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Art and Utility

I'm in the process of starting the organizing of the new semester. This involves thinking about assignment sequencing, supporting documents, and myriad other pieces of minutia. Some of it is tedious, some of it is fun, and some of it is perplexing.

The perplexing happened today. One of the textbook companies sent me a new "reader" (an anthology of essays that exemplify "good writing" in various modes, by various authors, throughout the ages) and I was reviewing it to see if there was A) any reason to ask future students to buy it and B) if there were any particularly good essays in it I could use for pedagogical purposes. Well, the answer to both was no.

Let's be clear. The anthology is full of excellent writing, by superior authors. Much of it is interesting, and readable. If this was a book I was considering for a class on "The Art of Personal Essay Writing" or "Provocative Thoughts for the New Millennium" I might easily say of this book "That's it!" in my best Lucy Van Pelt voice. But, no, this is a class called "College English" and there is very little in the book that is a model for college and post-college writers other than the use of Standard English. This is not a modeling to be scorned, but is insufficient for the task at hand. I need something that will model good writing of the type the students will be rewarded for producing, that is consistent with the tasks they will be asked to perform.

Again, it is important to be clear. The essays in the anthology do demonstrate critical thinking, use of evidence, and explication. These are some of what students will be asked to do both within the institution and when they leave its "not-so-ivy-covered" halls. The problem with the essays as exemplars is they are...too "arty." As they should be--they were, for the most part, written for a purpose and an audience that would seek these essays out as part of a leisure activity in which part of the point is to travel along with the slow unraveling of argument in a desultory, often evocative way, during which time the reader revels both in the ideas being presented and the artistry and nuance of the presentation.

Given that one of the things we stress for students is that they attend to the purpose for which the reader comes to the writing as a guide for how the piece should be written, these essays would be ideal for models of the writing leisure reading non-fiction.

However, with the possible exception of one or two assignments in an English 1 class, or the student studying "Creative Writing:Non-fiction," the purposes for which the reader comes to student-written material is unlikely in the extreme to bethe same as for this kind of writing. As such, these essays as models are worse than useless. They are misleading, and ultimately leave students confused.

Why? Students are most often asked to clearly and articulately argue for a narrowly defined interpretation, course of action, or evaluation; clearly inform a reader about a specific issue, event, or person; or demonstrate understanding in a straightforward manner, even if the understanding itself is nuanced or nebulous. Their readers (whether faculty, fellow students, employers, or co-workers) want the structure to be conventional and the points clearly sign-posted. When evaluating quality, the discerning reader will value an elegant use of language (though they are more likely to reward Dior than Gaga in this), and will enjoy the occasional play of wit or personality, but the personality of the writer should not dominate the writing. If you present the student writer with models by Twain and Didion, Swift and Sartre (and don't even get me on the questionable value of using translated works), personality is often the very meat and bones of the piece, with the actual point being the flourish, not the substance. And the signposts are subtle, sometimes only visible upon re-reading a second or third time. The writing students are asked to do is the type where the readers require clarity on the first pass--and that obligates the writer to certain elements that are almost antithetical to the kind of writing exemplified in this, as well as most, academic "readers."

Further, the length of the pieces is an obstacle--not in the reading (though, truthfully, students quail at the thought of much beyond  2000 words)--as a model. For one thing, in most of these cases to make the point the author is trying to make, the way he or she is trying to make it, requires pieces of this length. They are perfectly appropriate to the writer's goals and the readers' expectations and desires. Again, student writing, particularly at the 100 level, generally runs between 500-1000 words, and the purposes and expectations of the reader are best met within this frame. This requires a different kind of thesis, a different kind of progression, than the kind exemplified in these essays. Once students move outside of our "hallowed halls" the writing they are expected to do will be more within these strictures than that of these beautiful examples of expository prose.

Unfortunately, none of the readers I've found that have examples of the kind of writing students are actually asked to do seem to include examples that are structurally valid models and are well-written. They either have all the use of language nuance one would expect of a memo from "Chuck" at "New Zealand Tire and Wreck" about the kegger on Friday after work, or they are a 500-1000 word excerpt from a longer piece (and if you don't want to hear my rant on translations, then you REALLY don't want to hear my rant on excerpts).

Truly, somewhere, somehow, there must be a company willing to put together an anthology of articles 500-2000 words long, non-fiction, from business, science, and social issues (including media, personalities, politics, and culture) that are structurally sound, demonstrate good critical thinking, and are examples of excellent and beautiful use of grammar, vocabulary, tone, and voice. And, before you ask, no--I'm not willing to ask for a 1 year sabbatical to try to put one together.

So, Dear Santa, next year for Christmas, I would like....

(Originally posted in In the Aisles)

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
wldrose
Jan. 7th, 2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
Have you seen http://longform.org/ there might be some stuff there you can use, but if not its really good just to puter around.
dagonell
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:07 pm (UTC)
"articles 500-2000 words long, non-fiction, from business, science, and social issues (including media, personalities, politics, and culture) that are structurally sound, demonstrate good critical thinking, and are examples of excellent and beautiful use of grammar, vocabulary, tone, and voice."

Have you considered a magazine series like Time or Science or Discover? Seems to me you just described them.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )