Until you can express a thought clearly and cogently, that thought does not yet exist.
Writing at IUPUI
Writing In Service of Thought______________________________
I teach Law and Public Policy, so my students look stricken when I tell them on the first day of class that one-half of their grade will be based upon their research paper, and that spelling, punctuation and syntax will count. Each year, after I give those papers back (typically covered with marginal notes and red circles identifying the worst grammatical atrocities), earnest but offended students will come to my office to protest that they worked very hard, read many sources, and really knew the material. Inevitably, at least one will acknowledge the deficiencies I have identified by saying “I knew what I meant; I just couldn’t say it.”
My response is always the same: if you can’t say it, you really didn’t know what you meant. Until you can express a thought clearly and cogently, that thought does not yet exist.
Why Communication Skills Matter
Why do I place so much emphasis on effective use of the English language? As my students might ask, “What’s the big deal?”
Political community and self-governance require shared understandings. In my classes, we consider how law frames the consideration and creation of American public policy. In one of the early lessons, we consider the issue of legitimacy—the attributes that give laws their moral force. Among those attributes is clarity, because vague laws are inherently unfair. How are we to know what behavior is expected of us if laws are not drafted with precision? How are we to keep police officers and public officials from abusing their discretion if the laws are subject to multiple interpretations? Later in the semester, when we discuss majoritarian decisionmaking processes, we recognize again the vital role of communication: political “spin,” media coverage, interest group advocacy—all of these elements of the political process are dependent upon the use (and misuse) of language. In a very real sense, the study of law and policy is a study of the critical importance of communication.
The ability to communicate complex ideas is arguably what makes us human, and certainly what makes community possible. Our use of language to inform, amuse, arouse and connect is unique among animals; despite our best efforts, it is also woefully inexact and imperfect. Words, as our grammar teachers explained back in sixth grade, have both denotations and connotations—“blue” may evoke a very different response from me than it does from you, even when we both understand perfectly well that the word refers to a particular color. Students of languages other than their own learn very quickly that culture shapes linguistic meaning, that dictionary knowledge alone is inadequate to understanding. The task for policymakers and lawyers is to overcome these barriers to understanding to the extent possible. That requires—at a minimum—the ability to write clearly. Students who hope someday to participate in the political or policy process must acquire that ability, since very few have it when they enter the classroom.
How We Can Help
Those of us who do not primarily teach written or oral communication must help students acquire those skills within the framework of the substantive subjects we do teach. The best way we can do that is by making them write, and often. Much of the poor writing I see is not due to students’ deficiencies as much as it is a direct result of teachers who have not demanded enough written work. I can testify that it is much easier to grade a multiple-choice test than an essay examination, but making that choice may mean shortchanging the student in order to make life easier for the teacher. Essay questions on an examination are a particularly good opportunity to teach brevity, organization and clarity. (Essay answers also can disclose misconceptions that would go unnoticed on a True-False test, thus helping teachers locate and correct our own communication deficiencies.)
In my classes, I stress both oral and written communication in a number of ways:
- Classes themselves are highly interactive. I ask questions, encourage discussion and promote (courteous and civil) debate. Developing a good ear for conversation assists other forms of communication.
- Midterm and final examinations are primarily in a short-answer essay format. I emphasize beforehand that clarity and brevity will count. The goal is to teach students to organize their knowledge and convey it succinctly. Anyone who has had to wade through a co-worker’s five page memo to find the two paragraphs that actually say something will recognize the importance and transferability of these skills.
- In some classes, I assign several two to three page “decision memos.” These assignments are a somewhat expanded version of the essay question, and are intended to accomplish much the same purposes; however, they allow the student more time for reflection, an opportunity to “polish” the prose. They are also not written under pressure, as examinations are.
- In all of my classes, the research paper is both a significant component of the student’s grade, and the primary vehicle through which I teach writing. Those papers tend to display the same problems: over-writing, poor organization, lack of clarity, and numerous grammatical “sins.” Helping the student avoid those pitfalls can be difficult, particularly when your primary objective is to teach a particular subject.
The Sins of the Writers
The most common problem with student papers—particularly papers submitted by younger students—is what I have called (charitably) “overwriting.” It is characterized by repetition, by padding, and especially by the use of florid or “fancy” prose. Overuse of big words may be a signal of insecurity—I know a number of lawyers who resort to “legalese” to impress rather than communicate, and I’m reasonably sure other professions have similar examples. On the other hand, it may simply be the student’s misguided impression that big words, especially when coupled with dependent clauses and the passive voice, are a sign of superior intellect. Whatever the underlying reason, I end up getting papers from students who are perfectly capable of expressing themselves in a straightforward fashion, but who have misused the words they thought would impress me, and produced run-on sentences rather than complex ones.
To counter this tendency, I strongly recommend that my students buy and study Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and in the handout explaining the research paper requirement, I wax positively poetic over the virtues of the simple declarative sentence.
Overwriting is closely allied with lack of clarity, which itself is often a result of poor organizational skills. When I first began teaching, I would get stream-of-consciousness papers that wandered all over the subject—no clear beginning, middle and end. I now require students to hand in an outline, which I must approve. If the outline is simply a list, as many are, I meet individually with that student and we rewrite it together. I ask questions: What is the paper about? What is it that you want to discuss with the reader? What are the issues involved? What are the differences of opinion about those issues? What is your conclusion? Why? A lawyer would characterize these as “leading” questions; by the conclusion of our session, however, the student has usually reworked a haphazard list into something approximating an organized framework for further written discussion.
More difficult are deficiencies in grammar: punctuation, agreement of tenses, agreement of subject and verb, syntax and word choice, even simple spelling. While one would assume spelling would not be an issue in this era of computer spell-checking, English is a tricky language. There is a wonderfully funny and sobering poem I sometimes share with my classes, entitled “Why I Proofread,” that begins:
Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pee sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
I urge students to have others read their papers before they submit them, to go to the writing clinic if they have difficulty with grammar, and most of all to read. Students who read constantly have far fewer problems with grammar; they have absorbed good habits unconsciously. The same is true of students whose parents are well-read and well-educated; the grammatical habits they pick up as children, while unconscious, alert them to gross grammatical errors. It simply doesn’t “sound right” to them. For the others—and in my classes, I have many who are the first in their families to go to college—these lessons must be learned consciously, and with an expenditure of considerable effort. Bad habits must be unlearned. It is a difficult process, and the best I can do is point them to the resources that are available to them.
A more substantive concern, and one gaining in urgency as we all become inhabitants of cyberspace, is ensuring that students understand the nature of evidence. The internet is a marvelous tool, and an enormous time-saver for research. But as numerous educators have warned, its very accessibility can be a trap. All of us, not just students, must learn to separate the urban myth from the documented study, the unsubstantiated claim from the conclusion supported by relevant and credible data. The internet doesn’t make that easy. One of my most painful experiences as a college professor was grading the paper of a very sweet, very earnest young woman who wrote her paper defending prayer in the public schools. Aware that the law was against her, she found on the internet what she clearly considered a marvelous statement of her point of view; she liked it so much that she quoted nearly two pages of it (another transgression). Unfortunately, it was satirical. Rather than supporting her view, the quote ridiculed it.
It is tempting to dismiss this particular incident by assuming that the student simply wasn’t too bright, but I have been surprised at how many similar incidents have occurred, often with very good students. I have had an article from the Onion (an online humor magazine) cited for the proposition that the ACLU had defended the right of protesters to burn down their headquarters, as an expression of free speech. I have had obvious urban myths solemnly included as “evidence” of a paper’s thesis. And I have had papers turned in where every single citation has been to a website.
The internet is invaluable, and its use will only grow. It is our responsibility to ensure that it is properly used, that both its strengths and weaknesses are recognized. What we have to do is explain to students how they can verify the credibility of sources that they find in cyberspace. In my class discussions, we raise questions: What are the indicia of reliability? What are the warning signals that should give them pause? As a practical matter, while I allow citation to websites, I insist upon a mix of resources: books, periodicals, scholarly journals, newspaper articles. While there is no hard and fast rule in my classes—I do not insist that some predetermined percentage of sources be books, for example—there are few subjects that can be adequately researched from the internet alone. One element of the research paper’s grade is the adequacy and relevance of the resources used as evidence in the discussion.
The discussion of evidence leads to other elements that distinguish research papers from other forms of written composition. Undergraduate students often are unable to make that distinction without assistance; they are evidently used to turning in essays in which they simply offer their own opinion or analysis of a particular topic. As I tell them, there is a place for that kind of writing, but a research paper isn’t it. While I encourage them to take a point of view, the object is to test their thesis against the evidence that exists; to ferret out the varying positions on the issue they have chosen and to analyze those positions in light of the information and data available.
A research paper should also be more formal in tone than an opinion piece; I discourage use of such phrases as “In my opinion” “this argument seems” “personally” and “I believe” anywhere but in the conclusion—and very sparingly there.
Helping With Process
One of the most important lessons we can teach about writing is that the first draft is a first draft. This is not something students appear to understand. Good writing, just as any other skill, takes practice, editorial effort and rewriting. Students who are willing to do more than one or two drafts are those who will ultimately learn to write.
In my classes, I make what should be a very rash offer—anyone who has a draft of the paper prepared two weeks or more before the due date can bring it to me for review. I will not grade it, but I will note problems and hand it back for revision prior to the due date. I thought long and hard before I first made this offer. I was concerned about fairness: is it equitable to have given one student valuable feedback and not another? I was also concerned about myself. What was I getting into? My classes tend to be large; would I end up in effect grading forty or so papers twice?
The equity argument was easily resolved, because every student has the same opportunity. Those who don’t take advantage of that opportunity can hardly cry foul. The concern about extra work, unfortunately, was unfounded. Very few students bother to take advantage of my offer. In a typical class of forty, I rarely get more than five who will bring me a prior draft. And—no surprise—those five are invariably the good students, the ones who already write well.
However inadequate my own attempts to encourage rewriting, the bottom line for those of us who would teach our students to communicate well is that there is no substitute for practice. We have an obligation to make our students write and rewrite for us, in a variety of contexts and formats, by whatever means we can devise.
In this age of the internet, the written word is ever more important. Email and chat rooms are forms of interpersonal communication that depend wholly upon the written word in even the most personal encounters. There is no body language, there are no expressive signals to mediate our written message. In business and professional life, he who communicates well, generally does well.
My attention to student writing is instrumental. I want my students to understand the political and legal environment in which they will live, so that they can make wise policy choices about the issues that will affect us all. But I cannot teach them substance without attending to the clarity and method of its transmission.
I do not believe I overstate the case when I say that students have not learned what they cannot communicate. We fool ourselves about our own effectiveness as teachers if we think otherwise.