Thursday, September 01, 2011
Swan Song II--the kid who wanted to be Seerveld
The very worst case that I remember was a student who wouldn't believe me when I told him that he was writing on stilts. He suggested that I didn't really have a grasp of what good writing was. He told me he wanted to sound the way he did because the writer he so deeply admired, a philosopher named Calvin Seerveld, wrote like that all the time--huge words clunking along on square wheels in just about every sentence. He refused to write more simply, simply because Seerveld never did and that therefore this writing teacher of his (me) was full of crap (well, "heaped with excrement"--I'm being silly) because, after all, that's the way the master's prose looked and sounded.
A writing voice is, of course, as unique as a fingerprint. This kid could no more be Calvin Seerveld on paper than he could wield Seerveld's thumbs. Doesn't work that way. Pardon my untoward romantic nature here, but you gotta be who ya' are and not try to be somebody else or you'll sound, sure as heck, like a fake. Besides, I told him, making every other word poly-syllabic ruined just about any chance of communicating because such overbearing sentences eventually just piss readers off (pardon my French). Don't do it, I told him. Make it simple.
Smart kid. He's a medical doctor today, I think. Great kid, really, but thank goodness he didn't go into educational administration or, yeah, philosophy.
For most of my forty years in the classroom, helping a student find a voice was a sometimes huge and sometimes touchy subject, the worst case scenarios being kids like the one who wanted to be Seerveld, kids who wanted, for all the world, to sound intellectual--never settle for three words, when thirteen would really shine. Reading their work was like reading a thesaurus. "Overwritten," I'd scratch into the margins. "You're overwriting."
Such sins developed understandably. Back then most students wrote in only one voice--an academic voice, as in "Faulkner's use of time in "A Rose for Emily" is clearly designed to underscore his own thematic design in the story." You know--the kind of writing that sounds professorial, academic writing, smart writing, smarty pants writing. For a century or more, it was the language of the academy, and for the last forty years it was my job--and I took it on, obligingly--to teach something of that language in English 101. I still would.
Confession time--I used to write that way myself. Here's a sentence from a college essay I rescued just last weekend from the bottom of an old chest in the basement: "In an age of tempest and turmoil, an era of revolution and rebellion, obvious to all observers is the necessity of some solution of the situation." That's the first line of an essay I once wrote--I'm not kidding. I haven't written that kind of thing since 1969. Thank goodness. But it's the voice I assumed the right one.
More confession. Through my years in the classroom, I altered the nature of an advanced writing course I teach, "Advanced Expository Writing," a course title that suffers from the very disease I'm talking about. I shaped that course into something of a free-lance workshop, creating assignments from the kinds of topics and short pieces magazines used to want from readers, when there were still magazines, that is. That kind of writing--for instance, a reminiscence about their family or a portrait of their home--called for a kind of homeyness in prose style, something more, well, natural, than the voice they'd use to discuss a post-structuralist approach to Martin Heidegger.
The students in that course had troubles--at least they did 25 years ago. They were the ones who'd only developed an academic voice in their writing. They felt as if they walked into class without their pants or blouse if their sentences weren't thoroughly Thesaurus enriched. Writing demanded Sunday clothes, not jeans or t-shirts. Writing needed to be formal, else what's a college for? I was, after all, asking them to unlearn most of what they'd been taught.
I don't see those students anymore and haven't for about five years. It only rarely happens that I scratch in "overwritten" on papers because my college students only rarely--very rarely--overwrite. Maybe a few internationals, but otherwise that siege has lifted, the plague is o'er.
Two days ago, last class period, in Advanced Expository Writing, for the very first time in a quarter century teaching that course, I told my students, after reading their first papers, that it wouldn't hurt for them to crank up the formality a notch or two. "You're not writing your little brother, after all," I said, or something to that effect.
I am absolutely sure that my students write MORE today than their parents did when they were in the seats in front of me. They write more college papers, they write more daily assignments, and--and here's the kicker--they write thunderously more on-line. They e-mail, they text, they blog, they spend half their lives on Facebook. They're always writing. A quarter century ago they only time they wrote was to do a paper on Hemingway or cell biology or the Tudor Dynasty. Today, they write a hundred times a day, in a voice that is purely and undeniably them and only them. Furthermore, most college teachers give short, even informal assignments--journals, blogs, etc. The research paper itself has a relatively low profile on campus these days, probably for a ton of reasons.
For most of my life as a teacher, I had to temper the formality of their diction and sometimes make them face the fact that their tedious attempt at long sentences actually came up on the reader like a boa constrictor. This year--my last--for the first time I had to tell them--not all but many--to dial up the formality because what they're doing isn't Facebook.
From here, from the vantage point of having taught college students for close to forty years, what I'm talking about here may well be the most significant change. Here on campus, there used to be a standard language, stiff and formal as a cumberbund or a black bow tie. Today, that language seems to me to be mostly gone.
The sky's not falling. That's not what I'm saying. The end isn't necessarily near.
But we do live in a different age.