Henceforth and until further notice the word “this” is banned in all formal writings that graduate students undertake in my courses. The ban does not apply to the less formal writing of correspondence with the instructor, microthemes, or reviews. However, in the course’s lone formal assignment, the conference papers, the ban is total and will be enforced without mercy or humor. I encourage students to police themselves with the aid of the “Find” and “Edit” tools in the word processing software that they use to compose their papers. Nota Bene, I’m totally serious about “this.” Consequences for violations of “This Ban” will be negotiated with the students when we meet tonight, but my own leanings are toward penalties that are simultaneously petty and malicious (OK, not really on this last point).
Those who know me personally know that I’m not too often serious, and that I have a profound, blood-borne hatred for rules that I perceive to be arbitrary. Why then am I so suddenly issuing such a seemingly arbitrary and senseless and rigid decree? This ban is (notice, the ban does not apply to me, and I’m completely willing to be hypocritical THIS time around) admittedly a suddenly imposed rule that initially appears to bear all the hallmarks of tyranny and madness rolled up into one stupid moment. This rule, at the outset, seems to smack of our worst memories of the worst writing instructors, those humorless and rhetorically naive instructors we’ve all encountered in our pasts who harped upon pet grammatical peeves without any sense that grammar is a rhetorical and social and political construction, or that grammar is a fluidly drifting constellation of conventions, not a rigid and universal set of commandments.
So, then, why “this”? Why “this”? Why this? Why this ban on “this”? Why this ban on this?
Because it’s necessary. But neither is the ban actually arbitrary or capricious, or related very directly even to issues of correctness or a pet peeve. The ban is about encouraging precision in graduate student writing, and discouraging imprecision. For the past three semesters I have noticed a surprising tendency in graduate student writing. The tendency is for students to use the word “this” without specifying what the word demonstrates or refers to, as if the idea(s) it is intended to indicate are self-evident, when in fact (or, in rhetorical effect) those ideas are not self-evident and need to be explained or elaborated for the reader.
I’m going to go a little Wikipedia here. The word “this” is the “singular proximal demonstrative” in the English language. As the Wikipedia explains in terms easier to simply cite than to translate into my own terms:
In linguistics, demonstratives are deictic words (they depend on an external frame of reference) that indicate which entities a speaker refers to and distinguishes those entities from others. Demonstratives are employed for spatial deixis (using the context of the physical surroundings of the speaker and sometimes the listener) and for discourse deixis (including abstract concepts) where the meaning is dependent on something other than the relative physical location of the speaker, for example whether something is currently been said or was said earlier. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This)
The problem is occurring primarily in grad student discussions of abstract concepts, where the referent that the word “this” should point to has been left unstated, or has not been restated in a way that allows the reader to follow the writer’s logic. What is self-evident to the writer is not stated for the reader, and to confusing effect. The problem is not, typically, with the students’ logic or thinking in these cases (for some reason it only seems to be happening with “this” and not with the plural demonstrative “these), but with their written representations of their logic and thinking. I’ve spoken with many grad students about this issue in their writing over the past three semesters, and last spring I banned the word for one student in particular, and with positive end results. So, as a grand thought/writing experiment, I’m banning the word “this” for the entire class for the remainder of the semester. I’ll report back on the results.
As a last note, I’ll point out that in object-orient computer languages (Java, C++, etc) “this” frequently functions as a keyword (learned all this crap from the Wikipedia today) to refer to the object being worked upon. In these object-oriented computer languages, it is a word that indicates itself, and the object as a self, a me. That’s sort of the problem coming up in some cases with grad students–the word points to the selves of their own private thoughts, and not to externally articulated ideas that the reader needs to share access to in order to access the writer’s text(s). The result is that I as a reader feel like I’m falling off of someone else’s mental cliff, and I assume that other readers would feel similarly . . .
I can remember many occasions as a graduate student when both I and other students would complain to each other that we wished our professors would lecture more frequently. In my three years of graduate course-work I can recall only one or two occasions when a faculty member lectured, and each time it was at the insistence of the graduate students in the class.
I think that in the humanities there is culture within which it is almost politically incorrect to lecture, especially in small seminars and especially to graduate students. Humanities teachers tend to be heavily invested in the open-ended or guided class discussion, and in my experience (both as a student and observer of fellow graduate faculty at many different institutions), graduate faculty virtually never lecture. But I think another resistance to lecturing, especially at the graduate level, comes from a Freire-inspired fear that to lecture is to participate in the now widely discredited “banking model” of education. Personally, I’m a pluralist in most all things academic, and I think that dismissing a particular teaching method wholesale is a mistake. Moreover, I think that always lecturing, and then testing on the material covered in the lecture, is exactly what Freire was criticizing. Lecturing sparingly and with purpose, on the other hand, seems entirely different to me, and even necessary, rather than oppressive.
Frequently graduate faculty, especially at top tier institutions, are world class experts on the subjects that they teach within their graduate programs. I think that it is a positive sign of humility when these world class experts do not simply assume, as experts both world-class and mediocre would have in the past, that students want to hear them drone from a lectern for three hours each week. And yet, I think graduate faculty in the humanities should lecture more frequently. Students want to hear the expert’s perspective sometimes, don’t always want to hear themselves or each other, and sometimes need a break from the demands of propelling a rigorous discussion each and every day.
I don’t think that a graduate level course should ever consist only of lecture. But I do think that the lecture format is under-utilized in graduate education in the humanities, and to the detriment of graduate students’ educational experiences.
All of this was brought home to me this past week as I was preparing for the History of Rhetoric class I’m teaching this fall. History of Rhetoric is probably the only course offered in my department where I and the students are responsible for covering 2500 years’ worth of theory and texts. By necessity, “history of” courses must move in fits and starts, and detour around even important material. Any one of the -isms that we will cover this semester could constitute its own graduate seminar. But the purpose of such a course is not to cultivate expert knowledge in each –ism, but instead to show the relationships between people and periods and –isms so that students can get a sense of the “big picture” of the discipline and its past. With all of this in mind, I’ve decided that I will be lecturing for 30-60 minutes each week (which represents 1/6 to 1/3 of our once-a-week 3 hour meetings). First, it’s pretty tough on graduate students to expect them to sustain intense conversation for a full three hours. Second, with so much material to cover, lecture can be a very efficient delivery method, and can be utilized without invoking the liabilities of the “banking model” of teaching. Third, since I’ve started writing my lectures I have no doubt that I have better organized my thoughts about the course and refreshed my command of the material.
The ability to write and deliver lectures is an important skill for graduate students to develop as well. At many institutions the graduate students who are hired into faculty positions will be expected to be able to lecture within the context of certain courses that their departments offer, especially for large undergraduate survey courses. (Given the budget situations in most states, and concomitant increasing class sizes, the ability to lecture will be even more in demand in the short term.) Isn’t it ironic then that humanities programs, which I think generally do a much better job training graduate students in sound pedagogical practices than other fields, do not teach graduate students how to lecture, nor even provide imitable examples in the course of graduate education? It certainly is contrary to the ethos of my own discipline of rhetoric and composition to expect a student to excel at a skill, like lecturing, without first giving the student explicit instruction in the skill.
So, I’m going to do a little lecturing this semester.
I’ve finally gotten around to posting the syllabi and assignments for my fall courses, ENGL 202: Writing and Critical Inquiry (sophomore level, required, two sections) and ENGL 610: History of Rhetoric (graduate). As always, I will probably tweak things over the course of the semester, giving students appropriate notice.
Fellow teachers, also as always, please feel free to crib from me if you see something you like, but I of course appreciate attribution.