Saving Strunk and White

Looking into the College’s hallway recycling bin, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.

Copy Retrieved from Recycling Bin

There is no excuse for recycling this book. If you have multiple copies, as I do, then distribute them to your various workspaces – just seeing the book is a reminder of their suggestions on style. Or give a copy to someone who has not read or does not possess a copy. Give it to a used book store. But please don’t recycle and shread this book as if it were a day-old newspaper. It is a timeless guide to American English writing style, with such reminders to ‘be clear’ and do ‘not inject opinion’ (p. 79).

True, they do not adhere to the Oxford comma, but as the authors suggest, if any rule is inappropriate in a particular case, don’t follow it. But you need to understand standard rules of good English composition before you can wisely choose to violate one. That said, I await my colleagues critiquing this blog for violating one or another of Struck and White’s key elements of style.

This is not just a must read, but a must keep and a must to pass on to younger readers.

Note: The introduction to their book was originally published in The New Yorker, and was copyrighted by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc. The Elements of Style, Revised Edition, was then copyrighted in 1935 by Oliver Strunk.

Feelings? A Note to Students

Note to Students: Don’t Tell Me How You Feel

Far too often, when I am reading an undergraduate student paper, José Neto’s lyrics come to mind: ‘Feelings … nothing more than feelings, …”.

I truly don’t want to hurt a student’s feelings, but I have to tell them time and again that I am not really interested in reading about how they feel. Please show me what you know about the topic and how you view the topic in a structured way and on the basis of your reading of the literature, empirical evidence, logic, ethical principles, or any other approach to analysis.

What is leading so many students to center their essays on how they feel about any given topic? Perhaps it is watching television interviews in which journalists or media personalities often ask people how they feel about a candidate, an issue, or an event. But I also sense that many instructors might be encouraging students to express themselves by asking them to write about their feelings. This is an easy ask: How do you feel about any given topic is something that requires no research, no analytical perspective. But surely this is a mistake to invite students to write in a way that frees them from reasoned analysis or critical thinking.

The ability of a student to critically address a question by drawing from literature, evidence, and a variety of analytical perspectives, is one of the fundamental skills and habits that should be instilled by a college education. It would be tragic if we reinforced a tendency for students to simply express their feelings, primarily because it was an effective means to encourage them to write. It might be that teaching writing skills in general, without writing being taught in the context of a substantive course, makes it difficult for the instructors to lead students to appropriate evidence and perspectives. It is undoubtedly important for instructors in all courses to constantly think of their role in teaching students how to write about the subject matter of their courses. feelings-morris_albert_ly

Nothing more than feelings might work in a song, but not in conveying knowledge, questionning conventional wisdom, or writing a substantive term paper. Therefore, I sometimes shock my students by telling them – gently but clearly − that I am not interested in how they feel about the topic of their papers.

Am I wrong?