Monday, August 31, 2009

Composing Clean Sentences

I had promised to say something about the implications of political correctness this morning. I'm only barely going to keep that promise.

Peter Klein at Organizations and Markets alerts us to a thoughtful post by Stanley Fish in the New York Times.

A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart.

He quickly traces the problem to the undergraduate composition courses (in which his students are instructors). Very few of these courses, he discovered,

emphasized training in the craft of writing. ... Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.

I have noticed similar things about instruction outside of the composition classroom. It is too often assumed that the problem is "getting the students to express themselves" or even "getting the students to think". At the extremes, teachers fear that criticism, and especially the sort of formal criticism that points out grammatical mistakes and vague language, will stifle the student's desire to write. I think it is high time we begin to push back against this trend.

Even at the PhD level, "clean sentences" are at times far and few between. As in the undergraduate classroom, PhD students are too often encouraged to struggle with ideas rather than words. Indeed, I sometimes think they've been told that worrying about clarity of language reveals that they aren't really interested in the ideas. (I had a philosophy professor once who left us with the distinct impression that he was suspicious of students who spent too much time proof-reading their papers.) One of my missions here in life is to foster a greater interest in the quality of academic writing among young researchers so that they may pass that interest on to their students.

I don't actually think that composition courses are the solution, though I agree with Fish that if you are going to teach composition you should teach it as such. I think criticism of language is the solution. Teachers and supervisors must point out when a sentence fails to convey anything other than unfocused enthusiasm for the subject matter—or worse, an obsequious enthusiasm for the writing assignment. [Update: students also sometimes confine themselves to expressing an impetuous contempt for the writing assignment, sometimes imagining that this displays their "independence of mind". Spare me. Spend your energy writing clear sentences on the assigned topic in the assigned manner. I'm trying to teach you something.] Academic writing must divide into paragraphs with clearly defined points, and these paragraphs must divide into sentences with easily discerned content. It is not enough to feel the importance of a subject. One must use the occasion of writing to think some portion of the subject through.

Edmund Burke said that clarity is the enemy of enthusiasm. But this should not get us to valorize obscurity. Rather, we should valorize the intellectual enthusiasm that survives the expression of an idea in clear, clean sentences.


Presskorn said...

There is also an enthusiasm immanent to writing, which is only achieved through writing clearly. That is to say, there is a real pleasure to be achieved on those rare occasions when you actually succeed in putting an interesting idea into a clearly composed sentence.

Thomas said...

Yes! Though it's a cliché to say so, Hemingway's writing displays that enthusiasm, which accounts for why you always feel like writing after reading his prose. Updike called Nabokov's prose "ecstatic". Same sort of thing. You can tell he worked on his sentences until they made the hair on the back of his neck tingle.