Writing in Miniature

Posted: March 25, 2011 in Advertising, Consumerism, Idle Nonsense, Writing

This is pretty funny, too (my second post today): an article in the New York Times called “Teaching to the Text Message.” The author, a professor at John Jay College, has embraced the Twitter phenomenon and now insists that (since students can’t be challenged to write in long form) writing assignments should require only one or two lines, like a Tweet or a text message. If one is actually writing photo captions, news headlines, ad copy, product blurbs for eBay, or some other form marked by extreme brevity, then a dense, succinct style is warranted. But the author says this is what all writing should be:

I’ve been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clichés. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.

This is an educator who has given up. Assigning a research paper is the equivalent of bullying? Pshaw! Next thing we’ll just liquefy all our food to avoid the need for chewing.

In other related news, the Washington Post reports on controversy surrounding a writing prompt on the SAT that uses a popular culture phenomenon — the reality TV show — as the topic of the prompt. Critics have complained for years that one topic or another skews the test results toward one demographic or another, so you can’t have, for instance, a writing prompt about a sailing regatta, which would favor a very few students (of means) while disadvantaging those with no exposure to sailing, which is almost everyone. Ironically, TV is among the most democratic of media in its ubiquity, and those complaining loudest are the parents of the best students: the ones without exposure to sailboats reality TV because they’re too busy studying.

What these two news articles share is a shocking blindness about developing ideas in writing. The author of the first caves because it’s just too much work — for himself even more than his students. The second misses the point that the writing prompt already provides plenty of information and context to develop into a brief argument, even without ever having seen a reality TV show. Here is the prompt:

Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?

Student writing assignments are evaluated on the quality of the writing, which is to say, the development of ideas, which makes content and conclusions far less important. Stringing together sentences in a sustained, coherent argument from thesis statement through discussion and ending with a conclusion is a basic writing skill.

  1. Jennie says:

    I think the first professor has given up as well. You can’t just say, I’ll test like Twitter because it’s easier. And there is no single general idea that can be tested for kids in my opinion. We all come from different walks of life.

    • Brutus says:

      I imagine that professor tells himself he is “adapting to the changing face of the modern American landscape” or some such nonsense. He would use fewer words.

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