Want to Write? Write

In response to:

EDUCATION; Want to write? Read; [HOME EDITION] Michael Skube. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Aug 27, 2006. pg. M.3

A few years back, in preparation for hordes of students flooding the halls of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools alike, Michael Skube sent out a familiar (read: prototypical) call-to-arms, decrying the declining state of young peoples’ ability to write in America today. Skube, though more measured than some people discussing literacy issues, quickly betrayed his seething revulsion for American youths who are incapable of producing anything more substantial than puerile text messages or IMs, messages he deems not even written in “‘real’ English,” but in “expedient baby-talk.” Skube goes on to illuminate for those of us who read his piece the ways in which he believes students to be failures as writers, either cranking out “creative” tripe absent the standard rules of English grammar or awkwardly producing “leaden language” and “sentences stiff as starched shirts” at the behest of teachers and professors who relish the overly complicated flounderings of their inept students. Skube paints for readers a picture which many of them recognize: an incompetent group of young people, mesmerized by technological advance to the detriment of “real” language; lazy; unread; and ushered into mediocrity by a group of Pied Piper-esque educators who themselves have no respect for the educational standards once emblazoned on students’ minds.

Sadly, many Americans, including thousands of educators, agree with Skube. As one instructor I recently spoke with complained, “They [students] don’t read anything. How are they supposed to write anything substantive if they don’t care enough to read?” And, while there are many responses to the claim that “they don’t read anything,” few answers are deemed satisfactory by critics of student literacy, and truthfully, by the general public. In fact, I’m quite certain that many of the folks who happened across Skube’s article shook their heads knowingly as he advocated the sober, straightforward language exhibited in the E.B. White article Skube provides his students to help remedy their poor writing skills.

In fact, Skube’s vision of American education is ubiquitous, finding purchase in forums from dinner table discussions to the Los Angeles Times to the Department of Education (ask recently replaced Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings what state she believes students’ writing capabilities to be in). Certainly in schools across the nation the discussion about declining student literacy is taking place. Many teachers and professors in institutions across the country (and abroad) claim to experience the ineptitude of student writers, calling for English instructors to pull their noses out of esoteric tomes of postmodern theory and “teach our kids something useful!” In response, English departments, sitting presumably at the nexus of students’ needs and possible educational responses, are on every level torn by arguments about where “grammar” and “standards” belong: grade school, high school, freshman composition, all of them? Often, the standard complaint is that whatever previous level students came from failed to adequately prepare them for the current level: so high schools failed to prepare students for college, and middle schools dropped the ball in preparing students for high school, and on down the line. And of course, many Americans feel good about being proactive in casting blame for students’ declining writing skills. Say the Michael Skubes of the world, “let them read; only then will they write.”

But, Skube’s vision of America, however evident it may at first seem, is grossly misleading in its simplicity. For example, Skube calls for reading as an antidote to poor writing. And, while there are few, if any, literacy or writing experts who would disagree with Skube’s assertion that reading helps to improve writing, I believe it’s safe to say that most literacy and writing experts would agree that one must also practice writing to improve writing.

Practice writing to improve writing? What a novel idea, no pun intended. It seems a reasonable request, for, as one might argue, practicing to write by reading E.B. White’s article is somewhat akin to practicing to compose an aria by listening to Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido.” However, practicing to write is not exactly a satisfactory solution for some, either. Skube, himself, notes that students have long been importuned by teachers to “scribble away in journals, write skits and sketches, labor over sentences littered with misspelled words and faulty grammar.” Obviously, in Skube’s experience, practicing in a journal is not easily transferable to “highly accomplished writing,” especially because, as he claims, “the aim is not competency in the plain carpentry of prose but self-expression and creativity.” (Might we assume that Skube cares not a whit about what his students have to say, as long as they punctuate correctly and compose correctly?) And God save us if our students decide to practice their writing skills on a blog or MySpace page. It seems, practicing writing isn’t a sufficient remedy for poor writing skills any more than reading is.

But, sarcasm aside, Skube is not completely misled. If he has students read White, he may reasonably expect them to begin to write like White…eventually. Similarly, if he wants them to write like journalists, he might consider having his students read examples of journalism. But, here’s the catch: if Skube wants his students to write “well,” he’s likely to be disappointed with the lasting effects of White’s essay on his students. Actually, White’s writing from Skube’s example is potentially poor writing, depending on what is expected of the writing. I have to admit as an instructor of composition, any student who turns a paper in to me in which they expound upon a subject’s “bedraggled appearance” would draw a curious look. In spite of what Skube may believe and may teach, White’s charming prose is not at all appropriate for most of the work students are expected to do at the college level. That is, “writing well” isn’t as simple as it seems.

Truth be told, a student who writes spectacular vignettes in White’s careful prose could conceivably do worse in my classroom that one who writes in “forced and hollow” language. First and foremost, my students are expected to write academic arguments which demand a certain level of academic formality not present in White’s introduction. In academia, excessive physical detail often overwhelms the argumentative aspects of a student text, and a description that informs White’s reader might be distracting to a reader in another context. What do you suppose Skube would make of a news story written in White’s detailed manner? Or, even an email? The truth is that different types of situations demand different types of writing, and in spite of what Skube may advocate, White’s style doesn’t satisfy them all. So, when my students struggle with “forced and hollow” language, I choose to see them practicing a new form of writing as opposed to failing as writers on the whole.

But, through all my standing objections to Skube’s characterization of students, what I find most interesting (and most curious) is his unspoken assumption that students are somehow contaminated because of how poorly he judges them to write. Some writing historians might point Skube to over 120 years of similar complaints lodged by academics in which they claim, as A.S. Hill of Harvard did in the late 1800’s, educators should “[take] models from the traditional sources of literacy and [attempt] to impart grace, clarity, and correctness to students who otherwise would not know how to recognize it.” Some historians might point out to Skube that, in fact, when he was in school, his professors were complaining about his and his classmates’ inability to write to the standards of grammar and “real” English to which previous generations were held. I, however, won’t do that. What I will do is claim here, as I do to all those who would listen, that students today are no more or less capable than they have ever been. Students are not contaminated, but they are coming to us to help them understand what writing does and why. We may choose, as Skube does, to believe them incompetent and hopeless; or we may choose to see them as novices attempting new levels of development.

In the end, of course, it will always be possible to defend a claim that students aren’t writing to the levels of E.B. White or Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Skube; but most students (in any period in human history) also haven’t spent the time and effort on their writing that White or Skube have. Skube may be right that “younger students have an even better head start;” but he also might be encouraged to recognize that White, well into his 50’s, wrote his “expert” elegy after he watched his wife pass away. Given time, and given the interest that people like Skube might be in a position to promote, today’s students may very well find themselves writing like White as they mourn their loved ones who’ve passed, even as they may also (probably inappropriately) mourn the writing skills of the students in times to come.

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