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 grammarly.com 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.