Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Lewis Thomas

Last weekend, I spent some time in my mother's basement, looking through old books. I found my father's 1969 edition of The Double Helix, by James Watson--which, incredibly, I'd never read. (Please don't ask me how I managed to avoid reading this book, even though I grew up around a copy of it. I really have no excuse.)

I also found an early edition of The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas, one of my favorite authors. (I'm happy to say that I've read this one, but not recently enough.) I'd forgotten that Dr. Thomas had been on the faculty of the University of Minnesota. I think that's fascinating. It's one more reason for me to enjoy going there.

Also of interest is that according to the Wikipedia article about him, "He also failed to graduate high school." So did I. I would not often recommend taking this path through life, but it worked well for me, and it doesn't seem to have hurt him any, either.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Brevity and length

Last week, my students and I worked on cutting out excess words from some writing that had many of them. We started with "At this point in time, I believe that many people misunderstand issues such as racism" and turned it into "Many people misunderstand racism." Most readers of this blog (if there ever are any) will probably agree that the second sentence is better.

But will it get a better grade? I'm not sure of that. MIT's Les Perelman has commented that the grading of the new SAT writing exam seems to be based almost purely on length:
"I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time."

That's just the SAT. Are other papers graded the same way? I'm afraid they probably are. Probably 90 percent of college writing assignments have a length requirement. Papers below the length requirement are usually penalized, even if the content is good. Papers far above the length requirement are usually rewarded, even if the content is questionable. And certainly, it's rare for teachers, even English teachers, to grade a paper down because of wordiness. (My own writing is very wordy, as you can see, but no professor in college or graduate school has ever lowered my grade for that reason.)

Should I be teaching my students to present each idea in as many words as possible?

I have to say no. True, their grades might improve if they did so. But I still see value in brevity, and I will still try to teach my students to practice it.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More on rhetoric and interdisciplinarity

I was just looking over the faculty list for the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley. Here's what I find interesting: not one professor there has a PhD in rhetoric. They have degrees in history, philosophy, literature, law, and other areas, but not in rhetoric. As I said earlier, to study rhetoric is to study other things, too.

Having said that, I'm hoping that some of the growing rhetoric departments around the country will be looking in about five years for someone with a PhD in rhetoric. By then, I plan to have mine. It will be from the University of Minnesota. (Texas Tech, the other possibility I took seriously, has an excellent program, as well. But I finally decided that I'd be better off at UMN.)

Monday, April 03, 2006

March 30, 2006

As I write this, I'm in an airplane on my way to Lubbock, Texas, to check out their Ph.D. program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric. One might assume from this statement that I'm writing on a laptop. I'm not. I'm doing this the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper.

I will, of course, have to transfer this to a computer before putting it on my blog. When I do so, I will not edit the text. Whatever flaws may stem from this primitive method will be transferred to the Internet for all to see. (This approach also explains why there are no links in this blog entry.)

Writing with a pen is leading me to consider how important technology in writing really is. More specifically, it's leading me to consider the importance of technology in writing classes. (That faulty parallelism--"consider how important" in one sentence, followed by "consider the importance" in the next--is the sort of thing I'd correct on a computer, but ignore on paper.)

Let's start by comparing my first two semesters of teaching, in 1991 and 1992, when I was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University. In my first semester, I taught two sections of Composition 101, which met in a traditional classroom three times a week. In my second semester, I taught two sections of computer-assisted Composition 101. We met in a traditional classroom twice a week, and in a computer classroom once a week.

Back in those days, instructors couldn't assume basic computer skills. Some of my students had never used a mouse before. Few were familiar with WordPerfect 5.1. So our one day in the computer classroom was usually spent on computer skills.

I don't mean to imply that these computer skills were unrelated to the writing skills I covered. For example, I'd combine a lesson on copying and pasting with a lesson on organization. Still, the fact remains that I covered a lot of material in my first semester that I didn't have time for in my second. The reverse is true, too, of course--I covered material in my second semester that I didn't cover in my first. But much of it would have been covered in a word processing course. All things considered, I think my students learned more about writing in my first semester of teaching, without the computers, than in my second, with them.

That was fourteen years ago. It's been a while since I've had a student who didn't know how to use a mouse. Not only has my students' knowledge of technology improved, the technology itself has improved. How has that changed the things we learn and the way we learn it?

Almost every serious writer today uses computer-based technology in almost every step of the writing process. Writing processes differ, of course, as they always have. That element, however, seems remarkably consistent. Research, prewriting, editing, revising, publishing--all of it requires extensive use of technology. Or, if the technology is not actually required, it's so advantageous that no sane writer voluntarily avoids it.

Written products have changed, as well. A blog entry is not structured in the same way as a conventional journal entry. Hyperlinks require a whole new way of thinking--and therefore a whole new way of writing.

Can one learn to write well with just a pen and paper? Of course. But one cannot learn to write the way--or even the things--that today's writers write.