Saturday, June 24, 2017

Writing Matters

Good writing is the best evidence of clear thinking.
Good writing is also hard work.
from Not-the-13th Grade

I wrote this aphorism myself more than 20 years ago. I had said it to a class, and then realized that it should be at the top of the writing pages I had created as part of my very first web site. My entire online life began, in fact, with this small effort to help my geography students to think more critically about their own writing.

I was reminded of this when my favorite librarian shared Dave Stuart's recent article, "Writing: The Most Underrated Twenty-First Century Skill," which she had found through one of her librarian newsletters.

I flinched momentarily at his use of the phrase "most underrated," but quickly realized he is absolutely right. Education is full of fads, and an increasingly consequential constellation of fads surrounds efforts to figure out what employers want from graduates and then to make damn sure we educators "give" it to them.

My own university is caught up in this, seeking to identify exactly which skills we provide in each class, and figuring out how to plan, validate, document and (Goddess help us) assess each such skill.

The result is less emphasis on three things we know build writing skills:
Sadly, outcome-driven fads that have worked poorly in K-12 education are now being inflicted on higher education, notwithstanding the important role of academic freedom that has been at the core of the latter heretofore. Today, university professors at all levels are being pushed to orient their courses toward narrowly defined workplace "skills," to the detriment of holistic skills in writing and -- by extension -- reasoning.

Those of us who teach at the university level already know well what outcome-based, data-driven "reforms" have done at the K-12 level. Many of our students arrive without much experience with sustained reading or with writing beyond a strictly prescribed, five-paragraph essay. Vocabularies and facility with syntax are shrinking, while a tendency toward passive learning is growing.

Nobody has expressed the value of reading for its own sake more eloquently than U.S. Representative (and civil-rights hero) John Lewis, upon receipt of the National Book Award. His admonition is part of my November 2016 post, Just Read.


Readers interested in reviews of some of my favorite books can have a look at my read shelf at Goodreads.

From the Writer's Circle comes a list of ways to make writing a bit more interesting. The more we read, the more subtlety and precision our writing will have. The use of dictionaries and thesauri -- now available both in print and online -- is also essential.

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