Friday, April 22, 2011

First, kill off all the good writers 

There is a great shortage of good writers in American companies and other organizations. That is a problem for many reasons, not least of which is that poor writing confuses people, and causes them to do or think something other than the author intended. Confusion within or about an organization wastes time and money in a world in which there is precious little of either to waste.

I had thought that all this bad writing arises from some combination of technology -- television, video games, email, texting, and chat -- and the unwillingness of our public schools to demand excellence. It turns out, however, that there is nothing less than a conspiracy in academic circles to destroy writing as a device of organizational effectiveness:

After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested in teaching students to write and communicate clearly. The group’s agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting’s 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against “marginalized” groups and restrict self-expression.

Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is “good enough.” The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as “grammar police,” and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.

Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as “performance,” as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their “agency.” Expressions are made through “the body,” images, and song—sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet. Clothes are rhetorically important as “instruments of grander performance.”

So panels focused on everything but the written word as traditionally understood. Offerings stressed civic engagement, multi-media, sustainability and “eco-composition,” multilingualism, student self-assessment, student extra-curricular experiences, student “engagement,” cross-disciplinarity, hip-hop, Native American traditions and languages, digital storytelling, “queer rhetorics,” “feminist rhetorics,” “visual rhetorics”—and all the usual ethnic grievance communities: Chicano, African-American, indigenous, etc.

The shift to the sub-literate or anti-literate has evolved from the 1960s revolutionary project to dismantle Western civilization through the institutions, primarily educational. The change has taken place incrementally, from the rather tentative early addition of multicultural literature to the established canon; to the mandating that class, race, and gender be studied in composition; to the deconstruction of “Eurocentric” discourse in search of codes that maintain imperialism. Such discourse imposed Western standards through the very elements most would view as laudable: the search for truth in a logical, fair, honest, and ethical manner, the standard codified by Aristotle.

Apparently clear writing in a language that we all agree to use is not, as I had imagined, the foundation of civilization, but rather a tool of oppression. Somehow I doubt that Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the many other wonderful writers among our founding fathers looked at it quite that way. Whatever. If we destroy the utility of our writing we will make our world a much courser coarser place, and in all probability more oppressive rather than less.

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 22, 07:51:00 AM:

Wow- can it really be as bad as Grabars describes?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 22, 08:39:00 AM:


Spell check hurts, too, if one relies on it too the exclusion of real proofreading.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Apr 22, 08:43:00 AM:

Heh, solid point. I didn't even use the spell checker, though. That was pure brain phart. Happening more and more as I reach the end of my forties.  

By Anonymous feeblemind, at Fri Apr 22, 09:04:00 AM:

How much of poor writing can be attributed to intentional ambiguity or legalese, as a preemptive strategy to cover one's rear in case of failure?  

By Anonymous East End Golfer, at Fri Apr 22, 09:54:00 AM:

What people fail to grasp is that discrimination can be a bad thing or it can be a good thing. Discrimination based on matters like skin color, gender, wealth level and the like are bad. Discrimination based on matters of good writing, strong personal interaction skills, skills of persuasion are another matter altogether.
The problem arises when an appropriate distinguishing factor is co-present with an inappropriate distinguishing factor.
These idiotic intellectuals can't seem to grasp this distinction, and they will take all of us down with them.
The intellectuals aren't the only ones, by the way who get these categories confused. Many bigoted people simply express their racial biases in the terms of appropriate distinguishing factors. But, underlying the desire for "excellence" is actually a subtle hatred. The intertwined ribbons here make it difficult to unwind, and very easy to use rhetoric that only masks the truth.  

By Blogger Ed Rasimus, at Fri Apr 22, 10:08:00 AM:

Thank God I'm not the only one who has seen this! To fend off boredom I teach political science in a local small town college and storm-door repair academy. I ask students, all of whom are high school graduates to write short 500 or 1000 word papers. The content is supposed to be about political science, but that becomes irrelevant because of the total lack of grammar, spelling, composition, communication and reasoning skills. So, might as well Twitter it in. They can do short texting with generic acronyms.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Fri Apr 22, 10:31:00 AM:

And here I thought the problem could be placed at the feet of LOLcats. Or paws.  

By Blogger antithaca, at Fri Apr 22, 10:59:00 AM:

Now I no why so many people can't tell the difference between "there" and "their" and "they're" and "where" and "were" and "we're".

And this is basic everyday language. Not exactly creative writing or witty, intelligent content for publication.  

By Anonymous Dennis, at Fri Apr 22, 11:00:00 AM:

So we have come full circle and are now back to Ebonics?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Apr 22, 11:02:00 AM:

antithaca - Right. Now you no. (Says the dude who wrote "courser".)  

By Anonymous Rashbam, at Fri Apr 22, 11:29:00 AM:

Due knot ewes spell Czech, four it nose knot context.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 22, 12:50:00 PM:

This has been going on for awhile. Note goal numbers 17 and 22 here:


By Anonymous cathy, at Fri Apr 22, 12:57:00 PM:

Ever talk to public school teacher or local administrator lately? I doubt that many could write a good short paper either.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 22, 01:50:00 PM:

the talking points haven't changed since John Simon described them in 1981's Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline or even earlier as detailed by the Underground Grammarian starting in the 70s.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 22, 02:51:00 PM:

A thoughtful commentary. Very interesting to learn of the position and agenda of this academic group, concerning their instructional goals. And a bit scary, I think.  

By Blogger dave in boca, at Fri Apr 22, 03:09:00 PM:

These are the so-called teachers who demand tenure in their jobs for preaching anarchy? I guess if you want to idealize layabouts and slackers and make the USA the laughingstock of the Anglophone world, these instructors might be just the ticket.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Fri Apr 22, 03:46:00 PM:

The late great comedian Greg Giraldo had a great riff on this comparing Civil War letters from the front to those of today:


Skip to 2:18  

By Blogger Steve, at Fri Apr 22, 07:11:00 PM:

I wonder if these teachers realize they are setting themselves up for takeover (removal) by the tea party.  

By Blogger JHC, at Fri Apr 22, 09:50:00 PM:

- cathy: "Ever talk to public school teacher or local administrator lately?"

Public? You have to keep an eye on the *private* schools as well. Our older son didn't enroll at one school because of the ungrammatical letter of greeting we got from its headmaster. I was amazed.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Apr 23, 04:05:00 AM:

it's worse than you think, guys - the problem goes all the way to the top! this is the **President of the USA** whining about how much life sucks: "i always thought i was gonna have, like, really cool phones and stuff. we can't get our phones to work. come on, guys! i'm the president of the united states! where's the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up?!? it doesn't happen."

again, that was obama himself, not his preteen child. so - now that it's pretty much obvious his books were ghostwritten - we can just imagine how juvenile and ungrammatical his writing must be. ("just keepin' it REAL, baby! 4shur LOL")

this thing is huge! HUGE, i tell you!!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Apr 23, 11:15:00 AM:

If it is indeed true that the grammar of a four year old is adequate then what do we need these academicians for? They preach the demise of their own profession.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed Apr 27, 11:37:00 PM:

Ed, would that be the Grace L. Ferguson College?

A few commenters on that thread took her down pretty effectively. She oversells her point by painting with a broad brush.

I was one of the commenters there, and reprint the same here:

What these lecturers and panelists are saying about privileged dialects is based on a fairly standard idea in linguistics. They don't get it quite right, because they are trying to bend it to their own agenda, and so haven't quite understood it. But there is something to it that both author and commenters here seem close to rejecting.

What dialect of a language becomes dominant is often accidental, and declaring it "correct" is arbitrary. I know many of us would rather that weren't true, and really, really want some things that native speakers of English say to be right, and others wrong. That is very tough to justify, and when one studies other languages and their dialects this becomes more easily apparent.

We have manuals of style for publication, both professional and popular, and these are wonderful things. One should indeed take care to be precise, and attending to convention is one way of doing that. But for the rest of written, and especially spoken communication, things are more slippery.

I use the Princeton/Oxford comma and taught my sons to do the same (the American sons, anyway), not because it is "right," but because it provides exactly the social communication I want about my attitudes and education. But it is nothing more than a social signal. Rebel against the idea all you want, but I have sweet reason on my side here, for those who can hear. Feelings about what should be true are not always relevant to what actually is true.

Where this organization goes wrong is that the "empowering" of groups in this way actually disempowers them. By allowing and even encouraging them to rely on their local, ethnic, or racial styles "outs" them to those who would be prejudiced against those groups, however mildly. If they had used the dominant dialect, they might have a better chance of getting the job.

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