A (very brief) thought on Technical Writing (and Teaching it)

So over the last five years as an English teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to teach some “Academic Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines” at the university level. This is some of the most rewarding teaching I’ve done because it changes people’s lives. I’ve never, to my knowledge, changed the way an English major relates to language. People who decide (particularly in this market) that they’re going to major in English already have a love of words, of books, of narratives, of the Oxford comma I’m typing now, and even of grammar.

People who major in sociology or biochemistry or engineering or public administration love their disciplines too. But sometimes they hate the English language and despise the drudgery of reading and writing. That’s never a malady I’ve had to cure in an English major. They swoon over Byron (or Behn), laugh at Pope and Sterne, pretend they’re skinny twenty-year-old Kerouacs when they go on road trips—pretend they’re Emily Dickinson when they hide their half-rhyming poetry away from all the people who would rightfully criticise them for shamelessly overusing the em-dash—

There are great writers in disciplines well beyond English Lit, and many of them go unappreciated as such. Biologists keep a bust of Charles Darwin on their desk and feel the self-admiration of following in his footsteps in their travels, and their groundbreaking experiments, and their journeys into the scientific secrets of life. But he was a man who wrote a book who changed the world, and biologists never really think about following Darwin’s steps as influential writers.

As a brief aside: to those Young Earth Creationists who insist, “evolution is only a theory,” I will simply reply (aside from semantic nitpicking on how you think the word “theory” works in the sciences) that evolution is a theory advanced in an extraordinary piece of writing–and perhaps if some Young Earth Creationist, somewhere, were ever half as capable a writer as Darwin was, all the facts and evidence in the world would not be winning him such a decisive victory.

Writing matters. Good writing matters even more.

This is something I’ve managed to instill in students across a wide range of backgrounds. One of my students has gone on into dentistry. Another is studying the red-shifting of distant galaxies in motion. These are not people to whom Jane Austen is a matter of daily concern. But they are people to whom good writing, good grammar, and the extraordinary beauty and versatility of the English language are all extremely important.

At many universities in North America, the teaching of English falls into several categories, often spread across several Departments. Most of the time, when you take “English,” what you are really taking is literary studies. You are studying literature written in (or translated into) English—and in the process, learning to become a skilled academic reader and writer. 

Occasionally, EFL students are baffled, and ultimately unfairly defeated, by the misconception that “English” will teach them how to speak and write in English, just as “Spanish” begins by teaching us how to speak and write Spanish, or “Latin” teaches us how to speak and write Latin. This seems like an honest mistake. When they expect to encounter verb tables and exercises on the subjunctive, and instead come face-to-face with our 400-year-old literary classics, they might well question our archaïc nomenclature, and reasonably so. “English” was a great name for literary studies when it was taught in white English—speaking classrooms to white English-speaking people. Thankfully, this is no longer the case—but it does mean, perhaps, that it’s high time we changed its name.

Sometimes grouped in with English is a small amount of “Creative Writing.” More often these days, it is a dedicated Fine Arts program, taught elsewhere by different professors. It is, I have observed, a discipline studied by very few best-selling authors (or even “working authors”), and a discipline studied by very many creative-writing teachers with modest publication records. In any case, it’s a strange bedfellow to literary studies.

Outside of these darlings for lovers of language, there is the unloved stepchild of “English”: technical writing. This is an inaccurate term for what I’m going to talk about: what I really mean is non-fictional writing in standard English for dealing with complex subjects. Call this what you will; technical writing is really only one aspect of it, but as an aspect that is never approached by Literary Studies, it seemed as good a term as any.

The realm of “technical writing” is, more and more, the only realm of a university wherein English grammar, mechanics, and style are taught. Here is where fluency is acquired, where remedial study is remediated. Here are the little brown trenches of Strunk & White. Here is where parsing happens. Here is where clauses and prepositional phrases, and the twenty common fallacies, and the anatomy of a thesis statement, are discussed and workshopped in detail. As I’ve mentioned above, here is where English teachers see the most sweeping changes in their young readers and writers. As a teacher of Gothic fiction, I’ve transformed young people who love English into people who love English and now know a thing or two about Ann Radcliffe. As a teacher of technical writing, though, I’ve transformed young people who hate English and are terrified of confronting it into people who love the language for the endearing, patchy, growling, snaggle-toothed mongrel beast it is.

This is extraordinary and satisfying work. It reaches beyond the academy, as people who go on to “real jobs” in the public and private sectors carry forward their passion for communication, critical thinking, good expression, and the capacity for beauty of all languages, but especially this one. More often than not, we see this work only through its absence, when people who should care about these things just don’t, to the embarrassment of their companies and themselves.

(if you made it through all nine of those hideous links, give yourself a gold star.)

I’ve written previously about Classical and Vulgar English, and about my forecast for the ongoing shrinkage of Classical English into a language of specialists while new vulgar dialects, whether centered in regional cultures or diasporic ones (vis-a-vis the Internet), replace them in the same way that the Romance languages ultimately supplanted Latin. This is not precisely what I’m talking about here, but it is related. What accelerates the natural changes, or at least contributes to the instability of Classical English, is the pandemic of carelessness about good writing in the world at large, a pandemic that we’re trying to curb with the notion that all university students should learn how to read and write at, you know, a passable high school level.

We are not doing very well at this—mostly because even the most passionate English lovers don’t actually care about this work.

Mostly, we care about our dissertations, and our obscure and arcane personal research, which certainly isn’t into how to solve practical real-world problems in university pedagogy, such as how to put an end to those 800-word essays that begin with “SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME.” Anonymous marginalia in Shakespeare’s Latin-teacher’s copy of Virgil’s Aeneid is what we really care about. We’d rather spend our time applying Spivak to readings of the consumptive invalid as subaltern in two long-out-of-print pulp novels of the American West. We await the privilege of tenure so that we can get on with the digital-humanities task of sifting through the particulate ash of John Murray’s fireplace with a mass spectrometer, so we can use forensic computer analysis to determine what order the pages of Lord Byron’s lost memoirs were burned in. If you are me, you are concerned with how emerging narratives of secularization transform the ways in which we think about supernatural fiction from the 18th century onward. The argument would not work if I did not also implicate myself and my obscure studies.

The idea is that we’re supposed to want to pursue these navel-gazing avenues: we’re supposed to consider them more important than instilling the value and skill sets of excellent reading and great writing in people who do not already have these qualities. In universities where the English and Writing departments share a combined existence, it’s most often the non-literature courses that go to adjuncts, sessionals, graduate students tossed their first courses, and anyone else who has angered the gods of promotion and tenure. The forced dichotomy is one in which the greats teach only literature, and the best teach only upper-year literature. A hierarchy exists in which the Serious Academics carry on exalted studies at high levels while the scamps and vagabonds are contracted to teach triple-sized classes of technical writing. The idea of a tenured professor teaching a first-year student how to write a thesis statement is, in most universities, absurd. There is a silent understanding among the rigid hierarchies of academia that if universities were 1980s buddy-cop movies, assigning a tenured English professor to teach technical writing is the equivalent of busting your lead homicide-man back down to traffic duty.

This hierarchy baffles me, and I’m glad to see that it’s not yet a rule—merely a disturbing trend. Of course it’s self-perpetuating; those of us taught to see technical writing as a “lower” calling—that’s so community college, we say with snobbish dismissal—dream of days when we can have our own offices, living wages, and freedom from being obligated to teach what is probably the most important thing English departments have left to offer the community at large. Once we hit the big time, we say, we’ll only ever teach Milton. And when kids come to first-year university at a 7th grade reading level, and we admit them because good God do we ever need the enrolment numbers, we’ll stick them in classrooms of 45-90, fling a desperate sessional at them, and go back to the niche business of teaching literature to the already literate—a niche business that grows smaller every year as the literacy standards erode completely.  

It’s all well and good to say that Vulgar English is replacing Classical English, that we are “grammar shaming” people, or working from a place of extreme white privilege, or even that we’re just taking part in the 1,500-year-old debate about why kids are getting dumber every year (news flash: they’re not, no more than they were in the 7th century). As a linguist, this is natural and healthy and we can’t stop it no matter how hard we try. From the perspective of sociology or cultural study, however, the attitudes we hold toward technical writing in the academy are entirely separate from the simple linguistic reality of late-English and its coming “chrysalis” stage. Mostly, we snobbishly turn our noses up at it, if we are advanced enough literary scholars to afford such a snub. If we give it any thought at all, it’s in an operational capacity: massive superclasses of first-years from across the disciplines, after all, when assigned 60 to a sessional, go a long way toward making those fourth-year seminar classes with our top 8 favourite students more affordable.

This is the wrong attitude to take toward technical writing. We have lamented the decline of mechanical skills in English before; and yet we continue to teach the preservation and restoration of those skills as if these were secondary and ultimately petty concerns. How can we expect students to respect the skills they acquire through Writing courses if we do not ourselves treat such work as more worthy of respect?

As any Zen master (well, a few) might tell you, navel-gazing is important. The minutiae of our own personal, arcane studies can lead to significant new ways of understanding the stories that are important to us or to other people we want to learn more about. This is good work, and I don’t mean to criticize it. But the idea that it is somehow “superior” to non-literary studies in English doesn’t fly either. If the fatal flaw, the hubris, of academia today is the very inequality universities were founded to prevent, then this way of thinking will only hasten its decline.

The solution is twofold: like all the problems currently endangering the higher education industry, we are in desperate need of revaluation. We need to recognize that teaching first-year students, that teaching technical writing students, that teaching non-majors, are more valuable than they’ve considered to be. We need to recognize, compensate, and most importantly, assign the teachers of such classes with an eye to just how much value we put on the importance of academic reading and writing (after all, everybody’s got PowerPoint now, so what’s the problem, right?). Second, we need to do away with the stigma that technical writing is necessarily inferior to storybooks just because we like storybooks better. It’s one of the most important things we do as educators, and is (or should be) the beating heart of a successful academic’s curriculum. The more I read good examples of technical writing across the disciplines, the more convinced I am that this kind of writing can be a thing of true beauty.

It’s too late at night to sustain this discussion with precision, but it’s one I want to come back to. For now I’ll say it’s an odd metafictive joke that the world-renowned experts in studies of displacement and diasporas, otherness and privilege, toppling the patriarchal mechanics of power in the West, wouldn’t be caught dead in a remedial writing classroom. These attitudes can be destructive to the learning of many, and should not be seriously held by anyone who is passionate about the English language and its power to change lives and transform the world, whether or not you get it nicely packaged in heroic couplets.

If there is a manifesto to be gained from all of these late-night, off-the-cuff meditations, it is this:

Prose fiction is what makes painstaking attention to the mechanics of the English language tremendous fun. Good prose fiction is what makes grammar beautiful.

However, technical writing must be taught, and written, with the same eye for beauty as the literary novel. It’s a different genre with a different stylistic resonance, but it’s not just a programming language: at its best, it’s sophisticated, elegant, incredibly efficient. It flows fast and reads fast. Sentences that mire a reader in semantic sludge and ruin the simple beauty of technical writing, are egregious sins against a writing style whose whole purpose is to communicate tons of information rapidly with minimal distraction.

When people teach reading and composition as a dull “sidekick art” to the stylized, gorgeous wordplay of Alice Munro or Edgar Allen Poe, they are denigrating not just the language itself but everything written in it. All language is rich; all language can be beautiful. Like any tool, the incompetence, carelessness, or internal ugliness of language reflects nothing more than the incompetence, carelessness or internal ugliness of its wielder.

Thanks for listening, Internet. The language we speak and write should be a lifelong curiosity for all of us. I’m fed up with the idea that English is a thing studied only by literary specialists with obscure lit-hipster interests (“Jonson? So mainstream, why didn’t you just say Shakespeare? I’m a Beaumont & Fletcher fan; bet you’ve never heard of them”). English is for everyone who speaks English. If we recognized that on a broader scale, we wouldn’t have to spend nearly so much time defending our continuing relevance. Technical writing and its related disciplines are an invaluable service, and it’s high time we revalued them as such. 

Now to bed–and to see whether any of this holds its coherence in the morning.


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