“Only once have I ever played the “I’m an English professor” card with any of my kids’ teachers. That was when my middle son, then a high-school sophomore, received an F on a writing assignment that was clearly no worse than a B.
Up to that point, my son, a genuinely gifted writer, had made nothing but A’s in Language Arts. By the time he was in 10th grade, he had already guest-written my local newspaper column two or three times. He’s now a junior in college, an English major (I know, I know) who aced two 300-level courses last spring.
The assignment in question gave students the option of writing an argumentative essay in the style of a newspaper editorial. For obvious reasons, that was the route he chose. I read through it before he turned it in and thought it wasn’t his best work, but I decided getting a B might be good for him. It never occurred to me he would fail.
The teacher, when I met with her, acknowledged that the essay was well organized and virtually devoid of grammatical errors. So why had it gotten an F? Because, she said, the writing style wasn’t academic enough.
I’m not going to tell you what was said after that, but you can probably imagine. Suffice it to say the story had a happy ending. But the incident got me to thinking, once again, about the difference between academic and conversational prose and the irrational bias so many writing teachers have in favor of the former. After all, I’ve heard some of my college-level colleagues voice similar complaints—that students don’t know how to write academic prose.
My response to that is: Why should they? The fact that they’re students, and that they’re operating in an academic environment, does not make them academics. Nor will more than a fraction of them go on to become academics, thank goodness. The overwhelming majority won’t be writing academic prose in their professional lives, so why should we be teaching it to them in college, much less high school?
This discussion is actually part of a larger debate about what constitutes good writing. I always tell my first-year composition students, when I’m trying to correct all the misconceptions about writing they’ve picked up in high school—you can’t use personal pronouns or start a sentence with a conjunction, etc.—that the only reasonable standard for good writing is what good writers actually do. How many of our best nonfiction writers, the ones who are widely read and have a genuine impact, write in an academic style? Virtually none.
More to the point, how many professionals these days, apart from actual academics, write in an academic style? Again, almost none. Of course, lawyers and businesspeople have their own stylistic quirks, which can be even more annoying than academic prose. But the very best writers, in practically every field, avoid those quirks. They write in a conversational style.
Admittedly, there are conversations and there are conversations. Two academics talking to each other would sound very different from two corporate types, who would sound different from two restaurant managers or two custodians. Likewise, a college professor writing for students would sound different from a professor writing for other professors—or at least, that’s how it should be, although many textbook writers seem to forget it.
What distinguishes a conversational style is not just that it’s less formal (although it usually is) or that it avoids stuffy, made-up “rules” like the ones mentioned above (although it usually does), but that it attempts to approximate an actual conversation between a writer and a reader. In order to do that, the writer must first recognize that a reader exists, which academics often fail to do. Most scholarly writing (at least in the humanities) sounds to me like the writer is having a conversation with himself or herself. Perhaps that’s consistent with the introspective, philosophical nature of the academic enterprise—let’s not forget what the “Ph.” in “Ph.D.” stands for—but it doesn’t translate well to the world outside of academia, which virtually all our students will inhabit.
Consider, for example, the following passage, which I chose more or less at random after surfing my college’s online journal collection. (I’m not going to say where I got it, exactly, because my objective is not to criticize or embarrass anyone.)
Last and highest on the thinking continuum is the evaluative type question that is considered a staple of published literature-based reading series. Usually found at the end of a story, this type of question requires student learners to offer their own opinions or evaluations. In addition, this style of question is often referred to as an on your own venture. Some examples of evaluative questions for teaching literature include How are you similar to the character? What is your opinion of the character or events in the story? Why do you think the author wrote the story? Teachers are quick to note that there is no right or wrong answer here and encourage children to be reflective or to connect the reading to their own personal knowledge or experiences. Bos and Vaughn (2002) similarly noted categories that help student learners distinguish between literal and interpretive questions–skills that they titled textually explicit, textually implicit, and scriptually implicit.
I say that I chose this passage “more or less at random” because I was looking specifically for something that would serve as a classic example of academic prose without being too egregious—which this isn’t. It has all the earmarks of traditional scholarly writing: long, clunky sentences, passive voice, recurrent jargon. Yet the meaning itself is fairly easy to grasp, and I think most of us understand why it’s written the way it is. As academic writing goes, this is better than some and no worse than most.
What this passage isn’t, however, is engaging. I don’t know about you, but the writer lost me midway through the first sentence. Speaking for a moment as a human being, not as an academic, I would read something like this only if I absolutely had to, and then I wouldn’t be too happy about it. Ask yourself one simple question: After slogging through that short excerpt, do you have any desire to read the rest of the essay?
So why isn’t the passage engaging? Because the author doesn’t even try. He or she makes no attempt to engage a real live person who might be reading. It’s almost as if that person, the reader, doesn’t exist—as if the subject matter is so ponderously significant that it transcends any human interaction. That attitude, I’ve observed, is characteristic of academic prose, where the emphasis is typically on the ideas themselves rather than on communicating them effectively. You can either get it or not, the writer seems to be saying, and if you don’t, that’s your problem.
Now compare the above passage to the following, from Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers:
The “achievement gap” is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again, and it typically provokes one of two responses. The first response is that disadvantaged kids simply don’t have the same ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds. They’re not as smart. The second, slightly more optimistic conclusion is that, in some ways, our schools are failing poor children: we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching them the skills they need. But here’s where Alexander’s study gets interesting, because it turns out neither of those explanations rings true.
Now do you want to read more? Why? Because the writer has engaged you. And how did he do that? By varying sentence length to create a subtle sense of pace. By smoothing out the rough edges of the sentences through liberal use of contractions (generally considered a no-no in academic prose). By not only addressing readers directly but including us in the discussion (“our schools,” “we … aren’t”). By using simple, everyday words when such words carry the desired meaning, while not altogether avoiding longer words (like “phenomenon”) when needed. “Simple,” in this case, does not mean “simplistic.”
Granted, Gladwell is one of the very best writers working today. But isn’t that exactly what we ought to be teaching our students—what the best writers do? I’ve never bought the argument that professional writers have some sort of license the rest of us don’t. That’s like saying Steve Nash can execute a crossover dribble because he’s Steve Nash, while the rest of us have to play like extras in a 1950’s training film. I say if you can cross-over dribble, go for it. And if you can’t, work on it until you can.
Even that analogy doesn’t really illustrate my point, though, because what Gladwell does isn’t fancier or more difficult. Granted, it’s not easy to write as gracefully as he does, although he certainly makes it look that way. But the sort of conversational style he employs is, if anything, more natural and intuitive than what we spend years teaching students in high school and college. Perhaps the main reason students struggle to write conversationally is they’ve been told since kindergarten that it’s not acceptable—even though it’s perfectly appropriate for the vast majority of the writing they’ll be doing throughout their lives.
I, for one, am here to tell them they can write conversationally, and they should. Because—speaking again as a human being, and as a reader—whether I’m perusing a scholarly tome or checking out the latest credit card offer in the mail, I’d much rather encounter a Gladwell wannabe than some pseudo-academic poser.” by Rob Jenkins