November 30, 2005

Writing tics and reading idiosyncrasies

In one paragraph I'm reading this morning, a student wrote about courts' passing a decision. There's clearly some confusion with the student between legislation and judicial opinions (and two branches of government), though maybe it's a matter of our slippery language: Congress passes laws, and the Supreme Court passes down law. (There's also the unlikely possibility that the student considered the case the judicial equivalent of a kidney stone.)

But apart from conceptual confusion, student writing is chockful of tics—habits that interfere with communication. Some tics are perennial, the weeds of passive voice and antecedentless pronoun, comma splice and homonym confusion. Some tics fall in odd patterns, though, such as the invasion of alien whereases that sprouted six years ago in West Central Florida, or the whilsts that my native Floridians use only in writing. (The last doesn't bother me when coming from my English friends.)

(To be honest, education journals are full of writing tics as well—from impact used as a transitive verb to the neologism rubric, which most people would understand better as grading criteria. Sometimes, though, such bad writing can inspire Bulwer-Lytton contest entries.)

I suspect some writing tics come from students' thinking that they need $5 words to impress teachers. And there may be some truth in the impression, in part because Florida's writing test does reward multisyllabic Latinate words. Such verbal prestidigitation may be oxymoronic, but it's fungible. I respect students who can explain abstract concepts in down-to-earth terms, because such writing shows that a student got it. But tics are habitual.

Then there are the odd uses of prepositions, and I'm not sure what to make of them. As Stephen Pinker has written, verbs are little tyrants. Once you choose them, the sentence often has to take a certain form. I think he used to lay as a paradigm of the tyrant verb. Not only is it transitive, but it requires an adverb: One cannot simply lay a book. But picking up on the nasty rules that verbs (and lesser tyrant verbs) lay down requires both an ear for such patterns and also enough exposure to writing. Maybe the nonstandard uses of prepositions suggests that a student is overreaching in language, trying to use the $5.15 verb without reading the directions. Or maybe it reflects considerable independent efforts at reading difficult material without the teaching guidance that can smooth one's learning and make it possible to pay attention to the language as well as the ideas.

Such independent efforts often result in another error that is more common with older students, overlaying experience and prejudices on a reading without considering the reading in itself. I've written about my concern with close readings and textuality before, and I'm still puzzled how to teach that attention. One student in my honors-college class said she hated Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? because she couldn't hear his voice in her head, so she clearly has that capacity (and may be unable to shake the habit!). Is that mental listening a teachable skill?

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Posted in Teaching on November 30, 2005 9:20 AM |