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The Humanities and Teaching How to Write Well

- June 24, 2013

Teaching students how to write well is a task that I am confronted with on a regular basis and for which I am hopelessly ill equipped. I have no training in the subject. I am not a native English speaker. I did not even attend high school or college in an English speaking country (at least not before doing graduate work). So, I want to be sympathetic to Verlyn Klinkenborg’s call in Sunday’s New York Times for a renewed role for the humanities (or really English literature) in teaching students how to write “clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts.” The humanities, writes Klinkenborg, can provide students with the gift of “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” I agree that all of these are good things.

Then he writes this:

Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

Sentences like this usually lead me to liberally spread red ink. What do you mean? Why should studying be like observing a coastline rather than interacting with human experience? Why the clichés? And what’s that whale all about?  You can sort of figure out what the author means with all the vague metaphors but “sort of being able to figure out” an argument is hardly an advertisement for clear and simple nonfiction writing.

I often see sentences like this in my students’ writing: unnecessary and extensive usages of metaphors that muddle rather than clarify thinking. I guess it raises the question of whether the study of English literature does really give students and teachers a good basis for becoming clear thinkers and writers on nonfiction issues. I am not entirely sure what the alternative is or whether I am being a disciplinary (or Dutch) curmudgeon who unduly favors clear precise statements over flowery language. Thoughts?