Saturday, August 22, 2009

Written or wrong?

From The American Conservative:
Reid Buckley teaches public speaking -- or tries to.  Not everyone is receptive to his methods.
One student shouted indignantly, "I thought this was a course in public speaking!" There were murmurs of assent. I explained that, all things being equal, one's thoughts were best written out before they were spoken. But the 30 or so members of the class remained upset. They wished to "wing it."
That is the essence of the contemporary zeitgeist, which preaches spontaneous efflorescence born of inspiration issuing from a well of authenticity and soaring on the exuberant wings of conceit. It is the philosophy of ejaculation and orgasm and no Catholic guilt. These young people had not been taught to edit. They had not been taught self-criticism. They had been reared in an environment of self-esteem, even when this went unexamined and was unearned.

And the result:

And when they returned a week later with the fruits of their labors, I was appalled. I took the papers home and spent two afternoons and two evenings past midnight editing them.
I had to contend with an illiterate heaping of multisyllabic social-studies mush whose meaning was either obscured or contradicted by other heapings of academic mush, as indecipherable as they were ungrammatical. Illicit inferences lurked under false premises like salamanders under rocks. Logical connections did not exist. Non sequiturs were thick as chiggers. Do not mention grace or style. Of the 28 papers I labored through, only in two did I detect talent buried in the rubble. I had never seen anything so hopeless.

So how did they fail so utterly to learn even the basics?

When I proceeded to go over the essay of another young man, his voice caught in his throat and he broke down. I was taken aback. We hadn't proceeded beyond the first page. His wasn't the worst effort, either. But he wasn't protesting my criticisms. To the contrary. "You're right," he kept repeating, tears flowing, "It's awful. I can't write my thoughts down. They come out a mess, I know!" And then he related a scandal. Not in four years of high school and three years of college had a single teacher expressed concern about his writing or offered to edit it. When he said this, other students spoke out to confirm cognate experiences. "What can I do now?" this young man asked me despairingly. "I graduate in two months!"

I can give presentations to groups of strangers.  I was one of the people teaching courses at an American Water Works Association event last week.  We had fifty minute time slots to fill.  The last PowerPoint slide came up fifty minutes after I started, despite the fact that I like go on digressions from the bullet points on the slides.

I worked from an outline, and was able to do the "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" lecture structure.  I covered all the material in my presentation, partly because I made darn sure I wasn't trying to cram in too much.

I seem to have an unfair advantage over today's graduates.  But I studied English in an era when people still learned to write outlines and diagram sentences.

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