Friday, December 30, 2005

Why My Students Can't Write

The China Post provided yet more evidence of why my students can't write. This article on Taiwan's university system is a perfect example of bad writing at its worst:

This and other negative reports about university teachers have borne witness to the fact that our universities are losing their reputation as places for development of high moral standards. If this trend continues, which will probably be the case, the crime rate will certainly rise even further.

The government must face all these problems squarely and promptly revise its policy concerning higher education.

It is necessary to allocate more funds for the development of higher education, but money alone cannot remedy the problems that have arisen. The authorities must have a clear concept of what education means and set more lofty goals than those that are being pursued at present.


Bad Writing locally is distinguished by (1) the appeal to the Golden Age of the Past; (2) generalizing from one bad example with no thought for statistics; and (3) abstract criticism without concrete recommendations. On the pro-China side, Bad Writing typically makes history disappear, or if it can't be made to disappear, the actors vanish if they are KMT and the outcomes are bad. The editorial above offers shining examples of each of them:

1) -- our universities are losing their reputation as places for development of high moral standards. Did they ever have such a reputation?

2) -- This and other negative reports about university teacher no attempt is made to establish that these reports are a trend. No reference is made to any body of data, or other examples in any concrete way.

3) -- The government must face all these problems squarely and promptly revise its policy concerning higher education. It is necessary to allocate more funds for the development of higher education, but money alone cannot remedy the problems that have arisen. The authorities must have a clear concept of what education means and set more lofty goals than those that are being pursued at present.

The Post appears to believe that it is enough to call upon the government to face the problems "squarely" -- a beautifully abstract word that contains no concrete meaning whatsoever. The authorities are told they must have a clear concept (which would be.....?) and must pursue loftier goals (which would be.....?). Nor is any argument presented that concepts are unclear and goals are not lofty. The writer withholds all evidence and argument from the reader.

The average Taiwanese lives in a world of crap where there is no expectation that claims must be supported and ideas must be concrete. With garbage like this passing for analysis in the media, it is no wonder that none of my students can write.

16 comments:

Darin said...

It's very similar here in Japan too. While Japanese college students will quote their sources, they seem to refuse to include their own opinion (presumably because they have none). It's not plagiarism, but it sure is boring to read.
They're also limited by the "official Japanese language writing style" (which I believe is a direct copy from China.. ) 起転承結. Their is no room for their own opinion.
Paragraph 1: 起 The start
Paragraph 2: 転 A drastic change
Paragraph 3: 承 More/New information
Paragraph 4: 結 The result.
Short and sweet, but dull and life-less. As a result, my final paper on the occupation of Taiwan was 20 (in Japanese) pages, my classmates struggled to pump out 3. Length isn't everything, but I certainly threw off the curve.

I think it has to do with the thought that a lowly college student could never have an idea that hasn't already been thought of by a great thinker, and if a great thinker doesn't share their opinion, then said college student must be wrong, and hides their thoughts behind the cover of more established opposing opinions.

Jonathan Benda said...

I'll admit that the Post editorial is pretty bad. It's unfocused, and it places a lot of blame on university professors for the increase in crime without explaining how university teachers are causing(?) this trend. The reasoning is so bad, it doesn't even qualify as a post hoc fallacy.

But...

The average Taiwanese lives in a world of crap where there is no expectation that claims must be supported and ideas must be concrete. With garbage like this passing for analysis in the media, it is no wonder that none of my students can write.

Hmmm... just to play devil's advocate, let me apply your standards to your post here.

"With garbage like this"--could you please provide some specific examples (and even some statistics) besides this Post article to support the idea that in Taiwan "there is no expectation that claims must be supported and ideas must be concrete"?

Also, I don't quite see the connection between the Post's editorial and the idea that your students can't write. Do they read the Post regularly? (Do they even read English newspapers? Or newspapers at all?) Or are you trying to describe a more general trend in news writing that is not limited to English newspapers?

I also have to admit it makes me shudder when I hear or read a writing teacher say something like "none of my students can write"--particularly at the end of the semester. I know there's only so much you can do in a semester, and you might just be exaggerating here for the sake of efffect, but in my view it takes away from your critique of the Post editorial. It sounds more like end-of-the-semester burnout. (Which I totally understand--I'm feeling pretty burned out myself right now...)

(By the way, Darin, I think the form you're referring to is 起承転結, not 起転承結. At least the Chinese version is 起承轉合 [qi cheng zhuan he].)

rmdazwdv said...

I have been reading Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them and The Truth (With Jokes) by Al Franken. It would be interesting to teach a course on Lying. Or, Propaganda Techniques. Its sort of a Rhetoric course or Media Studies or Psychology. In any event, there would be no shortage of "exemplary" teaching material, from either the local or the US media.

Michael Turton said...

"With garbage like this"--could you please provide some specific examples (and even some statistics) besides this Post article to support the idea that in Taiwan "there is no expectation that claims must be supported and ideas must be concrete"?

You must be a latecomer to the blog. It is a theme here, with several previous posts on articles from different publications and from different political points of view.

But I should ask what you would consider a valid statistical sample. :)

Michael

Darin said...

Jonathan Benda: Whoops, yea you're right.. Shows you how much I use that form :D don't even remember the proper name.. hehe

Anonymous said...

Michael,
perhaps it's just your choice of words, but you seem to confuse "writing" with "political analysis." One can write well without engaging in any sort of serious analysis (e.g., PG Wodehouse).

But if we are talking about "analysis," then we need to keep in mind that rhetoric and persuasion vary greatly between cultures. You only need to consider the difference between what, say, a typical Frenchman might find convincing and what a typical American would to see this. Doubly so for Japan and Taiwan.

I can only imagine how your students will feel if they read your blog and learn your opinion of them.

Mark said...

Back when I was taking an Japanese essay class, our teacher always pushed the same kind of thing you're talking about Darin. She didn't use the same terminology you did, but basically every paper had to have these parts:

1) Introduction
2) Thesis
3) Counter-Thesis
4) Synthesis

We were encouraged to argue for our ideas, though not too directly. The idea is to make either the thesis or the counter-thesis a straw-man, which gets beaten down later in the essay. Then your synthesis is a "balanced opinion" which is actually slanted towards what the writer thinks. This is done by making the writer's personal view appear to be "in the middle". I must have written 20 some odd essays like that in my last semester.

Jonathan Benda said...

But I should ask what you would consider a valid statistical sample.

I dunno. I was just echoing your mention of the need for statistics (which I see has since disappeared...)

Actually, after I commented on this post I read a previous post (also about the Post--all these P/posts!) that gave another example of bad writing. (And of course I know this is sort of a theme with you.) But I needed to ignore that so I could scold you more succinctly! ;)

nostalgiphile said...

I'm teaching 4 writing classes this semester and my department actually subscribes to The China Post, so I guess I have to weigh in on this one.

First, about my students' writing, I'd have to say that I'm a flumuxed by their abilities. Some of them can write pretty well and seem to enjoy it if you teach them the skills to do so, but others insist on writing what are basically Chinese essays in English. This is only natural, however, and I don't think we can expect them to immediately abandon their 國文/文言文 background--which emphasizes the imitation of master-essayists above all else--if it's their only experience with writing in any language.

That being said, I'd remind you guys that American students aren't exactly pros when it comes to citing facts, figures, or outside sources to support their arguments. At least the freshmen I taught back in the day didn't seem to much interested in telling me why I should believe school prayer was a good thing or why reefer should be available at 7-11.

...About the China Post though, I take pains to warn my students not to read that rag unless the articles are from the wires.

Jonathan Benda said...

About American students: what nostalgiphile said. (And that's all I'm gonna say about that, at least in public...)

Michael Turton said...

But if we are talking about "analysis," then we need to keep in mind that rhetoric and persuasion vary greatly between cultures. You only need to consider the difference between what, say, a typical Frenchman might find convincing and what a typical American would to see this. Doubly so for Japan and Taiwan.

Then let the Post publish that in Chinese for a Chinese audience. The Post is writing in English, and one of the conventions of English rhetoric is the use of evidence from the real world to persuade.

And whether or not it is culturally acceptable to argue in a vapid, empty way that relies heavily on emotional appeals, it is still a vapid and empty way that relies heavily on emotional appeals. Don't confuse "culturally acceptable" with any other standard.

I can only imagine how your students will feel if they read your blog and learn your opinion of them.

Many of my students read my blog (they frequently discuss it with me -- in fact I have a couple of studets who downloaded everything I wrote and went over it with me). And they know perfectly well that I don't think they can write. I mean -- I grade their papers, don't I? We talk about it in class, don't we? LOL. This is not to say I that I believe they cannot learn. I hope you are not implying such a thing.

Michael

Darin said...

"This is done by making the writer's personal view appear to be "in the middle""
Mark... That seems to counter the way the goverment issued Japanese language tests are done though. The 日本留学試験 which is being used more and more to get into school here instead of the 日本語能力試験 has an essay writing part on it. The topics are always stupid things that mean absolutely nothing, but the always force you to choose between two opinions on one issue that basically you will undoubtedly not feel strongly about. The point is to make you argue one side that you could care less about, and show no mercy to the other-side. One of the things you get graded on is how none neutral you are.
Either way I always use the writing style I learnt in middle school (intro 3 body paragraphs and conclusion) whenever possible here in school (however if you look at none academic stuff I write it is definitely a garbled mess of randomness, please don't hold it against me :) ) and it seems to do well for me.

Anonymous said...

Nice discussion everyone. I wonder how we can sort throughh these complex issues. Michael certainly tries-- at least here I haven't read elsewhere-- though he perhaps fails the finer points. But the finer points of the overwhelming underachieving reality of nitwitted thinking that flows from the minds of the young and confused in Taiwan, backed by the old and similarly confused but definitely empowered is like getting hit by some kind of chemical weapon, I imagine. Your senses are dulled and lack the means to effectively respond at all.

Nick

Michael Turton said...

......Your senses are dulled and lack the means to effectively respond at all.

ROFL. Although I have to admit that the sheer waste of it all, and the tendency of analysts to defend authoritarian instruction and educational practices as "cultural", just fills me with anger.

Michael

Anonymous said...

On the ignorant side, Bad-Writing typically immerses itself in the past, wholly lacking the capacity to recognise the present or to accept truths that are less than satisfactory to the prejudiced.

Oops! Guess that doesn't address this particular entry at all...but how could I resist when curiously enough KMT is seemingly synonymous to evil according to the oh so knowledgeable Mr Turton.

Anonymous said...

On the ignorant side, Bad-Writing typically immerses itself in the past, wholly lacking the capacity to recognise the present or to accept truths that are less than satisfactory to the prejudiced.

Oops! Guess that doesn't address this particular entry at all...but how could I resist when curiously enough KMT is seemingly synonymous to evil according to Mr Turton.