Monday, December 16, 2013

Open Letter to Politicians, University Administrators, and Teachers

I envied mathematicians last week.  Canada's ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment scores has fallen, prompting whole pages in The Globe and Mail to be filled with discussions about the importance of mathematical knowledge and skill to our nation's economy, productivity, and innovation.  PISA also checks students' knowledge of science and reading; if our scores drop there as well, we can expect to read more commentary about why the "discovery" approach to scientific knowledge forces students to invent the wheel again and again.  But PISA makes no attempt, apparently, to discover whether students can write.

I'm not going to wax eloquent (today) about why we should all be reading, or tell you what wonderful things your brain does when you read.  I'm not going to extol the virtues of imaginative literature and tell you how it entertains us, helps us consider our response to the myriad ethical difficulties of being human, lets us inside the minds and experiences of people who are entirely different.  I want to talk about clear prose.

A policy that addresses homelessness.  How to make chicken soup.  The story of your child's first sand castle, decorated with seashells and seaweed. (Imagine your cell phone drowned.)  Information about medications for your high blood pressure.  All laws; all social policy.  Goals for city planning.  Thoughts for a new widow or for someone living with cancer.  An argument for saving the habitat of an endangered species.

We need clear writing.  There are numerous theories about why civilizations decline.  My favourite is that they cut down all the trees and had no more materials to build houses or keep warm--an extreme version of mismanaged resources.  But what happens to the quality of life, the innovation and imagination, the communication of a culture, the way it considers its values if clear prose is neither taught nor valued?  Do we give all communication to the adman?

"Ah," you will have said by now.  "It's the end of term and she's gotten cranky."  Actually, my students tell me that I'm one of the few profs who hasn't gotten cranky, though they're not impressed with their marks.  I would have told you that I had the best job in the world until I returned from my sabbatical in 2011. There I found, even in my Jane Austen class, the seeds of what I have come to call "The 2008 Generation."  Somewhere in the midst of their impressionable adolescence, what is now being called "The Great Recession" (clear prose?) hit.  Their parents, in a new riff on an old edict, pointed their fingers at their children and said "You go to University and get a job."  The result is that students are much more concerned with ends (marks) than means (clear writing); in a corollary to their parents' expectations, they now say "I want to come talk to you about my grade."   That's what every student who wanted to see me about an essay this term said.  Not "I want to come talk to you about my paper," which at least assumes that we'll talk about the paper's strengths and weaknesses and consider how they can approach the next essay more effectively.

The 2008 Generation has also moved through a school system that has focussed relentlessly on their self-esteem.  Though the kids themselves laugh at this and think they've kind of had a free ride, they are wrong on a couple of counts.  One is that there were fewer official, academic repercussions associated with not learning; the flip side of this is that they've got a lot to learn before they become adults and citizens.  The other is that, despite their ability to see through the school system, they don't see the dark shadow of their self-esteem:  the assumption that it's so fragile that they must be protected from failure.  Consequently, their response to the marks they get in university doesn't help them grow.  If they have been protected from criticism, it must be because criticism is always a personal judgement, whereas it's really just information about where they are on their way to understanding the world and expressing that understanding.  Psychologists (you can thank Katherine Arbuthnott again) tell us that these are the two basic ways students react to criticism.  The student who thinks it is a personal judgement is stuck; little learning comes out of that defensiveness.  The person who sees it as information can turn that information to good use and learn from it.  Let me be clear; I'm not advocating raw, unbridled criticism.  I always tell my students what part of their essay is working well and what they can do to improve their work.  Rigour doesn't have to be mean. On the other hand, I think the citizens of Saskatchewan pay me in part to be rigorous, to be honest.

There are other interesting habits of The 2008 Generation.  They go missing from class for a week in the middle of the term, emailing from Acapulco or the Bahamas that a family vacation was planned months ago and could I send them the next assignment.  They ask for extensions on essays because they haven't finished reading the novel they were supposed to write about.  Meanwhile, in class we have moved on to the next novel.  They mangle their language and say things they really don't mean.  A colleague of mine reported that one student in his class had defined "stereotype" in such a way that it sounded like she believed there were good reasons for things like racism or sexism or homophobia to be seen as stereotypes.  In fact, the English Department's end of term munching and drinking devolved--for the first time in my 23 years--into a complaint session.  Everyone had a story about the worst essay they'd ever seen in an upper level class, the story of someone who disappeared, the story of someone who rarely attended, did none of the assignments, and then showed up for the final.  We all shake our heads and say that our marking is taking us about 50% longer. (I think I've found the reason our students find us cranky.)

When Ken Coates talked about the future of the humanities last February, he said we're taking in about 25% too many students.  I suspect we are.  I suspect that we have to.  As provincial governments across the country pay a smaller and smaller percentage of the costs of running a university, we need more students' tuition.  At the same time, this is a worrying trend.  I'll tell you my own story of just one of my worst essays (disguised as much as I can while still giving you enough information to understand my point).  The essay was worth 35% of the final mark and was not for a first-year class.  The student wrote four paragraphs:  an introduction that wasn't bad; a paragraph that simply said the same thing over and over without citing evidence for why her assertions were true; a second paragraph where s/he did cite evidence from the text, but mis-attributed it, thus assigning opinions and attitudes to the wrong characters.  A summary conclusion followed, telling me (in case I had forgotten) what she'd written about.  More and more of us in our complaints note that quite a few students, like this one, metaphorically fail to show up.

As a society, we're thinking hard about where  to invest our limited resources.  One metric being used to consider how much to invest in universities cites the economic value of a university education, in terms of ends, not means.  These researchers do not care whether a person's life has been enriched by four years of study, four years of being urged to be curious, four years of wallowing in the wonder of knowledge.  They want to know how a university education effects the student's ability to earn a living.  But if some of our students aren't even showing up, their failure to earn a middle-class living doesn't represent a failure of their education.  Something has gone badly wrong before they arrived at our doors, and we need to figure out what that was.  Something in the schools?  Something in the values of the larger culture?  Something in the shift to a wired world of texts and emails and Google?  Whatever it is, that something is being blamed on us and used to suggest that because we're not doing our job we need less money, not more.

In the week that I've been thinking about this post, while I marked exams and read late papers, I found myself wanting to restore the value of excellence and elitism.  But I kept coming up against the fact that neither of those words said quite what I meant.  I don't really want the university to become an elite institution; such desire suggests that some people are more deserving than others, where it's really a matter of suitability and inclination.  Every person needs to feel the cloak of their human dignity furled about them; then we can consider the value of an institution suited to a particular turn of mind that our culture needs.  I need my mechanic and the cheerful young men and women who renovated my kitchen and built a new garage.  I need the baker who makes my bread and the farmer who grows the grain.  But I also need--we also need--and we should not be ashamed about it--people who want to think deeply and clearly about fundamentals:  the fundamentals of what we know about our world and our universe, our society and our psyches, and people who express that knowledge in good clear prose.

"Excellent" and "awesome" and "brilliant" are all words that have been co-opted, so instead of excellence I think I'm going to wish for clarity.  Clear prose is fundamental to a society that feels and plans and hopes and regrets and resolves to do better.  Might not transparency in prose lead to transparency in politics?


  1. Beautifully expressed, Kathleen. As with all art forms, writing, yes, is about communication. Connection, authenticity, with self and other. Forget the razzle-dazzle, which simply fills up space and serves no one. Least of all the writer. Yes, if we can learn to be direct and honest in our writing, surely our thinking and relationships, our decisions, how we move through the world and affect one another....all of this also will flourish.

  2. A policy that addresses homelessness. How to make chicken soup. The story of your child's first sand castle, decorated with seashells and seaweed. (Imagine your cell phone drowned.) Information about medications for your high blood pressure. All laws; all social policy. Goals for city planning. Thoughts for a new widow or for someone living with cancer. An argument for saving the habitat of an endangered species.