Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Spread of Academic Literacy

“The fecundity and the importance of a literary form are often measured by the trash it contains.” (Albert Camus)

Literacy is the ability to read and write. Academic literacy is the ability to read and write at a university level. We expect academics to be not just literate but outright scholarly, which implies a particular kind of competence with language, or “facility with words” as Orwell once put it. They are not merely entertained by the things they read, nor do they provide their readers with diversions from their everyday lives. They are engaged in the communication of knowledge.

Importantly, however, they are not just communicating what they know to people who don’t know. They are sharing what they know with other knowledgeable people. Often these people know as much about the subject as they do themselves. This is what gives academic writing its “critical” edge. In an important sense, academic writers are not just telling their readers what they know, they are opening their knowledge to criticism from their peers. Likewise, academic readers are not just learning when they read, they are engaging in a critical practice. Academic discourse is an ongoing comparison of the various things different scholars know, or at least think they know. In the confrontation of what I know with what my reader knows we offer each other an opportunity to correct our errors. That opportunity for criticism is what academic writing has evolved to occasion.

So being academically “literate” requires more than merely grammatical mastery. It means understanding that a text always stands in a particular relation to its sources, and that those sources can be located and compared with the text we’re reading. That is, being “able to read” at a university means being able to use a library, which is an increasingly “advanced” technology. Meanwhile, “being able to write” also means being able to present ideas in stable prose paragraphs that commits the writer to ideas that are meaningful objects of criticism. Even errors should be instructive when they are uncovered. They should move the whole knowledge enterprise forward.

As if to repeat the history of literacy in general, i.e., the history of written communication, academic literacy is spreading. Writing academically was once a very rare skill, reserved for a small segment of the population. As more and more people seek university degrees, more and more people will likewise also require academic literacy. Of course, this will also increase the number of “bad” academic writers. The history of our progress from orality to literacy necessarily turned a great many non-writers into merely passable writers. As more and more people become academics, we’ll have to accept the conversion of people who wouldn’t previously have considered themselves academic writers at all into academic writers who just aren’t very good at it. That can’t be helped.

Hopefully, however, we can maintain a certain standard. It is important that the prose that carries the knowledge we share as a culture be well-written. Otherwise it will not be properly open to criticism, it will not afford us opportunities to learn from our mistakes. The pursuit of truth will be greatly hindered.

Prose

I want to begin thinking about the nature of prose again. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it a great deal for a long time, of course. I want to think out loud about it, I guess. I want to write about it. I want write prose about it, in fact.

I guess it’s almost a joke to say that prose is an ordinary thing. When we say something is “prosaic” we mean that it is ordinary. But it’s actually both the ordinariness and the orderliness of prose that I want to consider. Prose not only uses words in their ordinary senses, it tries to present ideas in an orderly way. It is, to be sure, able to say some entirely extraordinary things when it needs to, but its means are largely unremarkable.

In his preface to The Unending Rose, Borges said that “the mission of the poet should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force.” We might say that the prose writer takes that secret force for granted. A truly “great” prose writer, we might even say, is trying to keep the secret. To leverage the force by a kind of a sleight of hand. We think we’re just seeing one word after another, just as we think the card magician is shuffling an ordinary deck of cards. But then, suddenly, the hairs on the back of our necks stand up.

I have a worry about prose. I worry that prose is going out of style. (I guess that’s almost a joke too.) It is being replaced with a strange sort of jargon, in which a number of “big words” end up doing all the work. Writers have stopped produced effects by a combination of small, familiar words, a series of ordinary rhetorical “moves”. Instead, they invoke big and cumbersome concepts that the reader is asked to swallow without question. Indeed, these concepts are often combined in stock phrases that operate almost like words in their own right.

What I want to do over a few posts is to get back to the basic operations that make prose what it is. Of course, I want to think about this mainly at the level of the paragraph, which is the unit of scholarly composition. I want to look at a how a standard, academic prose paragraph works. Or, rather, how it should work.

Internalizing Learning

I think I have a way to fix impostor syndrome. Rachael Cayley tells us that it is “a failure to internalize success”. I like that way of putting it.  Obviously, the individual solution is to, well, internalize your successes. But how do we make that happen more generally in the student population, so that those who get good grades and, therefore, might go on to pursue advanced degrees, not only are in fact successful, but also feel entitled to the grants and the tenure we give them?

First, I think there should be more on-site written exams with a fixed time limit and no materials (no books, notes, phones, laptops, etc.) Don’t tell me that this tests an “irrelevant” skill, since in “real life” students will always have access to “the internet”. Don’t tell me it just demands memorization, not learning. What it demands is internalization of learning. Getting a good grade on such an exam requires not just that they have successfully understood the material, it requires that the students make that success, i.e., that understanding, their own, rather than feeling forever dependent on whatever source happened to teach it to them. When they then successfully “regurgitate” it, they show themselves that they really did appropriate the material.

Second, grade the students on a curve. Getting an A should not tell students that they have reached some arbitrary level of understanding as defined by an institution. It should tell them plainly that they are the smartest in their class. Graduating with straight As should not make you unsure of whether you can impress some future teacher or other authority. It should make you confident that you’re better able to impress such authorities than most others.

It’s that simple. The reason impostor syndrome has become, as Rachael put is, a general “academic condition” rather than a rare disorder is that we’ve stopped grading students on their abilities. If we started doing that again, this problem would go away in about a generation. But we’d also have a generation of horrifyingly competent young people. Maybe that fear is part of what’s holding us back?