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Writing as Boxing

Technique and strategy beat emotional outpour every time.

In The Atlantic, Andrew Simmons argues that the Internet has actually improved student writing:

As a high-school English teacher, I read well over a thousand student essays a year. I can report that complete sentences are an increasingly endangered species. I wearily review the point of paragraphs every semester. This year I tried and failed to spark a senior class protest against “blobs”—my pejorative term for essays lacking paragraphs. When I see a winky face in the body of a personal essay—and believe me, it has happened enough to warrant a routine response—I use a red pen to draw next to it a larger face with narrow, angry eyes and gaping jaws poised to chomp the offending emoticon to pieces Pac-Man-style. My students analyze good writing and discuss the effect of word choice and elegant syntax on an audience’s reading experience. The uphill battle is worth fighting, but I’m always aware that something more foreboding than chronic senioritis lines up in opposition.

O.K. So far, so bad. Complete sentences and unified, coherent paragraphs are “increasingly endangered species;” emoticons show up enough “to warrant a routine response”? So how has the Internet “transformed” students writing “for the better”?

Well, it hasn’t—or, more precisely, Mr. Simmons doesn’t show that it has because he confuses improved writing with increased emotional honesty:

However, while Facebook and Twitter have eroded writing conventions among my students, they have not killed the most important ingredients in personal writing: self-reflection and emotional honesty. For younger high school boys particularly, social networking has actually improved writing – not the product or the process, but the sensitivity and inward focus required to even begin to produce a draft that will eventually be worth editing.

* * *

At the same time, the emotional distance fostered by Facebook and other sites can encourage a healthier candor, too. On Facebook, even popular students post statuses in which they express insecurities. I see a dozen every time I log on. A kid frets that his longtime girlfriend is straying and wishes he hadn’t upset her. Another admits to being lonely (with weepy emoticons added for effect). Another asks friends to pray for his sick little sister. Another worries the girl he gave his number to isn’t interested because she hasn’t called in the 17 minutes that have passed since the fateful transaction. Another disparages his own intellect. “I’m so stupid, dad told me to drop out,” he writes. Another wonders why his parents are always angry, and why their anger is so often directed at him. “Brother coming home today,” another posts. “Gonna see how it goes.”

Individually these may seem like small-scale admissions. But the broader trend I have witnessed in the past few years stands in sharp contrast to the vigilance with which my generation guarded our fears both trivial and deep. In this sense, social networking has dramatically altered how high-school boys deal with their emotions.

First, I wonder what the criteria are, exactly, for “emotional honesty”? How does he know his male students are being more honest? Maybe they know they have to fake it to get through the class? And has Facebook improved “emotional distance”? I’m not sure.

But second, and more to the point, what does emotional honesty have to do with good writing? I can be illiterate and still be very good at spilling my guts. Even in a personal essay, it’s arguably less about the emotions themselves and more about how a writer uses those emotions to make a larger point. Mr. Simmons has confused a skill—good writing—with a particular attitude or perspective regarding feelings.

Maybe I am a terrible teacher, but when my students are preparing to write an essay on a work of literature, I tell them I don’t care how a text makes them feel. As a human being, I care, and as a professor of literature, I care. After all, the value of literature is in how it expresses the important things of life in a particularly meaningful way.  Why bother reading works of literature if they didn’t do this?

But when it comes to writing about texts, particularly at the university, where the point is to practice, among other things, effective written communication and analytical skills, what matters is not how a text makes students feel but what a text shows or does.

It’s a small but important difference. In the first case, the focus is on the students’ feelings, which I cannot evaluate or even discuss in terms of proof. The second, however, focuses on the text and objective data—word choice, syntax, structure, plot, symbols, pacing, metaphors and so forth. The second also has the advantage of forcing students to read more carefully, which, in turn, can help them become aware of the importance of little differences in the meanings of words or of syntax in their own writing.

I hated my English classes in high school in part because I had teachers that viewed writing as an extension of either psychology or mathematics. What attracted me to writing as I got older—and I am thinking mainly of non-fiction prose here, though I think some of this applies to other genres—was that I had a professor who taught it as if it were boxing. It was the jab of the short, biting phrase, the body blow of just the right word, and the uppercut of proof. Like boxing, writing is a skill that has little to do with how angry (or emotionally honest) you may or may not be.

Mr. Simmons writes:

Many of my students grow up in households in which machismo reigns supreme. They’ve never been allowed to cry. Their mothers and sisters cook and wash the dishes and clean. They’ve been encouraged to see themselves as dominant, powerful, swaggering, sullen men, not sensitive and reflective men, powerfully kind, confidently open. Fostering those traits is a woman’s responsibility, like housework. In this sense, Facebook is a genuine outlet for the young men I teach. Just as social networking frees users from public decorum and encourages the birthing of troll alter egos, it allows my students to safely, if temporarily, construct kinder, gentler versions of themselves as well.

Fair enough. I am against a definition of masculinity that views manhood principally it terms of its capacity for violence. But I am also against a view of manhood (and writing) that confuses power with violence and skill with emotion.

I don’t know how Mr. Simmons’s male students are actually doing in terms of their writing (whatever progress they have made emotionally), but I wonder if he might see even more progress if he allows them to use writing to spar and not just to gush.



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