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Let’s Not Bore Our Students, Okay? On Good Writing and Student Engagement

From the editor: The LEAP Challenge calls on colleges and universities to engage students in Signature Work that will prepare them to integrate and apply their learning to significant projects that address issues meaningful to the students themselves. The following essay, from contributing writer and adjunct writing instructor Kevin O’Rourke, looks at how educators can encourage students to engage with meaningful issues in first-year writing courses—a crucial step in preparing them for Signature Work later in their college careers.

In my day job, as a writer at a prominent research hospital, I read a lot of sentences like the following, from a paper on cystic fibrosis: “On the premise that the therapeutics of interest will act directly on CFTR, we treated individual glands as the units of analysis, providing sufficient statistical power to determine efficacy for individual subjects in n-of-1 studies.”

Because I love writing, and because I have strived to teach undergraduates how to write, such sentences drive me nuts. Admittedly, I’m something of a layperson when it comes to wonky science writing (despite working with it five days a week; my training is as a humanist), so perhaps I’m an unfair judge. But nonetheless, the act of reading work like the above often seems more akin to searching ancient runic tablets for meaning than, you know, reading.

Most academic writing is similarly confusing undergraduate students. To many first-year students, who make up the majority of the population in college writing classes, dense academic prose must be as foreign and startling (and therefore unapproachable) as Esperanto. After all, few high school students are familiar with the sort of prose practiced by its most double-jointed contortionists, such as that graduate school favorite, Walter Benjamin. And frankly, it’s no secret that much academic writing, even that of the language and literature-oriented disciplines, is dry as a bone, the writing often ponderous, largely devoid of voice or wit.

But why must it be so? Why must most academic writing be so impenetrable? And why do we teach it to undergraduates, when undergraduates were certainly never the target audience of such work? Moreover, why do we persist in teaching the sort of writing that many of our students—whether they’re destined for offices with a vernacular all their own, or in careers that depend less on written word than written code—will hardly use beyond their short time in the academy?

Most undergraduates progress no further than the bachelor’s. Between 2011 and 2012, there were 53,767 bachelor’s degrees awarded in “English language and literature/letters,” according to the National Center of Education Statistics. In contrast, during the same period 9,939 master’s degrees in the same field were awarded. Similar proportions are seen in other areas of study. Mathematics & statistics: 18,842 bachelor’s, 6,245 master’s; engineering: 17,158 bachelor’s, 4,774 master’s; and social sciences and history: 178,543 bachelor’s, 21,889 master’s. And so on.

At its best, academic writing serves an important purpose—scholars and experts use its refined language to communicate with each other in an expeditious and accurate manner. But our students are not experts, and most will never become experts in the subjects they study as undergraduates. Instead, they will become web developers and audience engagement experts and artisanal soap makers and a thousand other things that don’t include the name of their major. So should we really be teaching them to emulate specialist scholarship?

For all of these reasons and more, whenever I have taught writing, I have always strived to have my students read work that features a strong voice, work that is not necessarily fun but that is readable—work that, while it may not come from peer-reviewed journals, features cogent arguments and supporting evidence. In short, good writing.

As an example, during the fall of 2014 I taught at Temple University, where a new batch of readings was being introduced to Temple’s composition sections. The old readings had been set aside in lieu of a targeted group of articles dealing with urban space, particularly urban space in Philadelphia. One of these readings was a peer-reviewed article on wireless usage in public spaces, while another came from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point (it was the (in)famous “broken windows” essay).

As one might expect, most students preferred the Gladwell essay—as well as Thomas Frank’s “Dead End on Shakin’ Street,” an often amusing, somewhat irreverent sendup of “vibrancy” and arts-centered urban planning—to the wireless paper. The peer-reviewed WiFi article certainly reflected the sorts of essays the class would be expected to write during its time in college—it’s a clear thesis, abundant findings, and a conclusion that did more than repeat the premise—but it was a dull read, with plodding prose and an absent speaker. What anecdotes that were included were related in as clinical a manner possible; even the article’s title was overly long, nearly shouting at the piece’s beginning that what you are about to read will not excite.

For its part, the Gladwell piece began with the gripping story of Bernie Goetz’s 1984 shooting of four black teens on the New York subway, featuring this sentence:

As the fourth member of the group, Darrell Cabey, lay screaming on the ground, Goetz walked over to him and said, “You seem all right. Here’s another,” before firing a fifth bullet into Cabey’s spinal cord and paralyzing him for life.

Never mind that the sensational “Here’s another” quote is likely apocryphal, and never mind that the “broken windows” crime prevention strategy that Gladwell outlines/espouses after this scene has been largely debunked. Likewise, never mind the charges that Gladwell’s writing is at times breezy and plays fast and loose with the facts.

Not that good writing is an excuse for inaccuracies (something I am continually reminding my students of). But Gladwell’s use of statistics that illustrate how the opening scene is an example of a city gone mad, one that needed to be fixed by “broken windows” policing (interestingly, there are now calls to scrap the system), made for a highly persuasive piece. Indeed, if the history of speechwriting has shown us anything, it is that well-presented, nicely packaged rhetoric can be far more compelling than a recitation of those pesky things we call facts.

The larger point is that by using an arresting anecdote, followed by statistics and evidence and a few more anecdotes, to make its point, the Gladwell piece got through to the students—they were engaged with the subject matter, not only willing to read it but discuss the essay as well.

Likewise, the Thomas Frank essay, originally published in The Baffler, features engaging sections like the following, which is a far cry from the arid legalese one sees in much academic writing:

Is Rockford, Illinois, vibrant? Oh my god yes: according to a local news outlet, the city’s “Mayor’s Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant.” The Quad Cities? Check: As their tourism website explains, the four hamlets are “a vibrant community of cities sharing the Mississippi River in both Iowa and Illinois.” Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is a sort of Athens of the vibrant; a city where dance parties and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called “Vibrant Pittsburgh”; a place that draws young people from across the nation to frolic in its “numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods,” according to a blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations.

The vibrations are just as stimulating in the component parts of this exciting new civilization. The people of creative-land use vibrant apps to check their bank accounts, chew on vegetarian “vibrancy bars,” talk to one another on vibrant cellphones, and drive around in cars painted “vibrant white.”

Though I taught the Frank essay at the very end of the semester, when everyone’s energy was at its nadir, our discussions were similarly, well, vibrant. For a class not focused on the vagaries of urban planning, the way Frank’s essay addressed its issues led to a remarkable amount of interest on the part of my class.

In other words, the lively anecdotes and writing in the Gladwell and Frank pieces made my students want to think about them, because the articles had reached them—they were engaged. And isn’t reaching our students ultimately what we’re trying to do as educators?

Kevin O’Rourke is a full-time science writer and part-time adjunct professor living in Philadelphia. He is editor-in-chief of the critical site The Hairsplitter, and his creative work has been published in Seneca Review, Tammy, and Cobalt Review, among others.