Wednesday, April 29, 2015


I finished reading the Boyer Commission Report this morning.  In this post I want to address only the recommendations for student writing.  But before I do that, let me observe that I had read the report many years ago.  I did a search  on my computer to find out when it was that I first read it.  The earliest thing I found was a presentation from back in 2002 - my job talk as it turns out.  The operative slide is below.  (Too much text for my taste now.  But in defense of this there was no paper to give out ahead of time, only the talk.)

By the time I was past the halfway point in reading this time around, I had the feeling I had appropriated many of the ideas in the report for my own.  Indeed, there is quite a bit of similarity in intent between the recent series of posts I wrote, Everybody Teaches, and the teaching part of the report. However, it is hard for me now to identify the sources of my own thinking on these matters.  For example, another influence was knowing Chip Bruce and supporting his work on The Inquiry Page.  Another influence was the NY Times site, Writers on Writing.  And then there were books on learning by several authors, Donald Schon, Jerome Bruner, and John Dewey himself among others.  All of these blended into a whole for me.  Yet as I haven't read any of this stuff recently other than the report, I started to attribute more of my thinking to having read the report than to other sources. 

The teaching message in the report is straightforward.  Abandon knowledge transmission as the primary approach.  Some knowledge transmission might still occur en passant but should be nothing more than that.  Instead, embrace an inquiry approach from the get go. In so doing, undergraduates can be brought into the core function of the research university, which is inquiry and the production of new knowledge that follows successful investigations.  

In my short post on the report from Tuesday I raised the issue of whether students are ready for the type of education the Boyer Commission envisions for them.  Here I want to focus on what readiness means for this particular recommendation on writing.

3. Writing courses need to emphasize writing "down" to an
audience who needs information, to prepare students directly
for professional work.

I don't like the expression writing down, as I will indicate in what follows. What it refers to here is somebody with a specialist's knowledge writing for a non-specialist.  It sounds too much like dumbing down and that is not really the essence of this sort of writing.  The reader should not be treated as stupid, but rather as quite intelligent.  Smart people who are non-specialists in a field deserve to have their intelligence respected yet need to be educated on points where they are ignorant.

My main contribution in this piece is the following point.  The only way you can write this way with any proficiency whatsoever it to read a lot of this type of writing and come to view it as a way to become broadly educated, an activity that is ongoing and lifelong.  Absent this prior reading experience, there is no way to get a good mental picture of the audience.  Armed with this experience, the reader develops a sense of taste for what good writing of this sort looks like.  Then as a writer style-wise this can be done by imitation of the writing the reader likes with himself or herself as in "generalist mode" as the audience. Indeed, it is my view that all students need to learn to communicate as generalists as well as insider in their given field of study. 

When I was in high school I would read at least some of the New York Times, which my dad would bring home from work.  I confess that first I turned to Red Smith or Arthur Daley.  But I also soon developed a fondness for Russell Baker and then the full Op-Ed page.  I also had subscriptions to magazines - first Sports Illustrated, then The New Republic, and Scientific American as well.  With the latter two, sometimes the pieces were over my head.  But I immediately liked the TRB column and learned to like the film review of Stanley Kauffman.  I should add here that this sort of reading was not in lieu of reading books, but in addition to it.

Today I really couldn't say what would make for a good diet of generalist readings.  I know what I like, but I don't want to prescriptive that way, other than that there should be multiple genres and a variety of writers to sample their style.  My sense is that many kids whom we admit to our research universities don't do this sort of thing.  But, as old fashioned as it may sound, I believe it is still the ticket now.  This is preparation that is really needed for college, more than the AP courses, more than the zillions of extracurricular activities. 

And in the spirit of promoting this idea, I would change General Education to Generalist Education and indicate that we should all be generalists, so we can communicate with one another, and each of us should be a specialist too.  This sort of rebranding would help on two fronts.  It would give more purpose to Gen Ed and instead of viewing those courses as one from column A and two from column B, make them all part of a whole.  It would also help to communicate expectations to would be college students about how they should prepare for college.  And, in my heart of hearts, maybe it would help to get students to like school, instead of where we are now where so many kids seem alienated by it in one way or another.

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