Quick and clear

Writing clearly and quickly is a valuable skill, writes Brent Staples in another good New York Times column.

The depth of the resistance to common-sense writing reforms became clear in April, when the National Council of Teachers of English attacked the College Board for adding a writing segment to the SAT, the college entrance exam required by an overwhelming majority of America’s four-year colleges and universities. The test, which consists of a brief, timed essay and a multiple-choice section, has already put schools and parents on notice that writing instruction needs to improve.

The English teachers, however, have other ideas. The group questioned the validity of the tests and trotted out the condescending notion that requiring poor and minority students to write in standard English is unfair because of their cultural backgrounds and vernacular languages.

Staples also defends timed writing tests. In college and on the job, people don’t always have time to polish their prose, he notes.

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    One problem with the SAT writing test is the prompt. Kids should be able to express their thoughts in writing, but a lot of kids don’t have any thoughts about the rather tedious prompts supplied by the College Board, certainly not any interesting or original thoughts.

    The three essay prompts for the May SAT were: 1) Do people depend on work to determine their daily activities? 2) Does progress depend on people with new ideas? 3) Are people afraid to speak out against authority? Each student saw one of these prompts; there was no choice. Staples emphasizes that employees should be able to write clearly in their area of expertise, the accountant in accounting, for example. But none of the three prompts is an area of expertise for the average teenager. What does a 17-year-old know about how adults schedule their time? Nothing.

    It’s a lot harder to write if you have nothing to say. Not only that– you shouldn’t write if you have nothing to say. The SAT writing test rewards glibness and penalizes thoughtfulness.

  2. My students are majority minority – but when they get a job, no one is going to say “gosh, did you not speak English at home? Don’t worry about your writing!” One of the complaints employers come back to us with is that our students are technically proficient but have no idea how to express themselves in meetings or in writing.

    The thought of having students in my classes who know how to write is so seductive. Sometimes I think my eyes are going to start bleeding after reading lab reports for more than a couple of hours. Many of my students write so poorly that their meaning is obscured…and I grade papers from juniors and seniors. I can only imagine what it’s like to teach Freshman Comp.

  3. Richard Brandshaft says:

    1) Do people depend on work to determine their daily activities?
    Yes, mostly, except those not working.
    2) Does progress depend on people with new ideas?
    Yes, partly. Some progress is made by minor improvements in things that already exist.
    3) Are people afraid to speak out against authority?

    I doubt that any of my “essays” would get a high SAT score. Cardinal Fang is right; these questions measure the ability to write an essay when one really has nothing to say or make several paragraphs out of a sentence. A valuable skill, but is that what the test is supposed to be measuring?

  4. SuperSub says:

    English teachers are concerned about the writing requirements because they’ll have to spend more time on critical thinking and writing skills as opposed to student-centered discussions on why Shakespeare was a racist homphobic misogynist, Twain a misogynistic racist homophobe, and (insert any pre-1960 white male author) a homophobic misogynistic racist.
    I’ve seen a freshman English class who, as a final project for a novel they read in class, made “movie posters” for it. They needed 3 “movie critic statements”… and no other writing was necessary. The teacher loved the assignment, because the kids enjoyed it and displayed their creativity.
    And people wonder why the states and the feds are trying to establish standard curriculum requirements.

  5. Sorry but when the kids get to college they will probably have to write on subject they are not prepared or interested in. I can recall in my freshman English class that we would walk into class and the prof would give us a subject and we would have the class period to write about it. In addition, when you get out into the wide world you will have to write about things that you are not interested in all the time. We need to get kids prepared for what they will be facing for the rest of their lives. They need to be able to pick up the ball and run with it no matter what. I think they should be assigned things to write about that they ahve no interest in all the time. They may find that it really is interesting or they may find that they have to dig a little deeper to make it interesting but that is all to their benefit. We should be challenging them all along. Not challenging them is a large part of the problem now and here he is saying that the poor dears might not be interested in the subject. That is the challenge!!

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    Sorry but when the kids get to college they will probably have to write on subject they are not prepared or interested in.

    Why? When I was in college I had to write about the subject I was studying: philosophy, linguistics, computer programs, whatever. I never had to write about some tedious prompt that someone gave me that had nothing to do with what I was studying or what I cared about. I’ve never had to do that in my work life, either. I don’t see why that should be the basis of the SAT writing test.

    Blathering on and on concerning something one knows nothing about is a useful skill, to be sure, but not one that all students ought to have. Moreover, it’s not what employers are asking for, if you believe the Staples article. Perhaps employers hiring marketers or salespeople are looking for good b**ls**tters, but other employers just want workers who can clearly and succinctly explain what they know.

  7. Nancy D says:

    I think part of the problem is that you can’t assume that a high school kid has deep knowledge about any one thing. Since the SAT writing section’s content is supposed to be writing, it’s hard to come up with good prompts that any kids could answer. They go with these kind of general prompts so the kids many options for what evidence to draw on.

    Any subject specific content would probably result in bigger gaps between kids who had gone to “good” schools and kids who live in the hood.

  8. BadaBing says:

    I’m tired of “alternative assessment bullshit,” such as having the students cut out paper dolls and paste them on a freakin’ poster. Or having them draw a picture of the main character. Or acting out a scene from the story/novel/play instead of getting down and dirty with pen and paper. Crap like that does not happen in my English classes. Writing is thinking. It’s when the ink hits the paper that the serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine start juicing the neurotransmitters.

    “How come you’re not writing?”

    “I’m thinking.”

    “You’re not thinking until you’re writing. Get going!”

    “But I don’t know what to write about.”

    “That’s because you’re not writing!”

    In college I bullshat my way through so many papers it’s not funny, but it was intelligent bullshit, if you know what I mean. You don’t have to be an authority on the topic to write about it. You have got to start writing or nothing is going to happen. I give them a prompt, e.g., “Discuss the role religion plays in this story.” They want me to get them started. So, I help them individually and damn if they’re not copying my very words and asking me to repeat them. They don’t want to think. Is it video games, TV, laziness, the home culture, too many blunts, or what?

    The SAT writers have it right. Give them prompts that force them to pull ideas out of their assholes if need be. The only way they’ll really learn to think is by writing, not by doing some diddly-ass alternative assessment that lets them skate through the class without being able even to write a freakin’ sentence. This is one reason I loathe multicultural textbooks that replace great writers like E.B. White, Mark Halprin, C.S. Lewis et al. with slovenly pablum by the likes of Maya Angelou and the rest of the multicultie light-weights. I’m also sick of Gardner’s multiple intelligences if it means that Jose is a visual learner so don’t expect him to read or write. Caca!

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    The SAT writers have it right. Give them prompts that force them to pull ideas out of their assholes if need be.

    Again I ask, why? Why is that good? Why are we testing bullshitting ability? The real goal is to have students write for content. Ivory, above, is complaining about his/her students’ writing in their lab reports– but s/he doesn’t want bullshit, s/he wants the students to say what they did, what the results were and what we can conclude from that, in clear, concise English. J. Random Corp doesn’t want bullshit emails– it wants its employees to explain what they’re doing and what the company needs to do, in clear, concise English.

    BadaBing, it’s too bad that your college professors allowed you to skate by with bullshit, and I don’t know why you are defending the practice.

    I’d rather see the SAT give a three-page excerpt of something real and have students summarize it than have the students get a bullshit prompt and be expected to bullshit.

  10. SuperSub says:

    Cardinal… I think a big cause of your disagreement with Badabing is different definitions of BS. I’ve written papers where I know my answers have been legitimate with respect to the professor’s grading and views… yet I have little belief in my own statements. So the BS in this case has less to do with knowing nothing about the topic and more about having a difference of opinion of what should be a valid answer.
    Second, whether its “BS” or “fact,” writing primarily succeeds based upon the explicit rules of the language – grammar, spelling, word usage, etc. A factually correct but linguistically weak essay will be less effective than the opposite.
    In college, my “Freshman Writing Seminars” were so simplistic that I got away with writing less than 5 pages a week, and still got an A. My professors were more interested in discussing the philosophy behind the book or what the book revealed about the author’s life and own failings. Meanwhile, in my biology courses, I was writing about 10 pages of text a week, and would often have to resubmit lab reports 2-3 times because of revisions that had only to do with the actual writing, not the experimental portion.
    Funny how I learned more about the English language from my biology professors than my english ones.

  11. It is reasonable to expect students who hope to go to college to demonstrate the ability to assemble an argument, and to write a short essay delineating that argument, within a time limit. The opening prompts cited in the first comment are open-ended. I dare say I could construct an argument for or against any one of them.

    The best writing courses I had as a student required me to write so frequently that I had no time to get tied up in perfection. The best essay topics are open-ended, without the gleaming prize of a “right” answer at the end. If a student writes constantly, sooner or later he will learn to marshall his thoughts to the degree necessary to produce the work, and to defend his stance–whichever stance he has chosen. It is, of course, much more time intensive for a teacher to grade classes in which each student must produce an essay a week, or an essay a day.

    Writing is the record of thought. Teachers can teach students to think critically–they do it every day. Any one of the opening prompts can be pulled apart if the kids are taught to read the questions, and to think of the words’ meanings. No one could hope to answer any of those questions conclusively, with a short essay, nor with a lengthy book. The key is to define the ground the student means to defend. What does “work” mean to us today, and what did it mean to the settlers on the frontier? What is progress, and is it laudable? What constitutes an authority, and what consequences can speaking out produce? I assume that the questions are deliberately open, so that a writer will not get tied up in whether an answer is “true.” Debating society would be a good preparation for such essays.

    I suspect that the greatest difference in essays results from the writer’s grasp of grammar, spelling, and organized thinking. I would be interested to learn how ease of writing by hand ties into this; a student who writes quickly and legibly would have a great advantage over a student who laboriously produces illegible writing.

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    The essays are graded, evidently, mostly on length. If you look at the example essays provided by the college board, you see that the lowest-scoring essays, the ones that get 1s and 2s, are filled with grammar and spelling errors. Above that, all the essays are grammatically correct and it’s all based on length– the kid who can bullshit for twenty-five minutes gets a 6, and the competent writer who can’t bullshit gets a 3 or a 4. The system is biased in favor of the bullshitter and against the thoughtful writer.

  13. BadaBing says:

    Cardinal Fang, let me clarify what I mean by “bullshit.” I’m a generalist, not a specialist, and if I were to compare some of my college essays with those of specialists in the field, I’d have to say that I didn’t know a heck of a lot about what I was writing about. (In essay writing I think the generalist has an advantage over the specialist because he can converse on and allude to many different subjects/sources.) Most importantly, I did learn to formulate a thesis and to speak to it without digression and in smooth and lucid prose. I learned Greek and taught myself Latin. The latter because I knew it would tremendously enhance my vocabulary. I was sitting in freshman comp one day when the idea of conjuring a thesis and supporting it hit me like an epiphany, and with the language skills I already had and was developing, I could speak to almost any subject, but not as an expert. What I’m saying is that the essays we’re talking about here are not research papers but simply exercises in one’s ability to focus on a main idea and support it as eloquently and forcefully as one can. I shouldn’t have used the term “bullshit” because I don’t really mean blowing something irrelevant out of your shorts and hoping to get by with it. Once you have a target (thesis), a reasonably intelligent person can, so to speak, “bullshit” his way through the paper with ideas he never knew he had. And to express it rationally, smoothly, and lucidly is the key to addressing said prompts.

  14. Cardinal Fang says:

    BadaBing, I guess my point is that your skill is one kind of writing skill, but the person who can write a lucid lab report, but can’t write an essay of the kind demanded by the College Board, also has a useful kind of writing skill. In real life, many people have to write factual reports, but almost no one has to write persuasive essays on topics they don’t know anything about. So why is the College Board not testing the kind of writing real adults have to do in real life?

  15. Nels Nelson says:

    Writing clearly and quickly are both important skills, but would it hurt to give students a choice from a half-dozen topics, with perhaps some less soul-sucking than the examples given above?

    My wife worked for some time as a grader of a standardized essay test given to California high school students, and while differences in the essay topics didn’t much affect scores they did impact the volume of writing that students put forth. Questions like the ones above produced many single-sentence responses, or essays that were completely off-topic (and therefore automatically marked down). Asked instead to discuss the different clothing fashion cliques at their school, as they were on one test, the students poured out paragraph after paragraph. California schools being what they are, many of these essays were riddled with writing errors and jumbled thoughts, so the scores were still poor, but at least there was something to grade.

  16. I studied English and linguistics in college, but that didn’t mean that the specific subjects on which I had to write papers were always interesting. I mean, heck, English is a broad subject. Are you interested in EVERYTHING that comes along in your major?

    So yes, students should be capable of writing on things that they are not interested in. If I were an employer (or a college admissions person), I wouldn’t want a kid who says, “Oh, I only write well–and probably do other things well–when I’m interested in the subject.” I want a kid who’s willing to do grunt work as well. In the real world, you’re pretty much never going to find a job that you like doing 100%, all the time. Might as well get in some practice by writing essays on boring topics as well.

    (And, might I add, making an essay sound good when you have absolutely no interest in the topic is one of the hallmarks of a good writer. So if you say that you only write well when the topic’s good…you’re not doing yourself any favors.)

  17. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Maya Angelou – what poets look like if they are paid by the yard.

  18. “So yes, students should be capable of writing on things that they are not interested in. If I were an employer (or a college admissions person), I wouldn’t want a kid who says, “Oh, I only write well–and probably do other things well–when I’m interested in the subject.””

    Students should certainly be capable of writing on things they are not “interested in.” The issue is asking them to write about something about which a reasonable person might have nothing to say.

    The SAT prompts are just plain stupid and so the test measures the ability of students to generate short-order bullshit. A student with some intellectual integrity who is not in the habit generating pages of fluff or babbling mindlessly with his friends will have some difficulty with this.

    Here’s a prompt that might measure a student’s ability to express himself clearly in writing:

    In the 1950’s most families acquired their first TV sets. All there is to watch is live broadcasts of network programs on 2 or 3 channels. Imagine you are writing to a someone your age living in 1960 and explain to him what a DVD player does and exactly how it works. You have a maximum of two pages.