Retrospective

I blogged before I came to this class. I was already sold on the merits of the practice.

Blogging has unquestionably made me a better writer with a stronger voice who has more to say. The freedom offered by the blog gave me a medium where I could finally apply all of the things that I had learned in school in a format that I loved. I didn’t have to write about topics that teachers assigned, I could write about what it would be like for Nick “Swaggy P” Young to defend his girlfriend, Iggy Azalea, from a cyber bullying attack from Snoop Dogg.

As I got to write what I wanted to write, I enjoyed writing more. I enjoy writing so much, that I’m not sure that enjoyment really characterizes what I feel when I write. It is as though I have to write. I get antsy when I don’t. I feel unproductive. I feel like I exist less. When I’m not putting thoughts and experiences on paper, no matter how trivial, or silly, or downright dumb that they may be, I don’t feel like myself.

Blogging has been my gateway drug to writing. Once I got hooked, I began seeing school as more enjoyable, and I could find ways to integrate the topics from my blogging into my school work. I’ve given a presentation on Kanye’s Bound 2 video. I’ve said that before and I will say it again. I am damn proud that I pulled that off in class.

Perhaps what blogging has shown me most is that there is little distinction in worth between things that are academic and non-academic. In fact, I overwhelmingly prefer to be as far away from academia is possible, because that is the only place that I can hope to contribute something new to the conversation. Most academic assignments are impressions of copies of models that the greatest experts first laid down. There is little that I can say or do that has not been done better by someone else.

But, when I’m blogging. And, I’m taking a serious eye to the latest happenings in pop culture, sports, or politics, I am contributing something newer to the conversation. I’m at the cutting edge of our social consciousness. Maybe someday, I’ll think something is important, write about it, and others will agree with me.

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Right now I still am inexperienced, and my writing can be clumsy, and my points can be kinda obvious, but what I like about blogging is that I can be an innovator. I don’t have to copy anyone else. There are no rules to my assignments. I get to choose how I do things. Instead of bending myself to fit an assignment’s directions, I bend my writing towards me. I get to express myself on a topic I care about in the way that I like best. And, I think that is dope.

Blogging has made me a more interesting academic writer. I think I approach topics with a different lens than other students. I try to fit my enthusiasm for blogging into assignments and make them as close as to something I would be content with publishing on my blog. School is not so much work, or a requirement, but it has become fun. I love to learn new academic things because it can inform my blogging, and I love to blog so it livens up my assignments.

Blogging has been terrific for me.

I recommend it to anyone else who isn’t quite sure what to do with themselves.

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Bending Elbow

When it comes to writing, academic is a dirty word. The style is the antithesis of the dynamic, expressive work that characterizes the vast majority of well-regarded Literature.

Academic writing tends to be dry, jargon-packed, and detached. And, this insistence upon density isn’t just dull, it is damaging.

Here is a particularly unreadable example:

Now, literary hypospace may be defined as the lexical space, which having been collapsed to exclude almost all referentiality but that generated by verbal echoes alone, glows like an isotope with a half-life of meaning co-extensive with its power to turn its tropes into allotropes or “transformational” (in the Chomskyan sense) nodes, capable of liberating the “deep structures” of metaphoricity from buried layers of intertextuality (Rother 83).

Had enough?

If other readers are like me, they get so put off by the construction of an article like this that they lose focus of the author’s ideas. As opposed to furthering the spread of thought, current academic practices prohibit accessibility.

But, some academics have engaging styles and one, Peter Elbow, believes academics write the way that they do because every other academic seeks to disprove their assertions. Elbow writes:

Descartes gave us the name ‘doubting’ or ‘skepticism’ for our method. He felt the way to proceed to the truth was to doubt everything. This spirit has remained the central tradition in western civilization’s notion of the rational process (Elbow 1973: 150).

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Rene Descartes

Elbow calls this the “Doubting Game,” in which players doubt everything they encounter until the truth is so obvious that they have no choice but to accept it. For academics, putting forth an idea is a daunting task, especially when the rest of your community is itching for an opportunity to rip your work to shreds. To compensate, writers reinforce their words with obscure theory, pretentious lingo, and round-a-bout sentence construction that bolsters academic credibility, but slows the spread of ideas with inefficient communication.

This Doubting Game may work well to prevent error, but it is detrimental to progress. As Thomas Kuhn showed in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when academics have vested interests in a set of ideas, they will rebuke challenges to those ideas. The popularity of the Doubting Game encourages this exclusion of new thought.  So, students that don’t want to see their work eviscerated must operate within the paradigms their predecessors have established.

In the humanities, this is completely counterproductive. Creative thinking and personal experience has informed some of the most important work within the soft sciences. But, students are not encouraged to form their own thoughts. They are expected to repeat back what they have learned to impress a master of the subject.

Margaret Mead (left) wrote a first person account from Samoa that would become one of Anthropology's most treasured works.
Margaret Mead (right) wrote a first person account from Samoa, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” that would become one of Anthropology’s most treasured works.

Elbow talks about what this does to student work when he writes,

Many of our students undermine their writing by only tentatively proffering their discourse as though with a half-bent arm–as much as to ask the reader timidly, ‘is this ok? will you accept this?’ (Elbow 1987:8).

Students are tentative because they do not own their ideas. They must learn the vocabulary and methods for composing arguments within their discipline before they can express their thoughts.

Students are discouraged from breaking new ground. Instead, they are taught to do impressions of experts, making student writing like a middle-schooler wearing his dad’s suit for a show-and-tell presentation. The raw materials are there, but when used by an inexperienced hand, the result is silly.

Even if students master the academic language, then it is dubious if they understand their material. Instead, they might only learn how to give teachers what they want. They will learn the vocabulary without internalizing its meaning. They become very high-functioning parrots, who will be welcomed into the lofty perches of the academic community, where they can babble in a language that the groundlings cannot understand.

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This is the central problem of academia. Students that “buy in” will develop a style that is readable to a smaller and smaller subsection of people. The more schooling a person receives, the farther detached their style is from the rest of the world. This is counter-productive and Elbow gives a diplomatically savage summation:

And so–though we may be modest, open, and democratic as persons–the price we pay for a voice of authority is a style that excludes ordinary readers and often makes us sound like an insecure or guarded person showing off (Elbow 1991:148).

The students who cannot access this language of authority will be seen as dumb. Their ideas will be dismissed since their content and form will fall outside of accepted styles. These students will be discouraged and think school is “not for them.”

But, school is not for well-regarded intellectuals to pat themselves on the back for their clever usages of accepted discourse. School is for everyone to learn. It is not a place of one idea, it is a place for every idea to intermingle, so that the best combination may be chosen.

If academia prevents the progress of knowledge, and its legitimacy rests only on tradition, then there is no reason for this destructive trend to continue to worsen.

Elbow explains:

Though words in ordinary language can mean anything, they only do mean what the speech community lets them mean at that moment (Elbow 1973:154).

We are all members of the speech community. If we recognize that the deliberately dense style of academia is counterproductive to learning, then we should regard those words with disgust. Big words don’t make ideas better.

If an academic can not say something simply, then he does not know it well enough. If he does know it well enough, then he should refine his writing, otherwise he is an elitist who feels that his ideas are only suitable for a certain class of people.

For hundreds of years, teachers have doubted their students’ writing. Teachers focus on errors and attempt to shear away anything that falls outside of the academic mold. The tacit goal of this process is the creation of carbon-copy academics that will be trained to appease their superiors by only politely advancing prior thought in an acceptable style.

This is a nauseating outcome. If the premises of academia are flawed and the outcomes of their methods are not beneficial to independent thought, then surely we can improve our educational model.

Instead of doubting our students, we should believe in them. Elbow explains this “Believing Game:”

There is a kind of belief–serious, powerful, and a genuine giving of the self–that is possible to give even to hateful or absurd assertions. To do this requires great energy, attention, and even a kind of inner commitment. It helps to think of it as trying to get inside the head of someone who saw things this way (Elbow 1973:149).

This seems to be a far more nobel and rewarding goal for teachers everywhere. Instead of criticizing and restricting the work of students who are still developing, teachers should be advocates for what their students are trying to do.

Elbow once again nails it in his description of an ideal editor/teacher:

She helps the writer learn to produce what is right for that writer. She helps the writer move or grow in the direction that will bring out that writer’s own potential gifts–even if the result doesn’t fit her own editorial or teacherly tastes (Elbow 1987:12).

We should focus less on the development of the rigidly defined disciplines, and begin to create independent-thinkers that can transcend traditional frameworks to form bolder, more potent ideas that push our learning in more dynamic directions. The Doubting Game still works, but it works best after the teacher has immersed herself in the Believing Game. After the teacher has entered the student’s mind, then she is qualified to modify her pupil’s thoughts.

In my ideal academia, it is only after all possibilities are considered that they can be eliminated.

Some may criticize this outlook as unrealistic optimism. They might believe that the individual attention required for each student would overwhelm the teacher during the grading process. It would be much easier just to show students what to fix.

This would be easier, but it would not be better. Instead, it gives teachers a premature sense of closure. The results of correction are immediate. The red lines show definitively what has been and should be. There is a strong illusion of progress.

But, a student is likely to resent his teacher if he receives a paper focusing on corrections of his errors rather than the development of his ideas. Instead of respecting the student writer, the teacher reasserts her dominance as the decider of right and wrong, and the student is given no choice but to begrudgingly subvert his ideas.

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Teachers must work with students to find the merit in their work. If a student is constantly belittled, then he will begin to dig his heels in against educators. When this happens, teachers have slowed the achievement of their supposed goal: to teach students. But, students make greater progress when a knowledgeable person is willing to help them. Teachers are powerful. They must choose wisely when they determine a course for their students to take.

Elbow talks about how he can begin to see another person’s side when he writes:

It happens most when the person arguing against me lets up on his guns a little, stops trying to show that I’m an idiot, and in fact shows some glimmer of understanding why I believe what I do believe (Elbow 1973:185).

Every teacher I’ve ever admired has been critical of me. They show me where I was unclear, or unpersuasive, or just flat out wrong. But, they always impress upon me that they are trying to help me accomplish my goals.

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When teachers recognize the worth of my work, and offer constructive suggestions, then I am receptive, thankful, and eager to improve. But, if they put my needs below arbitrary rules, I assume they either do not care about me, or are unable to help me without using a crutch.

When teachers have allowed me to write what works best for me, I not only produce better content, but also enjoy the creation process. I am forced to think critically about what I want to say, instead of just mindlessly modifying my work to match the guidelines of academic writing.

The two-sided frustration of the doubting game is replaced by the deeper joy of the believing game which Elbow describes as:

When you succeed in seeing something the way someone else sees it–and it is different from the way you have been seeing it–this almost invariably produces a little burst of release of energy in you… a release of tension (Elbow 1973:181).

This release becomes addictive. As people begin to understand one another, they will want to continue understanding each other. Then, instead of gridlock or domination which produces stilted, uninspired work, collaboration gives way to powerful ideas forged from the minds of multiple people. As students are rewarded by improved work, they will be encouraged to continue their education, perhaps even outside of the classroom.

This is important because writing is like any other skill: it requires practice.

Elbow backs me up:

We need to get students to write by choice because no one can learn to write well except by writing a great deal–far more than we (teachers) can assign and read. (Elbow 1991:36).

The greatest pianists practice because they love to play. Proficiency can be forced, but it takes a love of the craft to achieve the sublime. A passionate person is inspired to take on harder, more rewarding challenges that produce better results. It is the teacher’s job to stoke this fire, so the student will continue progressing even after they have left the classroom.

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When students are inspired, they practice their craft. When they practice their craft, they discover methods that work best for them. Then, these methods develop into a style. In writing, this style is called voice, and voice is the answer to the borderline unreadablility of current academic writing that kills the sharing of information.

Authors should want to make their texts as lively as possible so readers devote their full attention to the presented ideas. Reading academic articles is usually a slog because it requires so much energy to get through the dense prose. But, writing with a voice behind it is much more engaging as Elbow explains:

Texts with audible voice give us the sense of a sound coming up from the page by itself; and they seem to give us energy rather than requiring energy of us (Elbow 1987:2).

If someone cares enough about an idea to write an entire article about it, then their passion for that idea must be reflected in their writing. And, the work should be accessible to anyone who is curious, not just the most refined academic minds that know the en vogue vocabulary.

If we can get authors to inject life into their work, then readers must be willing to play the Believing Game. The only way that experimentation can be successful is if it takes place in an accepting environment. Not everything produced with a voice will be high quality, but it could be. We have to entertain the possibility that we are reading the next genius’ work before we call them a dunce.

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Instead of a competition between insiders and outsiders, Academia would be a community of voices, some stronger, some with more to say, but all welcomed and accepted.

Joseph Harris is less radical than I am. He feels that students must recognize their place within the academic community. He writes:

What we need to do… is to make students more aware of how they can work not only within but against the constraints of a given discourse–of how they can take its methods and use them for their own aims, inflect its usual concerns with their own (Harris 45).

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I partially agree with his ideas. I do not think academia should be blown up “V for Vendetta” style. Obviously, there have been tremendous contributions in every field that students must read. But, these contributions must be valued for two characteristics: potency of ideas, and clarity of expression.

Deliberate density by long-tenured professionals must be ridiculed with the same fervor that inexperienced students receive for grammatical errors. Both practices make writing more difficult to understand, blocking the spread of knowledge.

If a person has spent their entire life devoted to a field, their ideas should be accessible to as many people as possible. They must clearly share what they know for they are the ones with the most to say.

In turn, these masters should help amateurs to establish themselves as unique intellectuals. They should seek to impart the joy that they feel for their field, so that beginners have the motivation to create their own voice. Past ideas lay the foundation for further progress.

The advancement of ideas must remain paramount in this switch to more juicy writing. As Irvin Hashimoto rightfully points out:

While students may like to believe that honest human voices do not reveal themselves in academic terminology, certainly very little scholarly work of much value could go on without such terminology (Harris 78).

Hashimoto is concerned with the devolution of academia into a shouting match between appealing voices with little thought behind their words. This is a fair criticism and universities must stay dedicated to critical thinking instead of  stylishly-worded controversies.

My prescribed changes are meant to enhance ideas, not remove them. I think a commitment to intellectual advancement can remain in a more welcoming academic environment. Scholars can use cumbersome words and invent jargon only when their ideas cannot be communicated in a simpler way. At the higher levels of thought, there is bound to be some exclusivity, but this should be seen as unattractive. Accessibility should be one of the chief goals of academic work

We should stop wasting our time with dense, dull writing that conforms to arbitrary standards.

We should encourage the formation of graspable, brilliant ideas. We should be fueled by passion in our growth as thinkers.

Academia does not have to be like this. We can change how we do things. And, the first change should be putting belief before doubt.

 

 

Works Cited

“Voice” Outline

 

The Future of Language

Multi-modality is the future. The internet has changed the way we write.Throughout this quarter, I have focused on wanting relatable, practical ways of writing that can prepare students to write at the highest level as soon as possible.

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English classes must respond to trends of modernization. Technology has made the creation of worthwhile work in almost any medium an achievable possibility for anyone with a computer. Words on their own have gotten us far, but we should recognize that other available means of communication may be more effective to reach new audiences.

If academia is slow to embrace and experiment with new styles of “writing,” their credibility won’t be killed, it will just gradually die away. As the internet matures, there will be methods of information sharing that we cannot even imagine today. If students do not learn these methods in schools, they may be inclined to gravitate towards the internet for their education. The more students learn about the internet’s style, the more they will know than their luddite teachers, and it is easy to draw some destructive conclusions from there.

Thankfully, as seen in the NCTE’s position on multi-modality, educators have recognized that the internet is not a fad. Soon, the printing words on paper will be seen as a special occasion. Writers will be expected to know how to navigate far more content creation methods than ever before, for the simple reason that they can learn these methods quickly.

English classes must respond to these increasing demands. Perhaps, Photoshop, iMovie, and coding will be necessary to incorporate into future curriculum. English has always progressed, and it is important for teachers to be the ones who lead the innovation. Learning about the past is useless if students cannot apply it to their future.

There may be some of the old guard that will rebel against this tsunami. They will write long journal articles eulogizing the death of the written word. They will complain, and whine, and rail against the bastardization of their beloved field.

But honestly, who wants to read that?

Why Don’t I Talk Right?

I have taken a dozen useless years of Spanish. I was a good student. I made it into the AP class in high school, took the intermediate level in college, and yet I could not learn that language.

I tried, and tried, and tried, and yet every summer when I returned to the Spanish restaurant where I had been working since I was 13, I could barely understand anything my co-workers were saying. Whenever I spoke, they laughed at my “school” Spanish.

This was so frustrating because I really did want to learn to speak Spanish, since I plan on living in California for a while, but no matter what I did, it felt like conversing “normally” was a mountain I would never climb.

Now, I learn I’ve been learning all wrong. Sharon Meyers writes, “The generalizations about language and language use that are written in the grammar books we use are not only incomplete, but much more restricted in their validity than we imagine them to be” (624).

Without context, the mind numbing vocabulary memorization and verb conjugation exercises never did stick in my brain. But, if I had been given the “sentence combining” exercises, I might have been able to learn the patterns of Spanish. In her article, Meyers outlines exercises that seem to to build a tool box for the language.

Instead of learning arbitrary words, students learned how to freely build sentences. This was my problem in Spanish. I always felt I needed a precise situation for my language skills to be usable. I didn’t thoroughly understand how to put words together so whatever I said sounded clunky.

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If learning language is like learning piano, then I was shown that there are 88 keys, and I practiced playing each key individually without understanding how they fit together. I may have known a lot of words, but my speech sounded like random slaps on the piano.

On the other hand, Meyers would be teaching chord progressions and small songs that show the inherent logic of the piano. Her students learned the chunks that sounded nicely next to one another.

Meyers insight is genius, I only wish she taught Spanish.

Grammar Privilege

I don’t really remember when I learned grammar. I can’t point out one lesson that I did when the light switched on in my brain and I “got” grammar. I’ve just always been a decent writer.

So, it was strange to hear about the struggles of the third class of writers, who to their teachers were functionally illiterate. These students were told that their work was wrong, and they didn’t understand how to fix it. Regardless of their ideas, they had to master how to communicate before anyone would listen.

To this point, Shaughnessy writes, “For (this student) error is more than a mishap; it is a barrier that keeps him from not only writing something in Formal English, but from having something to write…the fact that a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generates more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered the code” (395).

As I look at the lesson plan that Shaughnessy created for her basic writers, it strikes me as a grammatical crash course to make up for these students’ lack of prior education. In one class, they had to learn everything that I learned in all of the years before I came to college.

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Their class had to make up for: my Masters-degree holding parents speaking to me like an adult from a young age, my private schooling in small classrooms with devoted, well-paid teachers, and the amount of reading that I have done because I saw that activity as a pleasure instead of a chore.

The “basic writers” had poorly educated parents, went to stuffed high schools with overwhelmed teachers, and saw reading as a burden because school was so unrewarding.

It is silly for me to think that I am a decent writer for any reason other than the fact that I was born into the right family. If I hadn’t been born a Flynn, I’d be “basic” too.

There’s a sociological theory called Symbolic Interactionalism, which holds that the better a person is able to use symbols (words, body language, clothing, etc.), the more likely they will gain the role they desire. The way a person is seen is the way they are treated.

So, I am seen as a good student because i know the codes of being a “good student.” I know how to talk, write essays, and formulate my thoughts in a way that will be respected in academia. As a result, I have been allowed share my ideas because people understand me well enough that they are not distracted by my errors. Since I have been allowed to speak, I think that I have some pretty good ideas because no one has told me to shut up yet.

But, if every time I expressed an idea my teacher told me I was wrong, I wouldn’t be so talkative.

I am lucky to have been born me, to know how to communicate, and to have been given the opportunity to be a good writer.

Writing For Ideas

I Can Has Cheezburger are four words that have maybe been seen by everyone on the internet, but grammatically they are incorrect. But, this mistake was purposeful. This meme isn’t designed to be contemplated by academic minds at the finest universities. It is meant for a quick laugh.

The Cat’s face fits with the style of writing of this meme, so it was appropriate to break the conventions of grammar for this joke.

However, if I were to say, “I Can Has Cheezburger” at McDonald’s before the meme made this phrase part of the modern vocabulary, I would get some rather strange looks. So, it is not okay to break the rules of writing all of the time, but instead only when a writer needs to break with convention to prove their point.

Harris taps into this idea when he prescribes roles for both students and teachers when he writes, “students must learn not simply how to avoid mistakes but how to write in ways that engage the attention of educated readers. Teachers need to respond to what students are trying to say, to the effectiveness of their writing as a whole, and not simply to the presence or absence of local errors in spelling, syntax, or usage” (111).

As Cheezburger Cat proves, errors in spelling, syntax, and usage do not mean that a work is unreadable and worthless. Instead, certain types of rule-breaking can emphasize a point. We’ve seen writers from Mark Twain to Cormac McCarthy break the rules to create a distinct style.

However, the rules are still important because they are the default settings of understandability. We must learn why the rules exist because otherwise we run the risk of being misunderstood or dismissed.

We must find our voice, but we must also ensure we are understood.

Writing As An Ongoing Process

Writing is putting ideas on paper. So, it makes sense that it is always happening as our minds are always whirring. Even when I step away from a writing assignment, I am still mentally working it over in my head. Often times, my experiences mold my projects.

Prior and Shipka nail this when they write, “Writing in these cases then emerges as complex dispersed activity that is, across time and space, both intensely private and intensely social and collaborative.”

My writing follows this. When I am brainstorming, I want to be interacting with the world. In brainstorming, I pay particular attention to my surroundings because I am never sure when something will pop up that will inspire me to write something new. I also mentally bookmark particularly interesting ideas or events so that I might draw upon them in a new project that I’ve yet to imagine.

After this brainstorming, the physical act of writing most often occurs in as much privacy and silence as possible. I don’t want any distractions at all because I am set on an idea path and I don’t want to lose my way.

But, once I have wrung every last drop from each idea I brought with me to write. I want to get away from what I have done because I am numb to it. I want to see something radically different. I want to hang out with my friends and talk about anything else. I want to go on a walk and let what I have written simmer.

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By exposing myself to the outside world both before and during my writing, I gain more perspectives than my own. I am influenced by everything I encounter. My writing becomes richer because my life is informed by others. Then when I start or return to my own writing, I am a slightly modified version of myself. Each time, I see my work differently because my experience in between has changed my disposition or the thoughts that are most on my mind.

I try to bring a combinations of “Johns” to the writing process because I never know which one will be best suited for my assignment and come up with something to say.