make such a casual link between writing skill and thought.

heatherann: I'm not saying that we should ignore the grammar of academic English when trying to write a university thesis, I'm just saying that neither is "bad" -- just suited to different environments.

Bingo. I think that part of the miscommunication is that saying that academic English is a register of class privelege, is interpreted as saying that we shouldn't teach academic English at all. I don't think anyone is this discussion is saying we shouldn't strive to teach better writing skills.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:12 PM on June 1, 2005


heatherann: said something about writing only for myself? I've just been talking about register being part of the message, I don't know when we started talking about something else.

It was part of my quote that you responded to: " . . . and investigating both your and other writers' ideas. There is a value in writing that you never show to anyone."

Benny: Aw, thanks. Kisses to you too.

KJS: To begin with, you are confusing sound, complex writing with academic writing. Just because you read or produce the former in an academic environment doesn't make it academic. Further, you are assuming complex means tortured. It doesn't. I'm speaking about the basics: varied sentence cadence and structure; a broad vocabulary, which permits precision; and a structure that transcends the list. (Of course basic isn't easy here; I struggle with the latter every day I sit down and write something.)

The ability to construct a complex sentence is no indication that the person is not full of shit, and the inability to construct a complex sentence is no indication that the person's ideas live "stunted and pathetic little lives."

The former I agree with. The latter, not so much. Obviously, it doesn't apply to someone for whom English a secondary or tertiary languange, but leaving that out, I'm not convinced. If you cannot place your ideas in their full complexity into the crosstemporal and vast discourse that is commonly called "literature,"* then they are limited to where you and your voice can go until someone else moves them into that realm. That is a pathetic and stunted life for an idea: remaining shackled to your person.

I'm not certain where you get the idea about writing off a register as "unimportant."

Wel, this is a big part of your misnderstanding. You took something I wrote in reply to amberglow saying,

well, what's in it for people? we certainly don't have a culture that encourages either good writing or good public speaking. it's a personal thing that someone can be proud of, but that and 2 bucks will get you on the subway.

and decided to apply to what you think I'm talking about, which seems to be only academic writing. But that isn't it. A good undergraduate essay (what I was responding to heatherann about) is part of written English, which comprises academic written English and a good deal besides. That register does not accept valid spoken English merely transcribed into symbol (again, what heatherann remarked on initially). But being able to work in it has value. As do you:

In fact, I think we both agree that there are some pretty strong reasons to learn the "official" registers through which we enagage in discourse. However it is a pretty huge leap from saying that there are economic, political, and pragmatic benefits to learning an "official" register, to saying that one's skill in adopting a register can be used to guage the worth of one's ideas.

But then you go again into economic and pragmatic and political. And I don't give a fuck about those and I really dislike when those values are given as a reason. They exist, sure. But they are tangential to the true value of traversing written English with ease: the power it gives you to live an aware life, to understand the choices that are yours to make, and to constantly refine yourself for better. I can see an argument that you can get these things elsewhere, but I would say that written English provides a depth, breadth, and precision that are unique.

heatherann via KJS: I'm not saying that we should ignore the grammar of academic English when trying to write a university thesis, I'm just saying that neither is "bad" -- just suited to different environments.

And I'm saying that one is better. They are both valid, but one is better at enriching the mind and life.
posted by dame at 2:19 PM on June 1, 2005


Being a better person by thinking clearly and more subtlely? Reaching a richer understanding of oneself? Not being deluded by advertisers and other people who prey on your poor understanding of yourself and your motivations? The satisfaction of creating beauty?
... I find it really sad that you would denigrate something like that. I wouldn't have expected that from you, amberglow.


sorry, i was working--making money is kinda incredibly essential in this society, in so very many ways that writing well isn't.

dame, you know i love you but are you really saying that people who write well are better people who think more clearly? Judgmental much? I think many of us don't judge others as people by how well they construct a sentence, paragraph, or essay. We trust that they think just fine, even if they rarely write. Writing, and writing well is not at all a good measure of a brain works, or of how complex, subtle, or simple someone's thoughts are. Plenty of people--the vast mass of humanity--have very rich and full understandings of themselves without some arbitrary "writes well" yardstick. You value it enormously, obviously--but please don't use that as any determination of worth, or of what makes for a "better" person.
posted by amberglow at 2:51 PM on June 1, 2005


dame: Further, you are assuming complex means tortured. It doesn't. I'm speaking about the basics: varied sentence cadence and structure; a broad vocabulary, which permits precision; and a structure that transcends the list. (Of course basic isn't easy here; I struggle with the latter every day I sit down and write something.)

Actually, I'm assuming complex means complex. The only difference between "tortured" and good is that "tortured" writing is complex for reasons that are unknown to anyone but the author, while good writing avoids complexity except when necessary to say something to the audience.

If you cannot place your ideas in their full complexity into the crosstemporal and vast discourse that is commonly called "literature,"* then they are limited to where you and your voice can go until someone else moves them into that realm. That is a pathetic and stunted life for an idea: remaining shackled to your person.

Well, to me this sounds a bit problematic. I just leafed through a book of erotic poems by a previous Dali Lama. Would you argue that these poems were pathetic and stunted for 200 years until translated into English in this century?

"Pathetic and stunted" seems to be incredibly perjorative given that getting published into 'literature' is as much a quirk of history and politics as relative merit. And it seems that an obvious conclusion of this line of reasoning is that the value of ideas comes down to some form of a literary populism. In contrast, many of the most insightful ideas are not that accessible.

and decided to apply to what you think I'm talking about, which seems to be only academic writing. But that isn't it.

Well, I use the example of academic writing primarily because I have quite a bit of experience with the gap between theoretical compentence and writing competence in academic writing. But I don't think this gap is only within academic writing. In biography and history writing for example, it is frequently not the case that the most eloquent writer has more insight or information than the people involved.

But then you go again into economic and pragmatic and political. And I don't give a fuck about those and I really dislike when those values are given as a reason.

Well, you keep drifting back into political and pragmatic concerns when you argue, "as marginalized groups gained access to that register through the opening of higher education, those groups' concerns, thoughts, lives gained wider recognition and understanding and generated new cultural discussions."

But they are tangential to the true value of traversing written English with ease: the power it gives you to live an aware life, to understand the choices that are yours to make, and to constantly refine yourself for better. I can see an argument that you can get these things elsewhere, but I would say that written English provides a depth, breadth, and precision that are unique.

I guess the problem comes back to the old and bad joke, "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make him think." Technique and reflection are two different things. I see too many cases (in print, no less) of technically correct prose that says next to nothing worth reading.

But I'm more than happy to agree to disagree since I'm starting to repeat myself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:19 PM on June 1, 2005


dame, you know i love you but are you really saying that people who write well are better people who think more clearly? Judgmental much?

Well, dear, I'd be the first to admit I'm judgemental. But not exactly. I think Bob as a good writer is a better person than he would be as a bad writer. Better as compared to his possible selves.

As to the rest of your point, do you live in the same world I do? Most people don't think just fine. Most people have a very poor understanding of themselves and their motivations. They are little bundles of desire and fear and obscured motivation bumping around, mostly misapprehending and hurting other people. Me included. (And you.) I can't imagine what I would be like without the understanding I've won, but I can think of a lot of people who would be much less destructive if they had fewer social skills and a better understanding of what they really are.
posted by dame at 3:29 PM on June 1, 2005


They are little bundles of desire and fear and obscured motivation bumping around, mostly misapprehending and hurting other people. Me included. (And you.) I can't imagine what I would be like without the understanding I've won, but I can think of a lot of people who would be much less destructive if they had fewer social skills and a better understanding of what they really are.

It's the human condition to be a bundle of desire and fear and obscured motivation bumping around--it's life, rich and full and varied. Where we differ is that you're saying that writing well is somehow connected, part of, and responsible for a greater awareness, understanding, and being a better person. Many things, including living life itself, are responsible for that. Ascribing it to writing well or properly or writing at all, is way way too reductive and immediately eliminates the majority of the human population from any consideration or value. If it works for you, fine--just don't extrapolate past you and make statements about any general "better person" and why they are so.
posted by amberglow at 3:41 PM on June 1, 2005


Well, hrm. If I had a penny for everything I've been put through (or put myself through) under the rationale of "builds character," I'd at least be able to buy a cup of coffee to sip while I explain how whatever character I developed from that activity was mostly accidental.

Don't get me wrong, I love writing and reading. I can't imagine living any other way. I just don't buy the claim to technical precision in writing as a magic bullet of self-realization and discovery.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:50 PM on June 1, 2005


[This is an interesting and civilized thread.]
posted by languagehat at 5:42 PM on June 1, 2005


Yeah, I guess I just think it's superior to bumbling around and that proficiency is both a requirement for and evidence of a real engagement. That is, I think that literature conversation can teach you more than you could run into by accident, and gives you a broader understanding and particular habit of thinking that allows for getting more out of your bumbling around.

The only other little point I wanted to make was about the translation question--I was discussing English here because we read and write English, not because I wanted to denigrate things in other languages.

Anyway, it isn't the first time I've disagreed with either of you, so I'm happy to leave it at that.
posted by dame at 5:50 PM on June 1, 2005


I just don't buy the claim to technical precision in writing as a magic bullet of self-realization and discovery.

I believe it is though, to this extent: Purposeful writing requires the writer to do many things - organize thoughts, choose words that convey as precisely as possible those thoughts, and physically order those words on paper (or type them into the word processor).

Wonderful synergies can happen between conception and execution. Fuzzy ideas and preconceptions, if dealt with critically and honestly, can crystallize into great perceptions - and not always the perceptions the writer expected.

Writing is certainly not the only way to achieve self -realization, but it's as good as any other way- and better than most.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:02 PM on June 1, 2005


Wow, this discussion has been interesting to read. I don't have too much to add, but I thought I'd touch a little on the notion of learning how to write in one's native language by learning a foreign language.

I learned more about English grammar by learning a completely different (well, two completely different - I speak French and German) grammar structures than by any instruction given to me in an English class. I still don't know that much about the prescriptive rules of grammar, but I know how to write clearly and correctly even if I have no idea when a semi-colon is necessary.

I currently live in an European country where bilingual or trilingualism is the norm and not the exception and it's a remarkable difference from the US. I really think that if foreign language education was more prevalent and more effective in our schools that our students' knowledge of English would also improve. Call it a hunch.

I was lucky enough to go to a high school with a very successful language program and became reasonably fluent in French in just three years of class instruction - mostly by immersion, but there was certainly a good deal of discussion about grammar that was had in English. Drawing parallels and discussing differences between the grammatical structures of French and English certainly served to help me better understand English as well as to learn French.

It seems to me that teaching languages that already exist would be a more practical (if less imaginative) exercise than creating a new language. Yes, it's an interesting project, but what applications does it have when it's finished? Learning a foreign language that's already well established, on the other hand, opens many doors in terms of communication and research.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:36 PM on June 1, 2005


I have perfect anecdotal evidence (always the best kind on on the internets :) to refute the idea that someone who can write well will think more clearly than someone who cannot. I write tolerably well, well enough to continue fooling people into thinking I have some ideas. My mother struggles with writing, and though she reads fine (probably not Milton, but neither do I), she probably writes at a grade school or early highshcool level (yes, she had bad schooling). But she is a million times brighter than I am, and much better at thinking clearly. Sometimes I may think more complexly, but she thinks more clearly and usually arrives at the right answer first. Some of this is wisdom and life experience, and the rest is that she's just brighter.

I'm sorry if I have mistakenly cast aspursions on Prof. Fish's writing - someone said "post-modernist" upthread and my previous trauma was returning. I have a book of essays on post-modernist theory in history (I am interested in it) that I have been trying to read for some time, but keep putting down with my head hurting.

Also, I have generally found that many linguists enjoy all language, polished or not. I know I certainly do (as a minor linguistics groupie who regrets not taking more in undergrad) - in fact, I find dialect far more interesting than standards. There is such rich colour and variety in dialect speech. Creoles and pidgeon languages are similarly interesting.
posted by jb at 11:40 PM on June 1, 2005


It seems to me that teaching languages that already exist would be a more practical (if less imaginative) exercise than creating a new language.

Ellen Bialystok agrees with you - if you want to improve children's cognition in general, and their ability to read in particular, teach them a couple of foreign languages. Or sign language. (Garcia's site wants to sell, but there seems to be something in it). For further leads, go here.
posted by TimothyMason at 1:54 AM on June 2, 2005


It seems to me that teaching languages that already exist would be a more practical (if less imaginative) exercise than creating a new language.

It's not more practical if it doesn't do the same thing, which it doesn't. That's like saying reading books that already exist is more "practical" than writing your own. Constructing your own language makes you think in ways completely different from learning an existing one, and the practicality is not (obviously) in being able to use your language but in being able to understand how language works in general and thus being able to better use your own.
posted by languagehat at 6:05 AM on June 2, 2005


Benny Andajetz: I believe it is though, to this extent: Purposeful writing requires the writer to do many things - organize thoughts, choose words that convey as precisely as possible those thoughts, and physically order those words on paper (or type them into the word processor).

And if those thoughts are completely obvious and banal, and remain so even if expressed quite well using beautiful, and structurally correct syntax, and presented using expert typography?

Wonderful synergies can happen between conception and execution. Fuzzy ideas and preconceptions, if dealt with critically and honestly, can crystallize into great perceptions - and not always the perceptions the writer expected.

There is abosolutely nothing about criticism or honesty involved in creating structurally correct or complex sentence forms. Pick up any shareholder's report or an example of advertising copy for an example. The text will be beautiful, and ohh so exacting and correct, and fundamentally misleading.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:48 AM on June 2, 2005


By all means, teaching good grammar is essential, teaching people the technique of good writing is essential, and teaching people to improve their writing as a continuing practice is marvelous.

But the notion that in teaching the technical aspects of writing, we are also promoting deeper reflection, better critical analysis, or honesty is foolish to a rather large degree.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:14 AM on June 2, 2005


And if those thoughts are completely obvious and banal, and remain so even if expressed quite well using beautiful, and structurally correct syntax, and presented using expert typography?

Then, from a self-realization standpoint, you learn that you are an obvious and banal dolt. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

There is absolutely nothing about criticism or honesty involved in creating structurally correct or complex sentence forms. Pick up any shareholder's report or an example of advertising copy for an example. The text will be beautiful, and ohh so exacting and correct, and fundamentally misleading.

Advertising and shareholder's reports have their places, but they are propaganda - writing for hire, as opposed to writing as adventure. I think most people understand the difference.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:32 AM on June 2, 2005


Benny Andajetz: Advertising and shareholder's reports have their places, but they are propaganda - writing for hire, as opposed to writing as adventure. I think most people understand the difference.

Ahh, but if only we were talking about writing as an adventure. In which case, I would recommend a balanced healthy diet of structured writing combined with some freewriting and perhaps a dip into automatic writing now and then.

But we are not talking in this thread about writing as a tool for engaging in self-reflection. In specific, the debate is about whether just knowing your gerunds, dependent clauses, and parallel constructions makes you more reflective, more critical and more honest. Can you really say that knowing the difference between a linking verb and an active verb makes one skeptical about one's objectivity? Or that conjugating irregular verbs makes one see the connections between similar themes from very different points of view?

My problem is that I read too many papers, published papers in fact, that have correct grammar, but lack insight or reflection. This convinces me that while good grammar may be prerequisite to getting published, and may even be a prerequisite to deeper kinds of analysis, it does little to advance any of the practices that lead to reflection, criticism or analysis.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:03 AM on June 2, 2005


But we are not talking in this thread about writing as a tool for engaging in self-reflection.

Actually, I was. The thread took off on that tangent 20-30 posts ago.

In specific, the debate is about whether just knowing your gerunds, dependent clauses, and parallel constructions makes you more reflective, more critical and more honest. Can you really say that knowing the difference between a linking verb and an active verb makes one skeptical about one's objectivity? Or that conjugating irregular verbs makes one see the connections between similar themes from very different points of view?

Yes. Just like any toolbox, more tools give you more precision. The more you learn about any subject, the more critical and discerning you become (hopefully). Many logical mistakes- or flat-out deceptions - arise from, and can be hidden by, incorrect sentence constructions.

Will knowing the grammar improve the quality of writing in general? Probably not much for most people (although, IMO, it will make them better readers). Everyone can turn a wrench, but relatively few can build a car. It's a safe bet that the best writers will have mastered the most tools, however.

An aside:

I had an Expository Writing professor in college a hundred years ago, who used to say, "Words are something we carry around in our pockets to try and explain our experience of the world to others. Our choice of words, if we are to be understood, is imperative, as different words mean different things to different people. I submit that, while discourse occurs millions of times a day, communication is fairly rare."

To drive home that point he had us write instruction manuals for an entire semester. Things like "How to use a Lawnmower." We had to write instructions that someone who had no idea of the subject could pick up and follow. It was infuriatingly difficult to do well, and drove home the importance of organization, distillation, construction and self-analysis in the writing process.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:11 PM on June 2, 2005


to refute the idea that someone who can write well will think more clearly than someone who cannot

Yes, I think & hope we would all agree that verbal abilities don't make up the sum total of deep thinking. We must all know people of outstanding intelligence who are not particularly great at words. Of course, the MeFi medium seems to attract and encourage those who have realized a lot of their self-development and self-discovery in learning to express themselves this one way!

But the way you characterize your mother's brightness, deep thinking, and wisdom makes me think that, if I could meet her, I would probably think her quite wise and verbally intelligent when she shared her ideas with me. At least, I am certainly not one to think that ideas couched in a homely idiom may not be, really, the most eloquent of all. As a teacher of writing and thinking, I think I can fairly say that incomplete and unreflective thinking (as opposed to awkward sentences and rhetoric) is easily what most makes me feel that the crucial learning goal isn't being met.
posted by Zurishaddai at 12:33 PM on June 2, 2005


The thread took off on that tangent 20-30 posts ago.

And I tried to explain that about ten posts ago. Didn't take.
posted by dame at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2005


Can you really say that knowing the difference between a linking verb and an active verb makes one skeptical about one's objectivity? Or that conjugating irregular verbs makes one see the connections between similar themes from very different points of view?

Yes. Just like any toolbox, more tools give you more precision. The more you learn about any subject, the more critical and discerning you become (hopefully). Many logical mistakes- or flat-out deceptions - arise from, and can be hidden by, incorrect sentence constructions.

Will knowing the grammar improve the quality of writing in general? Probably not much for most people (although, IMO, it will make them better readers). Everyone can turn a wrench, but relatively few can build a car. It's a safe bet that the best writers will have mastered the most tools, however.


These two paragraphs directly contradict each other. You can't both say that knowing grammar will have a marginal effect on the quality of writing in general, and say that understanding sentence constructions makes one more skeptical, or able to make new connections.

To drive home that point he had us write instruction manuals for an entire semester. Things like "How to use a Lawnmower." We had to write instructions that someone who had no idea of the subject could pick up and follow. It was infuriatingly difficult to do well, and drove home the importance of organization, distillation, construction and self-analysis in the writing process.

Bingo.

You teach organization, distillation, construction and self-analysis.

You don't teach sentence construction and magically assume that it will lead to organization, distillation, construction and self-analysis.

You don't teach spelling and magically assume it will lead to organization, distallation, construction and self-analysis.

You don't teach penmanship and magically assume it will lead to organization, distillation, construction and self-analysis.

You teach organization, distillation, construction and self-analysis as necessary parts of the writing process.

I really dislike magical thinking in relationship to education. Teach grammar for what grammar does. It enables readers to read great sentences, and writers to write great sentences. You get critical thinking and reflection by teaching critical thinking and reflection at every step of the curriculum. Don't confuse the two.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:08 PM on June 2, 2005


Sorry, just had more than my fill of instructional snake-oil.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:23 PM on June 2, 2005


These two paragraphs directly contradict each other. You can't both say that knowing grammar will have a marginal effect on the quality of writing in general, and say that understanding sentence constructions makes one more skeptical, or able to make new connections.

I really dislike magical thinking in relationship to education. Teach grammar for what grammar does. It enables readers to read great sentences, and writers to write great sentences. You get critical thinking and reflection by teaching critical thinking and reflection at every step of the curriculum. Don't confuse the two.

I'm not confusing the two. I said at the top of this thread that style and content are two sides of the same coin. They are both necessary.

As for grammar not making most people better writers:it's for the same reason that learning algebraic formulas won't turn most students into mathemeticians - it's just not their thing. People who want to stretch their brains will, and those who don't, won't.

I really dislike magical thinking in relationship to education.

Nothing magically leads to anything. Its all work, to a degree. And, quite frankly, people bitch about grammar, structure, spelling, and penmanship the most because they're the hardest.

Sorry, just had more than my fill of instructional snake-oil.

Walk first, then run. No snake oil.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:42 PM on June 2, 2005


benny:Many logical mistakes- or flat-out deceptions - arise from, and can be hidden by, incorrect sentence constructions.
They can also be hidden by CORRECT sentence constructions.
posted by papakwanz at 10:51 PM on June 2, 2005


Zurishaddai - The strange thing for me is that, yes, my mother does speak very well. I have all my grammar from her, but, of course, any mistakes I make are my own. I've never fully understood it (because I've always enjoyed writing, so long as it wasn't required :), but she finds it hard to translate this speaking ability into writing.

As for students - I haven't taught much at all (just two semesters), but so far I have had students with ideas at a second year university level, but a mid-high school writing style, and students with second year university writing style, but mid-high school level development of their ideas. The first was an A-, the second was a B- (yeah, yeah, grade inflation, but I've discovered I'm a total softie) - I was much more concerned about the second.
posted by jb at 11:58 PM on June 2, 2005


I think the main reason that schools and universities need to look at grammar and form as important is that students are practically begging for it. I've seen this again and again. In high school, a friend of mine asked the German teacher what a noun is. He's not dumb, he's just victim of a system that thinks linguistic theory is "boring" to kids, and heaven forbid we teach kids that some things in life are dull, but necessary!

I see people pronounce my first name, Dagny, with all sorts of sounds that bear no correllation to the letters included because somewhere along the line their school decide that teaching phonics was unnecessary. Any combination of letters they hadn't seen before might as well have been Chinese.
posted by dagnyscott at 12:53 PM on June 3, 2005


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