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Rhetoric Versus Writing (2019-04-02)

One side of the ancient egyptian namer palette. One side of the ancient egyptian namer palette.
One side of the ancient egyptian namer palette, courtesy of wikimedia commons, november 2018

Depending on your view of my writing style, you may or may not believe that I hated the class labelled "english" with a great hate. A tragic hate. Because evidently, writing and reading are two of my favoured activities in the world. "English" class was not a thing until senior high school, when "language arts" and its faintly fussy label vanished away. And with it all sorts of intriguing projects that encouraged what would today be called "multimedia projects" although not too much by way of video or audio yet, as they were still too expensive. Lots of posters and illustrations, experiments with calligraphy though, at least in my experience. The official art class was basically defunct, but we got to do a lot in language arts. However, once english came along, we were relegated to the useful and deadly boring five paragraph essay, reading novels and poetry that were supposed to be the best for the "correct interpretation" and being marked zero on short answers for such accidental foibles as writing "it's" (it is) when you meant "its" (possessive). I kid you not. To make it all the worse, I did very well in my english classes all the same, with excellent marks even in the exams used to determine our academic standing for post-secondary education. And then found out that in my first year of university I was required, with no appeal, to effectively take my last year of english again in a year-long course to meet my academic writing requirement. After all, everyone knows science majors can't write. Right?

This was before it occurred to anybody to make available the option of writing an exam consisting of an essay and some short questions if you felt sure that your high school english mark was not the product of crass grade inflation. It is appalling to think that this alternative has not been available very obviously or consistently for very long. Really, the whole combination is unjust to the students affected, science majors or not, and to the study of rhetoric, which is what it turns frustrated students against. Among the results is an entire generation at least of people who don't understand how to structure speeches or written documents, and don't understand how physical books or even their electronic counterparts work. This is bad for everybody.

Yes, rhetoric is popping up here again, because the rhetorical training I mentioned in the previous thoughtpiece included a great deal of training in how to write essays of various lengths, from what we now call "short answers" to the infamous five paragraphs I remember having to fit on a single sheet of foolscap. (A real paper size, standardized to 21.6 by 34.3 centimetres these days, and usually "college-ruled" with blue lines.) Those of us who formally learned how to write such things in the classroom have likely never referred to them as scintillating work. With an adult understanding, I realize they couldn't be. They were the practice part of learning how to write, and alas, it is hard to make practice anything but tedious. If practice doesn't get tedious at some point, we're in trouble, because we aren't learning. Unfortunately teachers are not always in a position to set the practice according to student, so the students who had got to the boredom point could go on to something a bit harder and stop annoying everybody else in the classroom. I don't remember any teacher framing our writing exercises as similar in principle to the endless laps and drills we might do for a sport, or scales and chords we might practice with a musical instrument.

I don't agree with claims that everything in the classroom must be immediately connected to a future task in a dead end job. I do think students should be honoured with information about why they are expected to do the tasks they are doing in the classroom, especially in a class like english, which is the butt of so much unfair censure. No doubt fourteen year old me would have been as obnoxious as any other teenager about rotten old essays and the like. Yet I wonder if it wouldn't have made some of the other aspects of the task at least a little easier to bear, knowing at least a little it wasn't in effect only to pass the class and never have to do it again. Yes, I know. Probably wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, in the real world having chucked rhetorical training, english class is apparently now mostly about reading certain things and regurgitating the interpretation the teacher dictates. Not everywhere, of course. More and more schools have more integrated classes where students get their literature with some real context via their history classes. Reading even Charles Dickens is enlivened by learning about his era and the actual social conditions and culture he came from and witnessed. The way Shakespeare is taught often achieves this, ironically because the man himself is basically an empty signifier according to orthodox understandings of who wrote his plays and sonnets. I don't believe for a second that young students are not capable of managing context and coming up with surprisingly nuanced interpretations for their ages and the material at hand. Just sit down and listen to younger students expertly take apart whatever their favourite pop culture franchise. They've got at least the beginning of the skills, they just don't want to read the stuff the adults think they should. This leads to the scandalous new courses in universities that take movies and comic books seriously, often sneeringly referred to as "service courses" intended mainly to get butts in seats.

To begin with I was deeply skeptical of such courses, and must admit to remaining at last a little skeptical of them now. Still, these courses are also ways to help students overcome their skepticism of rhetoric, deeper reading, and their own abilities in both inculcated by earlier miseducation driven by the short-sighted goals of authoritarian adults. My skepticism has more to do with the sense that they are not always as respectful of students as they are cynically hoping to exploit students expecting an easy A. I doubt that the latter is a successful strategy pedagogically or economically for anyone concerned. In a funny way, this all goes back to rhetoric, because the false message that the way we learn to write is merely by unstructured reading is so intensely wrong. Meanwhile, the role of practice in structured writing and reading, and its genuine utility – yes utility – in the workplace and the rest of our lives is lost or ignored in the rhetoric turned against it. If thinking through the social and political implications of that sentence makes your head hurt, that makes at least two of us.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23