Argument: college students are poor writers because they ape the academic prose of their professors

An English professor argues that the problem with what students learn about writing in college is that they learn to write in the style of professors:

This Wall Street Journal article implies that our poor communication skills fresh out of college result from simple laziness or stupidity on our part. But Dr. Richard Lanham, professor emeritus of English, UCLA, believes the problem is not lack of learning.

Rather, he believes, when we are undergraduates, we learn all too well: we learn to ape the bureaucratic, academic, clear-as-swamp-water prose of our professors. He writes in his book, Revising Prose (in my opinion the single best practical book on prose writing in existence):

“Much bad writing today comes not from the conventional sources of verbal dereliction—sloth, original sin, or native absence of mind—but from stylistic imitation. It is learned, an act of stylistic piety, which imitates a single style, the bureaucratic style I have called The Official Style. . . .”

And to drive home his point, Lanham cites a passage from Talcott Parsons. This particular passage appears to be from Parsons’ book The Social System and you can see the passage here on page 7 in Google Book. (Interestingly, this passage is edited. Yes, it is difficult but why not cite a complete passage rather than starting at the end of a paragraph and cutting some of another?) Lanham says this about Parsons’ passage:

This is not prose. This is the systematic abuse of prose. Anyone hoping to learn writing should stay a thousand miles away from people who write in such a manner. That is, they should stay a thousand miles away from most university professors.

The author of this article goes on to cite Sokol’s Social Text hoax, argue that computers could teach academic writing (though it may not make any sense), and suggest that college students need to get beyond typical college classes.

The trend these days in college seems to be to train students to write in discipline specific styles: if you are a biology major, write a biologist, a sociology major, write like a sociologist (though not like Parsons), and son. This makes some sense for faculty as our professional careers are based on particular writing styles. It may not make sense for all students as they may not be interested in graduate school or professional careers. But, if students are specific majors, part of their senior-level competency should be an ability to communicate within that sphere.

However, the problem referenced at the beginning at the article may not be the same problem cited in the rest of the article. The article begins by citing a Wall Street Journal article saying that businesses are having a hard time finding possible employees who can write and speak effectively. But this problem is not the problem of academic writing; rather, it is an issue of basic communication. Employers aren’t saying that college grads are writing postmodern gibberish; rather, they are saying that applicants write as though they are interacting with friends. Academic writing may be problematic (and it is recurring issue within sociology though most work doesn’t read like Parsons) but the problem employers are discussing is a few steps before academic writing.

If college students are trained in any discipline specific style and can successfully write within that world, that’s better than not being able to write any prose. Theoretically, students should be able to write basic prose before they write discipline specific prose but some prose is better than no prose, right? Students need to learn the basics, thesis, supporting evidence, etc., and perhaps the average professor is not able to offer much help in this since they are immersed in academic language.

For students to move beyond simply aping the academic style of their professors, they need to practice writing a lot. Even while there might be guidelines and norms within particular disciplines, there is still freedom within these areas to exhibit some personal style. Within sociology, for example, there is a wide range between ethnographic and statistical/mathematical work. Styles are not formulas. Of course, more writing means more work for students and professors. But there is evidence that an increase in writing within academic courses leads to better educational outcomes.

On the whole, I think this is a bigger issue than academics passing along bad prose to their students. Sociologists could indeed do better than writing like Talcott Parsons. All classes should help students write basic, effective prose that can be used outside of the college classroom. How all this could and should be worked out within a typical four-year degree needs to be developed.

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