How killing nuance will kill your writing (and maybe your career)

Yesterday, Lisa Nielsen linked to a Penelope Trunk post that was written back in March entitled “How to Teach Kids to Write Effectively.”  The post, which addresses the fundamentals of writing in a modern business world, basically says that the way the students are taught to write in today’s schools is inherently wrong and if you want to make the average student career ready and successful, you have to dispose with the long-windedness of storytelling and research paper writing and teach students how to be effectively succinct. Appropriately succinct, Trunk breaks the post into a list of five points …

  • Write short, very short.
  • Write the way your audience reads.
  • Write via iPhone.
  • Make videos with everything you write that’s long.
  • Make ideas visual, not only text.

She elaborates on each point and then concludes with:

Today’s children will need to be outstanding at presenting information in a concise and visual way. So, traditional writing classes are just another example of outdated curriculum created by people who are looking backward to protect a dead status quo.

Nielsen supports this point, doing what she can to let Trunk’s post speak for itself but adding her own opinion, opening her post with:

The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves. What’s worse, the message that students get is that in school they don’t focus on writing for real. Let’s be honest, how often do you read a book in the real world and think, “Oh! I want to write a book report!” How often do we take two texts to analyze and write a paper that we hand into someone. How often do we research something, then write up a research paper for no one?

Why aren’t schools helping students write for real? Why aren’t those who teach writing, publishing their work and helping their students to write for real audiences?

 

The claim that English curricula is outdated is nothing new, neither is the point about writing for a “real” audience (although the word that usually is used is “authentic”). There’s nothing really new either about needing to communicate directly and effectively very often in the business world. I know firsthand that very often when you are dealing with clients, higher-ups, or anyone you may be working with in an office or at a company, they don’t have a lot of time for you so being clear and to the point is a valuable skill.

However, Trunk’s insistence on a lack of nuance in writing …

So in the future, writing be short, but also to the point, and no nuance, because it’s too hard to type nuance with your thumbs. So direct communcation [sic] will be highly valued.

 

… and the lack of nuance in her own post ironically undermines her own point, as does the point both writers make about book reports and research papers because it shows how little they actually know or at least want to acknowledge about current English curricula and what goes into teaching writing.

I am in the midst of revising my courses for 10th grade English, taking a look at what worked and what didn’t as well as looking at new approaches to existing material (as you do). Over the course of this revision, I am taking another look at my state’s SOLs (note: Virginia has chosen to opt out of the Common Core). There are eight basic standards, all of which are elaborated on in various curriculum frameworks and maps. Here are the one-sentence summary of each as provided by the Virginia Dept. of Ed.:

TSWBAT …

… collaborate and report on small-group learning activities.

… analyze, produce, and examine similarities and differences between visual and verbal media messages.

… apply knowledge of word origins, derivations, and figurative language to extend vocabulary development in authentic texts.

… read, comprehend, and analyze literary texts of different cultures and eras.

… read, interpret, analyze, and evaluate non-fiction texts.

… develop a variety of writing to persuade, interpret, analyze, and evaluate with an emphasis on exposition and analysis.

… self- and peer-edit writing for correct grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, and paragraphing.

… collect, evaluate, organize, and present information to create a research product.

Looking at this and digging deeper, I see not an outdated curriculum but one that seems to be trying to encourage critical thinking and pushes for reinvention of old tasks with an emphasis on engaging modern modes of communication. Yes, the tests that are eventually involved are rather terrible and that can lead some teachers down a dark path that will forever dominate their destiny, but you cannot say that this is true for every English class at every level everywhere.

Plus, some of the tasks that are decried by people such as Trunk and Nielsen, such as literary analysis, actually do have their place in the business world. When I have my advanced students write literary analysis papers I bring up not only the fact that it’s something they will find themselves doing a lot of in both AP English and college, but that comparing two texts and giving the results is the English equivalent of data analysis. We may not be tallying the results of a scientific experiment or crunching sales numbers in my class, but it is the same basic task–using evidence from sources to prove an overall point, something that I certainly saw plenty of during my time in sales and marketing. In fact, using this analogy has helped my students write better lit papers because it helps them remove a lot of fluff from their writing.

Yet many of them still wind up grasping the idea of nuance, which shows serious growth in their thinking and their writing. A call for a lack of nuance is troubling because not putting any focus on it will lead to the very ignorance that I’m trying to avoid. My students, hopefully, will know the importance of Voice, Audience, and Purpose (VAP). I certainly haven’t forgotten it since I learned it in my English classes a couple of decades ago. Furthermore, the versatility I am trying to teach in writing is more valuable a skill than knowing how to work every last bell and whistle. The difference between a long-term successful career (in terms of title/money) and a flash in the pan often is an attention to craft–and that usually requires an understanding of nuance.

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