Students Can Still Write?

Students Can Still Write?

In writing, Colby students juggle multiple voices in different environments

By Stephen Collins '74
Illustrations by Robert P. Hernandez

While new media and social networks can be a challenge for one who learned to write on an Underwood manual typewriter, Harrington sees a real upside in the communications technology revolution. “Students are writing more because of [Facebook, texting, IM, e-mail, and blogs],” she said. “Now at least they are cranking some language out.”

illustration by Robert P. Hernandez
grammar graphic 2
And the language of informal environments, even some of its truncated forms, will inevitably influence the mother tongue.

“There’s an increasing acceptance of contractions in formal written English,” said Zacamy Professor of English Peter Harris. [Only recently did Colby’s admissions publications tolerate “it’s” or “you’ll.”] It’s only a matter of time until texts and “Tweets” make inroads.

“Hemingway was affected by newspaper writing and even by the telegraph,” Harris said, “so people thought Hemingway was abridging the glory of the English language.”

As Jesse Sheidlower, North American editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, told the New York Times in 2002, “There is no official English language. ... The decisions are made by the language and the people who use the language.”

Harrington sees that evolution all around her. “I think language has become more informal in recent years, and I don’t think that’s just because of electronic things,” she said. “I think our whole culture—the way we dress and the way we act—has just gotten less formal. I think that can be good, because [writing] can be more expressive, it can be more direct, and it can be more original. The problem is it can also break down too much.”

If anything, Harrington, Harris, and writing tutors struggle with the other end of the spectrum, battling pompous formality, puffed-up diction, and the dreaded passive voice in student papers. “Compositionese,” Harris called it.

For some it’s part of the difficult transition from high school to college. As a writing tutor Hussain hears students say, “Oh, in high school I used to BS a lot in my papers and just get away with it and still do well,” he said. But given the higher standards they encounter on Mayflower Hill, they soon realize that they can’t fake it anymore, he said. “It’s an adjustment.”

Harrington is passionate about weaning students from overuse of the passive voice. “They hear it everywhere, because it’s the way of evading responsibility for actions. ... ‘Mistakes were made.’ ... They hear it in corporate business language. ‘Dividends were suspended.’ Our culture has become so inclined to have people not take responsibility in their language, [students] think this is the way powerful and important and highfalutin movers and shakers talk.” And so they put it in their early compositions, thinking it sounds academic.

Clarity, though, is cardinal.

“Good clear writing shows good clear thinking,” Harrington said. “Even if you have good critical thinking skills, it’s not going to come across in lousy writing.”

“What I say to my students is I want them to think of their writing as a good, clear stream that someone has thrown bottle caps and twigs and gum wrappers in, and I want them to get all that stuff out so I can see all their lovely thoughts—the little fish and the rocks at the bottom of the stream.”

Simple advice. But as E.B. White wrote, “It is probably no harder to eat a woodchuck than to construct a sentence that will last a hundred years.”
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  • On February 4, 2010, Nancy wrote:
    Nice job, Steve. I've been thinking about this topic!