Monday, October 21, 2013

I think that people nowadays...

The following is not an indictment of those doggonekids.  Rather, think of it as a statement about the system (public schools) producing them.

There are three neurotic elements prevalent in college freshman and sophomore writing.  I hear tell they exist in upper-classmen (classperson?) essays, but since I don’t teach at that level, I’ll stick to familiar territory.  Just call me Mr. Anecdotal.
First, without exception, students are hyper-vigilant about informing the reader that what they write is their opinion.  “I think that…”, “It seems to me…”, and “In my opinion….”, preface most statements.  When the young writers make a claim of value or policy about pert-near any topic, there is a fear or underlying concern that what they write will be taken seriously.  So, to soften the ideas, they let the reader know it’s only their opinion.  It is as though claiming anything demonstrable or conclusive should be approached timidly, if at all and, by golly, I’ll keep the backdoor unlocked if I have to make a quick getaway when someone challenges my assertion.  This reminds me of certain Woody Allen movied characters.  I’m seeing Leonard Zelig’s (Zelig) uncontrollable mimicry of the people surrounding him, or half of Alvy’s statements in Annie Hall.  Esoteric film references aside, the students will not draw attention to broad statements and observations and are very deliberate about noting the exception to every rule, while unlocking their mental escape hatch with the ever present, “I think that”.  I almost always cross out the offending lines and tell the writers that since their paper has their name on it I know I am reading their opinions.  Otherwise, they should introduce and then cite their sources like good little researchers.   Besides that, if a reader is convinced about one of their statements, then the writer wins.  Let the mushy-headed reader remain mushy-headed.

The second predominant concern of these students is to couch their writing in today’s world.  The reader must be reminded that what they are reading applies to today’s world, people nowadays, and in present times.  It is very important I not slip into thinking they are writing about the 1880s, or the 1970s (their grasp of both eras equally vacant).  But, isn’t it true, that to wake up in the morning is to wake up in nowadays?  Today is my default setting and I have yet to slip through the time-stream portal mistakenly thinking right now is twenty or thirty years ago.  Unless the students are writing about something historical, there is little need to remind the reader that they have returned to the current era.  But the here and now must be proclaimed, usually early in the essay.
Then there’s a third little nuance, juxtaposed oddly against the first; it is the fear of bias.  Not as prevalent as the first two habits of non-mind, I’ve had many talks with students who are afraid they are bringing their biases into their writing.  This fear is expressed in quick conversations, usually at the end of class or during a rare office visit.  They bring in their opinion papers and want to know how they can write without bias.  Alas… isn’t that the purpose of an opinion paper?  I explain to them how bias is like going to a ball game and rooting for their favorite team, about how everyone has bias, and about how it is their right as  a human being to have an opinion and to proclaim it as logically and coherently as they can.  Yet, the timidity of doppelganger group-think holds them in its spell.  They have opinions, they just don’t want to be opinionated.

Some of this is just habit, a writer’s stylistic fingernail chewing – like the struggle to not use second-person pronouns in formal essays.  I suspect, however, there are deeper causes.  I see these three problems as a subtle and nuanced blend of existentialism and an over developed sense of self-awareness couched in a depleted mattress of, 'This doesn't really matter', coupled with a bouquet of the gold-standard, non-contextualized doggerel-jargon-doctrine, “Judge not.”  (Maybe John 7:24 doesn’t fit so neatly on a bumper-sticker).
My question:  where are the current, bold young writers and independent minds, unafraid to throw their cards, face-up, on the table?  This neck of the woods isn’t producing many.  Mild compliance and vague timidity may be necessary to maintain the current direction; just as smooth edges fit into slots better than sharp corners.   But, this approach will do little towards finding unique thinking.  And maybe unique thinking is what we need.

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