Writing in My Class
Andrew Austin © 2010
Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether aware of it or not, the intellectual worker forms his or her own self in working toward the perfection of craft; to realize personal potentialities, and any opportunities that come his or her way, such a person constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman. (Mills 1959, 196)
Ideas are important – so important that care must be taken in their production. A carefully constructed paper or proposal indicates that an author cares about scholarly endeavor; it tells the reader that intellectual craftsmanship, to borrow a term from C. Wright Mills, is the writer’s habit, that the writer is “personally involved in every intellectual product upon which [she] may work” (Mills 1959, 196).
Poorly crafted work has the opposite effect: the text gets in the way of communicating ideas. Bad grammar and syntax muddy the point the author is attempting to make. Misspelled words reflect poorly on the writer’s language competency (President Andrew Jackson was wrong when he quipped, “It’s a damn poor mind indeed which can’t think of at least two ways to spell any word”). Wrongly used words project unintended meanings (save yourself from embarrassment: know what words mean before using them!).
Opaque and pretentious writing shares many of the qualities of poorly crafted work. It may be that the author cares very much about her overwrought work. Nevertheless, trying to sound smart and writing smartly are usually different things (perhaps nothing is more dangerous in writing than ambition armed with a thesaurus). Big words and big complicated sentences do not always convey big ideas. A writer should never impose upon her audience the burden of a tortured text.
I have been teaching college students for more than 15 years, and experience has taught me that, absent guidance, the quality of student writing is highly variable, ranging from the superb to the, well, awful. The superb makes grading papers a joyful experience. I move easily through the points and grasp the author’s argument. I feel confident that the student is appropriately using sources. Moreover, I can see the student cares about the impression she makes.
The other side of the coin finds grading an unpleasant chore. Teachers can usually tell when a student waited until the deadline's eve or did not care enough about the assignment to put into it the necessary effort. The appearance of not caring sends signals to the instructor that the student may not be a suitable candidate for a college diploma. A recklessly researched paper demands investigation, which often turns up plagiarism, a serious form of academic misconduct. Because of the problems sloppy writing and careless research cause, teachers spend more time grading poorly written papers than they do reviewing well-crafted work. It’s time wasted by all involved when the paper receives a failing grade or no grade at all.
In pursuit of consistency in quality (I want all students to do well!), I have developed this guide for writing in the social sciences. It is not a complete guide. Good science writing requires a style manual, a dictionary, careful and thorough research, accurate handling and presentation of sources, an open mind, integrity, capacity for accepting critical feedback, hard work, and etcetera. Nonetheless, this guide sets forth my expectations, and students must conform to the rules contained herein and in the materials this guide and the syllabus direct students to consult. Failure to conform to the rules will result in a poor grade regardless of the quality of a paper’s content. As the argument to this point has emphasized, adequate or good content is only part of a paper’s strengths. The other part is craftsmanship.
Writing in My Class (Introduction)