Saturday, March 5, 2011

The State of the Language, Part 2

(For part 1, go here

Part 2:
Vagueness, that icky trait of language, seems to me largely to result from protection of pride. If you (not you, of course) commit to an idea or a way of expressing it, you claim it, own it, put your stamp on it. You say, "This is what I believe. I stand behind this. It is an expression of me." This is nothing less than a wager of pride: you're opening yourself up to all manner of criticism should your ideas be deemed wrong/misguided/unpopular/unfashionable/(you get the point). 

Dramatic? Maybe. But but but, let's just think about it for a hot minute. Some anecdotal evidence: during the 17 student paper conferences I had a few weeks ago, only one of my students without fumbling, mumbling, and hedging, actually articulated a coherent answer to the question I posed. I'd only asked them to verbalize what they'd already written in their papers (which they had right in front of them). Yet they bumbled about, unwilling to assert what they'd already (semi-)asserted in writing (it seems their high school teachers never seemed to expound on the evils of the word "seems" like mine seemingly did all the time). 

Why are they so reticent? Trust me, it's not b/c I'm some imposing figure. I've never had to yell at this group (which is totally weird), and at 5' 5" and 110 pounds, I'd get my butt whooped by most of these students in a fight. 

But it's not just freshmen: I hedge and hem and haw (and whatever other h-word you can think of) with the best of 'em in any class where I feel even slightly outbrained. I start sentences with, "Well, something that I'm just thinking now that I, I, uh, haven't fully fleshed out, is, uh . . . " Do we have so little self-confidence in reserve that we can't put 2 ounces on the line? Have our egos become so fragile? So many people (obnoxious political commentators excluded, of course) would rather be "safe" by being "not wrong" (and, importantly, they end up being "not right" either) than risk criticism/censure/failure/a learning experience for the sake of self-expression and all those other lovely words that could go here. 

So: here comes my dorky prescriptive statement, get ready. I think we need to take back the language. Yes, I just said that really dork-face thing. But I mean it! 

We need to rescue our speech (and writing) from the dangerous pits of vagueness and ineffectuality and say what we really mean. We need to use language - and teach our students to use language - in a way that is empowering and assertive. (Without, of course, being over-powering and bullying. There's already enough of that out there.) 

I don't yet have a plan for enacting this with my own speech . . . BUT, as a teacher, the place I'm going to start is by calling out my students on their hedging and asking them, WHY?!?! they do this. I'm going to call their attention to their habits. I'm going to insist that they take a risk and take a stand in their speech and with their ideas. After all, they're paying lots of money to tell me what they think . . . .

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