Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Good and Bad Examples

Without looking at the two posts (1, 2) he quotes them in, can you tell which of these passages Jonathan has celebrated for its "expert prose", and which of them he has called "self-defeating"? Which passage exhibits "force and clarity"? Which passage "ties itself into unnecessary knots"?

1. "The Knife of the Times" fulfills the requirements that Williams set for himself. More importantly, it proved to him that it was possible to write in a debased language without satiric or parodic intent, to write, that is to say, in a language that seemed to have no possibilities for literature. This empty and pathetic story of two human beings caught in a language unfit to assist or relieve them, and unaware of it, is, in a sense, made of the Speech of Polish mothers become Americans. It was, for Williams, an act of absolute creative recovery.

2. Perhaps we ought to say, "You do not say what you mean or mean what you say, for you have not attended to the saying of it." Except that, too often lacking conviction ourselves in the efficacy of attention to words, we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory, and we grow impatient. For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? How do you demonstrate such mattering except by giving examples, by patiently showing it to yourself and to students so caught up in the skepticism you have taught them that they have lost the faith necessary for working their skepticism through?

This is the first post I've written that has a "read more" part (I had to learn how to put a fold into my post to do it).



The right answer is that 2 is the "knotty" passage. Let's see what's wrong with it. First of all, it seems to suffer from the very lack of conviction it worries about. This can be seen throughout, from the initial "perhaps" to the act of presenting the core recommendation in the form of a question. Let's try to think of an alternative to each sentence that is at least clearer, if not more forceful.

Perhaps we ought to say, "You do not say what you mean or mean what you say, for you have not attended to the saying of it."

Students sometimes fail to say what they mean or mean what they say because they don't pay close attention to how they say it.

Except that, too often lacking conviction ourselves in the efficacy of attention to words, we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory, and we grow impatient.

This happens to the best of us, of course. Too often we find ourselves saying something that will quickly satisfy the critical theorist rather than patiently communicate what we think.

For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear?

The danger in teaching students that words matter is that it activates our doubts about the efficacy of literary labor--and theirs.

How do you demonstrate such mattering except by giving examples, by patiently showing it to yourself and to students so caught up in the skepticism you have taught them that they have lost the faith necessary for working their skepticism through?

Too many examples of words that never seem to mean enough may undermine the faith in the capacity of words to mean something that the student needs to work their skepticism through.

This rewriting suggests an important point, and one that, I must admit, I don't practice often enough myself. (Which is also the point of this passage.) We should use examples of good writing in our teaching, not examples of bad writing. We should show students, again and again, how much words can sometimes mean, rather than how little they often seem to. By rewriting this "doubtful" passage with conviction we force ourselves to see this simple point, rather than once again merely ritualizing our insecurities.

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

Nice work. Your rewriting of these sentences is useful because it clarifies the issues involved. Once we see what these sentences are supposed to mean, then you can evaluate their claims.

matt said...

I love this example, Thomas. I ask my students to work through passages of their own writing in a similar exercise.
I also agree with the idea that we should primarily show our students good writing instead of bad writing. I had a recent discussion with a colleague from another dept. about this very subject.
Coming from a dept. where these language problems your rewriting raises are kind of taken for granted, my colleague sputtered at some of the examples I ask my students to read. She was worried that the writing would be above and beyond the students' ability.
My response was: when you're coaching a high school baseball team, do you tell your players to go watch a bunch of other high school players or little league players? Of course not! You tell your players to watch major league players!