“Understanding sufficient to frame an intelligent response”

My comment at http://chronicle.com/article/A-Rescue-Plan-for-College:

Truly there is a desperate need for focusing on clarity and on analytical writing tasks in the freshman composition classroom over the self-expressive tasks, but the all too often unacknowledged and under-appreciated nature of the heavy labor that is writing instruction leads to a chronic abuse of composition instructors with absurdly high student to teacher ratios–community colleges typically have 25:1 (x5 sections) while institutions like Harvard will have 9:1 (x3 sections) in a writing class of the sort Tom Jehn teaches (see the Harvard Writing Project videos “Writing Across the Drafts” or “Shaped by Writing” available online: E.g., http://blog.lib.umn.edu/flash/tww2008/shaped_by_writing.mov). If you want better writing results at the CC level, you need to focus less on the politics of methodology and more on the fundamental material fact of having manageable student to teacher ratios. It’s as simple and as costly as that, so clearly that solution will be largely neglected. The conclusion that composition should become technical writing or business writing is not, in my opinion, a breakout idea: Student says, “I can pass liberal arts courses with the proper amount of balderdash and citation, but can’t handle business writing’s demands for clarity.” Joelkline above says, “Nice, you are ready to be a scholar, but certainly not an employee of a real business.” Really though such a student might be ready to market or sell something redundant, something of specious value in a glutted consumer society, or may become an “employee” ready to pitch some convoluted financing or sub-prime mortgage scheme to powerful financial concerns. The art of the con is certainly something “real business” folk have promoted and practiced, so I’m at a loss to find any deep coherence in the proposition that students should be steeped in the canons of business communication (and ethical and professional standards) before (or after?) they are set loose on, say, the demanding texts of Machiavelli, Descartes, Rousseau, Mill, or Woolf. What’s concerning (and seemingly symptomatic of certain anti-intellectual currents in our culture, themselves not disconnected from low educational standards) is the idea that an effective practice of scholarship is counted as little more than the production of ethically dubious “bullshit,” while the only valid alternative aim for seriously educated people is to be employed in a “real business.” I am to conclude that no one has managed to live a productive and contributing life as something other than an “employee in a real business,” or that no one outside of the business world has made any lasting contribution to our society or developed any rigorous sense of the meaning of integrity. That is inaccurate of course, so please let’s not deride the virtues of “scholarship” or the value of academic skills so quickly.


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