Twilight of the idols of good writing

For a long time I have thought of my job as mostly a teacher of writing. I teach philosophy too, but most of what I teach in that domain is soon forgotten. What my students will keep with them (or so I tell myself) are enhanced abilities to read, think, and write. These skills, I hope, will continue to be exercised in whatever walks of life my students discover for themselves, because our society needs and values people who can survey complicated situations and describe them clearly and accurately.

Less so nowadays. The internet broadens the public square, and allows many more people to participate in the exchange of ideas (or, failing that, memes). This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, more participation means a more vibrant and eclectic breeding ground for culture: more diversity, more creativity, more involvement, and more communication, which are all good things. On the other hand, the “moremoremore” tends to drive shorter attention spans and shallower content.

The emblem of both results is Twitter: each day of Twittering would fill up a 10 million page book. Each tweet is limited to only 280 characters, but that has proven to be ample, as the average tweet is only 33 characters (so I learn from a quick Google search). A great many of our social media posts feature a central image, and the verbal component is an accessory or a punchline. Emails are beginning to represent the epic works of popular culture, by contrast – so much text, so few images! – but obviously they are not much to brag about in terms of thoughtfulness, for the most part.

All in all, writing matters less. To my old school way of thinking, this means thinking and reading also matter less. I once heard Jonathan Bennett opine that there are no purely stylistic difficulties; every problem in expression betokens a failure to have thought all the way through what one wants to say. If we are more lax in our expectations for our writing and the writing of others, this means expecting less in thinking and reading. Good writing is mental discipline, and that discipline carries over, or fails to carry over, into all attempts to process content.

Now I am not sure this is a bad thing. Maybe the art of nuanced and disciplined writing has had its day, just as sonnets and lyric poems have had their day. Out with the old. Time moves on, mostly indifferent to tradition, and my grousing about it is purely epiphenomenal. If human culture as a whole is getting by just fine with silly little tweets, what’s the problem? Things change. I don’t intend to be the grumpy old guy in his shed complaining about the demise of the good old days. (And yet, here I am….)

So it may not much matter, but I do think we are at the twilight of the job I have been taking myself to do, namely, teaching writing. I probably have been on the losing side of this issue for some time. I try to coach my students into making a clear plan for what they are going to write, to offer clear signposts along the way, and to write in complete sentences. I ask them to “level up” their prose into a more academic style, mainly because writing more formally forces you to be more precise in what you say. They should use the little words that suggest contrast, or implication, or example. I expect subjects and verbs to agree with each other. It’s pretty standard, orthodox stuff. (Basically, the stuff you see me do here, I try to teach them to do: monkey me, monkey you.) I understand the arguments that there are many ways to write, and that I’m privileging one particular brand of “white establishment” writing. My defense is that students should learn how to write in a great variety of styles, from the homespun to the soaring to the soullessly impersonal; but one such style (one, I have supposed, with bankable career benefits) is the style I’m teaching. My hope has been that the skills I try to impart would help give them advantages in their careers.

But there are signs that I’m falling behind the times. College courses in composition seem to be more about liberating authentic voices than about refraining from comma splices, so I end up encouraging students to use to catch their more obvious mistakes. An increasing number of papers I receive appear to be not typed but dictated into voice recognition software (for that’s the only explanation for some of the bizarre things I read), and presumably someone will soon find a way to integrate that software with grammarly or whatever else so as to mechanically produce decent prose from verbal hash. So, in short, the skills I’m trying to teach can be outsourced to apps. And with regard to the ability to read and think, which are integrally connected to the ability to write (say I), the need for those skills is already waning, as the virality of tweets and the fecundity of meme generation overwhelm the need for insightful explanations. So it goes. More and more, I am training in students the skills needed for hitching up a buggy.

It’s only twilight, so there will still be some utility in teaching good writing for the rest of my working days, most likely. After that, you’re all on your own, which is as it should be and always has been.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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18 Responses to Twilight of the idols of good writing

  1. Orla Schantz says:

    Oh, this is SO true in SO many ways. And thank you for putting it so concisely. I enjoy reading your writing style. It is of course also sad. You are in fact writing the epitaph of Bildung. It is also about the absence of authority. Our mutual friend Sloterdijk has this to say in this regard,

    “𝐀𝐰𝐚𝐤𝐞𝐧𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐓𝐨 𝐁𝐨𝐫𝐞𝐝𝐨𝐦
    “The fundamental feature of our age, which marks us most profoundly, is the absence of every authoritative orientation. We are paradoxically gripped by the fact that nothing that tries to take hold of us really grips us.

    Awakening to boredom means grasping what it means to not be gripped as such. According to Heidegger, we live in an age where nothing is evident, that is, we live in an age that lacks an authoritative purpose. The arrow of history has overshot its mark and vanished into a post-historical haze. What remains is a confused mixture of agitation and indifference.

    To ask this in another way: are we not beings who are only strung along and ultimately remain empty, regardless of everything that happens with us or through us?

    Do we not “ultimately” feel condemned to pass the time since, no matter how far we look, we can see no project that seizes hold of us, engages us, and carries us away?

    By affirmatively replying to such questions, we de facto enter our epoch’s essential collective, which has yet to assemble. This collective consists of those who, at present, have not been effectively gripped by an imperative necessity.

    We may only authentically say “we” for the first time when we include ourselves in this collective of the essentially and knowingly un-gripped. We meet in the silent fog for our constitutive assembly.
    The historical avant-garde consists of those who are honest enough to admit to each other that history no longer speaks to them.”

    (Sloterdijk: “What Happened in the Twentieth Century?” (2018) p. 356f in iBooks edition)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Huenemann says:

    Thank you Orla! I have yet to read PS on this matter. But what you say rings true: so many very important philosophical concerns can be reached only by passing under the Great Gates of Boredom! NB: “We may only authentically say “we” for the first time when we include ourselves in this collective of the essentially and knowingly un-gripped.”


  3. Orla Schantz says:

    Do you still write for 3 Quarks Daily? I can’t seem to find your posts (they should be there every Monday, right? Or have I misunderstood something?) – where else can I find your musings. I enjoy your clarity and honesty.


    • Huenemann says:

      I do! It’s once a month. If you scroll through the postings here on this blog, anything with “3QD” in the title is linked to the longer essay on 3 Quarks. Thank you!


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  5. Mike says:

    Good writing, and thinking, is still necessary for software developers. Computers don’t care much for liberated, authentic voices but they very much care about commas and semicolons and such. Also, a poorly thought out software design often cannot be executed and even if it can it will often waste a lot of effort.

    Once the AI takes over, we won’t need the thinking (or the humans who undergo the thought) but until then, the education you provide will still be valuable.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Michael says:

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you
    — e.e. cummings

    Charlie, I wonder if you and compositionists are really that far apart. Both you and they value consequential negotiation of meaning. I’m sure they’d agree that there are many genres, and I’m sure they also teach that some genres, no matter how authentically voiced, are just not a comfortable fit for philosophy class. (Whether students internalize this point—or whether they’re polished thinkers—can’t be the fault of the teacher. I blame the mothers.) One difference may be that composition theory sees writing as epistemic, whereas you seem to ask for writing to be held off until the steaming is complete, ha. Also, one could argue that there really is no one standard that could be called “academic writing”—the range is as variable as the disciplines are.

    In any case, you’re up against cummings (not exactly a compositionist, to be fair), who would surely say you’re neglecting pathos in favor of logos, and you’re constraining ethos unfairly. No kisses for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Huenemann says:

      What a great response! In fact I try to balance attention to syntax with attention to the thought: on some assignments I get all composition teachery, and on others I get more philosophicky (accent on the icky!). But in many cases I simply can’t do the philosophy because we have to work on the “is there a topic in this essay?” problem.


  8. Cransdale says:

    You need to be able to write in order to be able to enjoy what someone like Trevor-Roper can do with subordinate clauses. You will miss the fun of his great one-sentence put-down of C.S. Lewis.


    • Huenemann says:

      Wow! I was not aware of that. For interested readers, here is what Trevor-Roper wrote: “Do you know C.S. Lewis? In case you don’t, let me offer a brief character-sketch. Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reever or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity; a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature, and, of course, poetry; a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favorite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of best-selling prurient religiosity and such reactionary nihilism as is indicated by the gleeful title, The Abolition of Man.”

      Liked by 1 person

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  10. David McPike says:

    “I once heard Jonathan Bennett opine that there are no purely stylistic difficulties; every problem in expression betokens a failure to have thought all the way through what one wants to say.”
    Is it ever possible to think all the way through what one wants to say? Were this impossible possibility made actual, would one then still want to say anything? To whom? For what purpose? To grace with divine enlightenment? To gloat? I would suggest instead that there are always stylistic difficulties and every problem in expression betokens, sure, perhaps a particular failure, but perhaps also just the thoroughgoing impossibility of thinking all the way through what one wants to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Lynn Huenemann says:

    I just now came upon this blog from March… Here is my simple response. Certainly many folks, and not only teachers, bemoan the effect of texting on people’s writing and thinking habits. Teachers and parents have often supported younger students’/children’s reading development by providing summer reading recommendations and activities. This summer I provided a few parents (friends and relatives) with writing activities for their children. These begin with “wet ink” free writing designed to free up and generate writing, and then move to using more organized structure(s) and longer writing that presumably requires more thought and fuller expression. There is nothing new about this – except perhaps doing it as a summer activity at home.

    Liked by 1 person

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