Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

There is a specter haunting the world of academia, and college professors are wailing with fear and frustration. Every few months, the opinion pages of such diverse publications as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoan this specter.  50 year old college professors fill the pages of these prestigious productions with 6a6151155fbde50cec7b9616661c1448d3374fa7op-eds categorically stating that today’s ‘college students can’t write.’  If you don’t believe me, the weblink attached takes you to 78 million screeds lamenting the lost art of the sentence, the paragraph and the essay. Peruse your pick, and fear for the future.

Personally, I find such concerns to be generally overstated and misplaced. I read thousands of student journals and papers every year, and I have seen very little decline in the standard and quality of student work.(In fact, it has generally been the opposite) Some students are good writers, some are not so good writers. Some are good because they try hard at it, edit furiously and understand how to analyze ideas. For those who are not so good, I find it often comes down to simple laziness.  A proofreading here and there never hurt anyone, but there are some students who can’t take the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means they have no problem turning in mediocre work. That is their prerogative.

Most concerns about the lost art of writing feel there is more to this issue than just laziness. However, these concerns are often based upon misguided notions. For one thing, there seems to be a belief that college students in the past wrote Dickensian prose and essays that would put Virginia Woolf to shame. This is ludicrous.  The conservative linguist John McWhorter illustrated this in his intriguing 2013 TED talk ‘Txting is Killing Language. JK!!’ About halfway through his 13 minute lecture, McWhorter illustrated that our concern about the lost art of writing is by no means novel.  In 6 quick examples, McWhorter quotes professors and educators from the past 2000 years that sound incredibly like the Cassandras of today. See the queued up clip below:

So it seems that  professors have  always complained about their younger charges’ writing skills. As McWhorter displays, this has much to do with the simple fact that language and linguistics change over time.  But, I think there is something more to it. It’s difficult for humans to believe that what they know now, they have not always known. Ask a professor or teacher about their undergrad writing skills. I guarantee most believe their writing ability at 19 compares favorably to their abilities today. After all, if you are a good writer at 40, you must have been a good writer at 19….right?

Just recently, I was reminded of the much messier reality. When I think back on my undergrad writings it is with rose-tinted glasses.  I mean, I got a bunch of A’s on my college papers after-all!  So, imagine how flummoxed I was the other day when I stumbled upon on old box of 20 year old papers I had written as a junior in college.  Woah!  Pretty ugly!  The work was not terrible by any means, but it was not quite as magical as I recalled. In fact, most of the writing looks pretty similar to what my own students produce today.  To be honest, many of the papers I grade are much better than what I did 20 years ago.  There is no shame in this.  As a 20 year old college student,  I was a different person than my present day self. In college I was just starting to develop many skills in life. Writing was just one of those skills.  The college students that I see today are in the same boat.  They’re 20 years old, and still learning.  It is ridiculously inane to profess an absolutist belief about their abilities at this point in their life.  To say they ‘can’t write’ is at best a misplaced prejudice. At worst it is a sign of outrageous egotism.  Unfortunately, those 78 million Google hits fall under both categories.

My suggestion to the writers and readers of that litany of op-eds?  Before getting too concerned about the end of writing as we know it, look back at your own work from college. You may be in for a surprise.

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Words, Words

Posted: July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

words

Librarians love reference books.

The acquisition of words is remarkable to behold. Lately, I have been in the happy company of one incredibly curious and eager new reader and learner. A few days back, he asked what “superstition” meant. I suggested we look it up, because he enjoys looking up words (is this a great kid, or what?) He read the definition aloud, after which I provided relevant examples to help him understand more fully. I taught him how superstitions include “knocking on wood” when hoping for a reprieve, and throwing salt over a left shoulder was thought to stave off evil spirits. His pragmatic father added the insight that “superstition” is nonsense, which is also true, and the word means much more. One word can encompass an awfully long lesson.

Flaubert famously searched for “le mot juste,” a heroic quest. What is at stake is not only what we know and experience but how we might communicate those myriad meanings.

The tension between abstract ideas and concrete specifics permeates the nature of words, communication, meaning, connection. The tremendous complexities of words and diction were a recent topic in NPR’s piece, “The Magic of Words.” The intangible quality of ideas when compared to the tangibility of specific examples I typically associate with the duality of experiences: intellectual (or cerebral) and visceral (or physiological), two facets of being, developed and augmented by and through words.

language-tree

Seems simple enough.

The instability of definition inherent in abstractions practically demands elaboration, clarification, qualification. I start here, encouraging a balance of abstract ideas and concrete example in my writing and writing classes, believing that the best writing creates equilibrium between these impulses. Conveniently, thesis statements and topic sentences tend to be populated by ideas, appropriate space for abstract words and concepts. Then the rest of the paragraph can be “fleshed out” with concrete, specific, tangible examples. I could stay in this territory for weeks, navigating the nuance of implication, the complexities of denotation and connotation. The private, local, regional, national, and global meanings; the notion of words as living things, evolving in content and purpose: awesome!

success

Follow me!

I ask my students to create a list of abstractions in order to practice constructing illustrative examples. Since college students yearn to succeed, the abstract idea “success” is a constant companion, one they attempt to embody with a college degree, a high-paying job, a fancy car, a big house. Success invades their days and nights, but will often remain as ethereal as most undiscovered dreams.

Experiences can resist definition. In such moments, I pause and think. As I struggle to describe, I arrive at these words: intense, overwhelming, amazing, all of which are insufficient.

Art can provide new names to call the matter of life. Poetry and song powerfully express love and longing, see Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. The multitude universes alive in the eyes of love, only poetry or song can manage to convey.

As a teacher and student of all things literary, I am in the business of grappling with words. I marvel at their power and writhe in frustration at their inefficiencies, and my own.

All our words are as tangible as the light from the stars; still, I am a lover of words.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

I was sitting on the end of the fifth row inside the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago when someone came up alongside me.

“You’re Paul, right?”

A young woman was standing there smiling at me. I said, “Yes?” as I wondered how she knew me. Debt collector? Friend of a bitter ex-girlfriend? Rabid Turtle fan?

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Anna. I was in your writing class.”

“Ooooooh! Annnnnnaaaaaa! How are you!!!?”

I had no clue.

I assumed she was a student from Robert Morris University where I teach now, but after several minutes and questions, I gradually deduced she was a student from my alma mater Lewis University, where I was an adjunct instructor in 2007.

ITenthn her hands was a copy of “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, the author we were there to see. When our conversation paused, I used that to ask an obvious question, “Are you a Saunders fan?”

My own introduction to George Saunders came along an odd, serendipitous path.

In early 2006, I was working on my M.A. in Writing at DePaul University with a concentration in Creative Writing. Fiction was my passion. My Fiction Professor, after reading some of my stories, told me, “Your writing is similar to George Saunders. Have you read him?”

Eh.

Like all English majors and creative writers, I have been told of a thousand authors I “have to read!” by classmates, professors, friends, baristas, garbagemen, podiatrists….

I ignored the suggestion.

Three years later, I am taking a Fiction class as part of my MFA in Fiction at Roosevelt University. After reading my work, the head of the program tells me, “Your work is reminiscent of George Saunders. Have you read him?”

I confess I have not, but admit that someone has floated that comparison before.

Still, I read nothing by Saunders.

Soon after this recommendation, I am at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago for a sold out show with one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. At the end of Sedaris’ shows, he always recommends a book that he is reading and enjoying. Take a wild guess which author Sedaris recommended.

“ALRIGHT ALREADY!” I thought.

I was instantly in love with Saunders’ work. It is brilliant, moving, and funny – three things I try to be in my fiction. Thus, the comparisons now made sense.

However, keep in mind what my professors’ comparisons really meant. Saying “You remind me of Saunders” was actually a polite way of saying, “There’s an author who does what you try to do….and he does it WAY better than you’ll EVER do it. Ya, you should probably study up on him.”

So, they were not saying, nor am I saying, that I’m as good a writer as a bestselling, MacArthur Genius Grant winning author. I’m damn sure not. But he was being brought up as someone I might learn from and emulate.

Now, years later, I am in the Rubloff Auditorium. Now, I’m a professor who has read all of his work, and even teaches some of it. I hesitated to attend. Despite being an English professor and a writer, traditional readings don’t excite me much.

Beyond that, I didn’t know if I could tolerate a Q&A session involving a famous author and an audience of young, aspiring writers – exactly the same as me in my early/mid-20s. The Q&As are all the same. All the young writers raise their hands and ask absurdly detailed and nonsensical questions about the craft of writing: “If I were to use a calculated series of semicolons inside a parenthetical statement that is actually a quote that is being said as part of a narrating character’s inner monologue, will this capture the core strife of socioeconomic imbalance between the modern family dynamic and allow the development of thematic qualities that….”

Oh, just shut the hell up.

It’s ridiculous. Not just the question itself, but because all of the questions – at their heart – are asking the exact same question:

“How do I get to be as great a writer as you?”

It’s as if they expect the famous author to spit up knowledge into their mouth like a mama bird, and suddenly they too will now be a bestselling author.

Mostly, the Q&A went exactly that way and I was drifting in and out of the discussion. But then Saunders said something that punched me right in my cynical face.

He talked about how writers should seek to draw from what is deep and familiar within them. He gave the analogy of how we all fall back to what we do best when we’re in a bind. How do we act when we get in trouble, or need one great pickup line, or need to impress and employer. He said his reservoir was and is humor and sentimentality. I would identify the same way. Hence, the comparisons were starting to solidify.

He then went on to advise, “Accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary.”

Boom. Mind blown.

It was not a ground-breaking point, but it was phrased in a way that struck me particularly hard. In essence, I took it to mean that we need to draw on and accept our strengths even if they are deemed unconventional or wrong for our fields, degrees, or occupations.

For creative writing students like me, we go through writing degrees that attempt to program us into faded copies of our literary forebearers. “Forget about what YOU do well! Here’s what you MUST do; here’s what literature IS!”

In his most famous TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson also talks about this idea of how school educates us out of our creative capacities and devalues and discourages our skills and talents if they do not match those that are most immediately valued by academia and the workforce.

After over 8 years of schooling in creative writing, I had been asked to evolve and emulate so much, that what I grew up loving to do became an absolute chore. As a kid, I loved writing stories and telling stories. By the time I made it halfway through my MFA, I hated even the thought of writing fiction. I had no fun doing it anymore. It’s no fun to spend my time trying to write like and be like other people, and I’ve found no success in writing that way. (Side note: most creative writing programs would ardently argue that they don’t do this – that they are actually encouraging everyone to embrace the writer they are. Complete B.S.)

With writing, like all professions, there is the problem that – for as much as creativity and innovation is lauded – the norm is too often what gets promoted.

And so, here is Anna standing next to me and I don’t recognize her. However, she clearly remembers me. Obviously she knew my name, but then she goes into specifics about what we did in class, what papers we wrote, and what specific topics she wrote about. I now knew which class she had been in.

And then she laughed. It was a distinctive laugh, and suddenly it triggered my memory. I instantly knew what class she was in, what room we had, which desk she sat in – all of it.

As we continued to talk, it hit me: a student I had in class over a half-decade ago remembers me, and was impacted enough in my class to still know my name, to know what we did in class, and to have liked me enough to want to come say hello.

On the drive home, it dawned on me: Saunders’ advice to “accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary” is not just true of writing, but of life. Find your strengths. Accept them. Use them. Don’t try to reinvent yourself into someone else. It will be disingenuous; it won’t work.

In teaching, I’ve already accepted the parts of me that were previously considered unacademic, and it seems to have worked out. When I get into class, I draw upon my reservoir of humor and sentimentality, and being me has worked. I’ve mostly ignored the pedagogical programming from graduate school that tried to shape me into a factory-made professor, and that run-in with Anna seems to prove I made the right choice.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

“her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank,

instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her.” ~Jane Austen

As far as I have been able to discern from extensive reading of European literature, I possess all the inherent skills of successful and beloved duchesses across the centuries. I’m good at all things duchess-y (or is it-esque?). Duchesses are almost universally described as “highly intelligent,” just like me. I was born to be a duchess, and am now just a 21st-century lady-in-waiting.

The most celebrated duchesses are excellent correspondents. I am a huge proponent and practitioner of letter writing. I typically write two letters (including “thinking of you” or birthday cards) per week. If I had more free time, I expect I would write even more letters. I am certainly intimately acquainted with enough people to write a letter a day for the better part of the year, and if these people were to write back (though they rarely do), I’d respond to their responses. You can see how this would fill up my mornings as duchess.

Another thing duchesses are required to do is “run a household,” which generally means boss people around in order to ensure that the place (a palace, in most cases) looks its best. Ask any friend of mine whether or not I am particular about the placement of items in my home. They’ll tell you a story detailing my charmingly fastidious nature, I’m sure.

Having a discriminating eye and endless resources leads to impeccable interior design and an impressive art collection; thus, duchesses are well-known supporters of arts and culture. I readily collect what art I can, though my most expensive acquisition is in the tens of dollars, not the tens-of-thousands of dollars range. Nevertheless, my list of favorite things includes both live music and libraries. Therefore, I am already a well-season patroness and eagerly await the opportunity to expand my contributions in this capacity.

Duchesses are expected to host parties and special events. Again, I am highly qualified in this regard. While at parties, the best duchesses entertain their guests with topical conversation and witty banter. Duchesses infamously tell rather ribald stories, which I can do when pressed. Every season, I have at least one thematically appropriate event scheduled. In the fall, I put together my annual “Football Party” which includes an array of food and intense Bears’ football watching. Moreover, I ensure that an autumnal trip to the countryside takes place, clearly harkening back to a genteel, bygone era. One of the most famous parties in history is The Duchess of Richmond’s ball, a fascinatingly important party, and one whose significance I’m sure I could duplicate, if I only had duchess-quality resources at my disposal.

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Tricia Lunt?

Duchesses are always on the forefront of fashion (see Kate Middleton, now Duchess Katherine). While her style is enviable, I think I do alright with 1/1,000th of the budget. My most recent shopping trip resulted in the purchase of garnet suede lace-up boots. If that doesn’t scream “duchess,” I don’t know what does. I also like to wear a well-placed scarf, or sport a ridiculous hat. If she had been born in the 70’s, Madame de Pompadour and I would be essentially indistinguishable.

though she was only a Marquise, and I, as a duchess, would outrank her.

Thus, like any woman meant to be a duchess, my main task is to charm a lesser prince, which would not have been a problem had I spent the summer on a yacht in The Mediterranean as I should. Lesser princes are the younger brothers, not directly in line for the throne, and decidedly more fun (see Andrew and Harry), so I consider it a win-win.

My next best plan is to seek out a man nicknamed “Duke.”

By Cecelia Workman-Gonzalez, RMU Student.  

Free your mind and the rest will follow. Expressing your thoughts and being able to freely write them out on paper allows for much more than deep thinking and finger cramping. Expressive writing betters your body, mind, and soul in many ways. To write for betterment of self means to freely express your thoughts. Writing for me has allowed for me to clearly organize my thoughts that I couldn’t express thoroughly before. In a recent article it was stated “‘writing about earlier traumatic experience was associated with both short-term increases in physiological arousal and long-term decreases in health problem”. Since It clearly makes sense that writing on a regular basis makes for a healthier and happier lifestyle, more instructors should incorporate free-writing into their curriculum.

ImageWriting can help one live a healthier lifestyle. There are many styles of writing, and many things to write about. Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health. I myself am proof that this theory works. When my cousin passed away when I was only age 19, and he was 18, I had a terrible time with grieving and my uncontrollable emotions of sadness. Being able to write my thoughts and feelings out without having to explain myself to someone else helped relieve some of that pain that I was feeling. This allowed for me to accept my cousin’s death, and understand my grievance. Everyone goes through traumatic events in their life. Although not everyone will be able to relate and express their thoughts and experiences in a way to generate happiness and relief, generally speaking, writing will allow for a healthier and happier lifestyle for those who can let out those sorrows.

 Not only will writing help you life a better life, but it can also increase your intelligence. I was floored when I read a recent article about this topic. All these years I have been thinking that the only way to get ahead and expand your knowledge and intelligence was to educate yourself through college and continuous learning. Well I was right, to an extent. I have learned that writing will increase your intelligence. A study had been conducted of cloistered Nuns to prove this theory.  The ones that were into writing had a much lower level of degenerative cognitive disease when they were older. They looked at childhood writing samples and compared them. Perhaps the ones who loved to write already were functioning at a higher cognitive level and had a greater reservoir of neurons. Or perhaps the writing is what helped them stay mentally alert. Creative writing allows your mind to be free, and let the thoughts just flow out. It is almost like there is no filter on your thoughts. Being able to openly express yourself in turn increases your intelligence.

Writing on a regular basis makes for a healthier and happier lifestyle. As stated above, the students who began writing at an early age showed a higher reservoir of neurons. I was one of the unfortunate ones. I had never been assigned a free writing, or creative writing, or even a writing assignment when I was younger. Honestly I didn’t even have to do a term paper until my senior year of high school. Even then the teacher held our hands the whole way through the paper. It ended up being more of the teacher’s ideas rather than the students. From the recent articles I have read about writing generating happiness, and allowing for others to live a healthier lifestyle, it is clear that more instructors should incorporate free-writing into their curriculum.