Saturday, July 2, 2016

CURMUDGUCATION: Writing Junk + Discovering Gloria Jean Merriex


Writing Junk

First, we need to understand that the state of writing instruction has never been great.

If you are of a Certain Age (say, mine) you may recall a type of writing instruction that we could call the Lego Building Approach. In this method, students are first taught to construct sentences. Then they are taught how to arrange a certain number of sentences into a paragraph. Finally, they are taught to assemble those paragraphs into full essays.

This is junk. It assumes that the basic building block of a piece of writing is a sentence. No-- the basic building block of a piece of writing is an idea. To try to say something without having any idea what you want to say is a fool's errand.

Not that the Lego Building Approach should feel bad for being junk. The instructional writing landscape is littered with junk, clogged with junk, sometimes obscured by the broad shadow of towering junk. And on almost-weekly basis, folks try to sort out what the junk is and how best to clear it away.

Here's John Warner at Inside Higher Ed trying to answer the question, "Why can't my new employees write?" Warner reports that he hears that question often from employers. With a little probing he determines that what they mean by "can't write," is "They primarily observe a fundamental lack of clarity and perceive a gap between the purpose of the writing and the result of what’s been written, a lack of awareness of audience and occasion."

In other words, they don't seem to get the idea that they are supposed to be communicating real ideas and information in a real way to real people. It's not a question of rigor or expectations, Warner notes. It's that they were trained to do something else entirely.

I believe that in many cases, these young professionals have never encountered a genuine and meaningful rhetorical situation in an academic or professional context. They are highly skilled at a 

 Discovering Gloria Jean Merriex

Gloria Jean Merriex grew up in Gainesville, Florida. Gainesville is a city of extremes; on the one hand, it's the home of the University of Florida and has many of the features of a big college town; on the other hand, the southern and eastern neighborhoods of Gainesboro are home to crushing poverty. Charles Duval Elementary School is located in the center of an eastern neighborhood filled with crime and poverty.

Merriex saw teaching as a path out of the poverty of her neighborhood, but she did not choose to leave the neighborhood itself. Once she had her degree, she chose to teach at Duval Elementary, where for about twenty-five years she was a middle-of-the-road, competent-but-not-exceptional teacher.

I became acquainted with Merriex through the work of filmmaker Boaz Dvir; my nephew, who studied film at Penn State, had Dvir as a teacher and thought we might have a few things to say to each other. But years ago, Dvir was a professor in Florida who heard about Merriex and decided to tell her story. The result is a documentary in progress entitled "Discovering Gloria." I've watched a rough cut of the film, and it is a challenging and moving story.
 Discovering Gloria Jean Merriex

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