Thursday, July 9, 2009

COMM 149 and writing

This summer I've been thinking about writing, especially as I've sought to inspire my students to attend more closely to their own written work. Now that I've completed my grading of their course projects, I've whipped up a note designed to share my appreciation for their work, along with my desire for them to consider next steps in their development as people who can contribute meaningfully to public life. Fully aware that my tone may come across as pedantic, nagging, pollyannaish, or even messianic, I've chosen to also post that note here. I could be wrong - hell, I make mistakes so frequently I'm lucky I'm not charged a quarter per error - but I don't mind looking silly. I may not believe these words tomorrow, but I surely believe them today. So for what it's worth, here's what I have to say.


I've enjoyed the chance to work with you this summer session. I can honestly say that teaching 149 these past six weeks has fired me up to consider new innovations, new texts, and new activities in future iterations of this course. Heck, I suppose I'd gotten a little tired of COMM 149 over the past few years. But I've rediscovered my love for Rhetoric and Public Life this summer, and I thank you. Among my happiest memories from this class are hours of conversation, which were frequently filled with engaged, insightful, and impassioned voices. So many of you took the challenge to dive into this course, even amid its rapid currents and risky undertows, and I respect your efforts to master some strange and challenging material. I've enjoyed getting to know you, and I hope you've enjoyed getting to know Rhetoric and Public Life.

Reviewing your papers, I made as much use of the brief period between Tuesday and Thursday as I could. A conservative estimate of time dedicated to writing 12 single-space pages of commentary for 24 papers (with minimal line breaks for readability) results in a total of 14.5 hours for what would be a 20-page double-spaced paper. I offer this observation not to impress - this is my job after all, a job I'm lucky and grateful to have. Instead, I offer this fact to call to mind a question: Was it worth it? I have my own initial thoughts, but I wonder about yours. Did you and I devote adequate time and care to our task of tackling this course? If so, what shall the results of our efforts be? Initially I'd love to imagine y'all buzzing for a lifetime about Gernsback continuums, nude platonic wrestling, fantasy islands, cities on hills, futuristic Bostons, world's fairs, nostalgia-land Disney-dreams, and creepy gas station attendants who smile with menace when they say, "We give the directions around here." I'd love that, but I don't think that's our highest goal. Our highest goal is for you to practice your ideal community. We'll talk about that today.

In the meantime, let me emphasize that our second highest goal is to enhance written communication skills. You may have noticed that I'm a fairly strict grader (I hope you find truth in both words: "strict," yes, but "fairly" too). One may wonder why. It's so much easier, after all, to buy a happy-face stamp and fill the empty spaces with smiles. It saves plenty of hours tapping on the laptop, too. Problem is, I'm a believer in the notion that a university degree means you can communicate your ideas with precision and persuasion. Evaluating those components, therefore, requires a bit of time and care on my part. To that end, I read your papers with the respect I asked you to demonstrate while writing them. You might be interested to know that in all cases - with no exceptions - I found sufficient quality, insight, surprise, and/or "uncountable" worth in your papers to revise my initial scores upward. Similarly I've tried to ignore typos that clearly demonstrate little more than an errant keystroke, just as I hope you'd do for me. For each of you, a holistic review of writing inspired me to celebrate the larger successes of your work. This, I was happy to do.

Yet I must share one sad truth that awaits many of you who may decide not to consider my requests and recommendations to enhance your mastery over the written word: much of the "real world" sought by so many college students, and all the glittering prizes piled within that consensual hallucination, is numbed by gatekeepers who will not consider your intelligence, your hard work, your challenges, or your unique gifts. They will grant or deny you the things you want and need according to rougher, less meaningful standards that often reflect the basest demand: attention to detail. Knowing the code, understanding the rules, and (dare I say it?) coloring within the lines frequently provide the key to many of the doors ahead of you. Is it right? Is it fair? I'll defer that question to the experiences that await you. But trust me: there's wisdom to the realization that errors in form are closely related to errors in function. That's why I've spent so much time reading your work for content, but also focusing on page counts, margin lengths, topic sentences, and even silly squiggles such as semicolons. None of these concerns guarantee that you will write precisely or persuasively. Indeed, slavish adherence to these rules if you have nothing to say all but ensures pointless, deadening prose (a truth I take from personal experience). Still, the question remains: how worthy is the word that is never read?

That, my friends, is why I've asked you to take writing seriously, because I take you seriously, along with your education and your hopes to accomplish something meaningful. Written words alone will not make things happen, either for you or for the world. But they often start the conversation that leads to where we wish to go. So please consider this invitation among your most important outcomes from our summer session: Promise that you will read, write, revise, share, critique, ponder, and practice your written communication daily. There's so much work to be done, both in your personal lives and well beyond those individual spheres. We need good words to produce good works. We need good writers.

What do you say?

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