Thursday, May 20, 2010

Control of Imagery

In my last post, I said that your style depends on your ability to control the imagery your writing evokes. Edmund Burke praises Milton for stirring up "a crowd of great and confused images", by which "the mind is hurried out of itself". But Milton is writing poetry, and in academic writing we may rightly demand a more orderly gathering of images. Still, there has to be something for the imagination to do.

What is the difference between an image and an idea? In my last post, I chastised myself for producing a paragraph that seemed to lack imagery altogether:

Students sometimes fail to say what they mean or mean what they say because they don't pay enough attention to how they say it. This happens to the best of us, of course. Too often we find ourselves saying something that we think will quickly satisfy the critical theorist rather than something that might patiently communicate what we think. The danger in teaching students that words matter is that it activates our doubts about the efficacy of literary labor—and the doubts of our students. Too many examples of words that don't seem to mean enough may undermine their faith in the capacity of words to mean something altogether. And students need exactly this faith in language to work their skepticism through.

Though I claim that students do things, and that things happen, though I talk about danger and work, it's very difficult to picture anything at all. What I want to do this morning is to rewrite this paragraph as fodder for the reader's visual imagination.

When grading papers, we are too often confronted with our own skepticism. Students fail to say what they mean, or fail to mean what they say, not so much because they don't pay enough attention to how they say it, but because they have lost their faith in the ability of words to say anything at all. Are we, their teachers, to blame for this? More than once, standing before the class, we have been guided by voices from critical theory, remonstrating at our ears. We grow impatient. Indeed, how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? Students need faith in language to work their skepticism through. We realize this too late, when we read a paper that says less than the writer knows because we have convinced them that, in theory, it doesn't matter what they say.

Can you picture it? One of the reasons I'm having such a hard time with this is that I don't understand that sentence about the remonstrations of critical theory. I don't know what happens when the teacher grows impatient here. But I still need to read the full context of the original paragraph.

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