Sunday, July 30, 2017

Accessibility (the other kind)

A Twitter exchange Sunday between Sara Goldrick-Rab and Ken Lindblom touched on a favorite topic, but one that I don’t think we take seriously enough.  SGR asked for a definition of “college readiness” in accessible language; Lindblom responded that graduate schools don’t teach accessible writing.  

They don’t.  It’s a real problem.

The postmodernist trend of the 90’s had its strengths, but one of its greatest flaws was a semi-intentional premium on incomprehensibility.  When you’re supposed to show your sophistication with terms like “always already” and “overdetermined,” simple statements come across as naive.  Traditionalists used to make great sport of quoting particularly opaque sentences out of context, poking fun at highfalutin word salad.  Admittedly, the search for sentences like that was often like looking for hay in a haystack.  

Postmodernism aside, though, academic writing isn’t typically geared towards the educated public.  We know the reasons for that, and some of the reasons make sense.  Making a narrow point seven levels into an argument requires using shorthand for the first five or six levels, or you’d never get it done.  (A few months ago a mathematician was asked to leave a plane because someone in the seat next to him found his notes jarring.  They were a complicated math problem.)  The public isn’t really into footnotes.  Specialists use shorthand that non-specialists find daunting, and it makes sense that they do.  On campus, I don’t stop to define “accreditation” every time I say it.  It wouldn’t help.  

But our failure, as a sector, to engage the public has created a vacuum.  When we leave the public sphere to others, with their own agendas, they take advantage.  Now the stories making the rounds about academia are about “dropout factories,” student loans, and political correctness.  Those stories are based on varying degrees of truth, but our stories are missing.  Why aren’t we hearing about those “lightbulb over my head” moments that changed lives?  Why aren’t we hearing about universities as places for experiments?  For that matter, why aren’t we hearing that one generation’s wild radical student cause is the next generation’s common sense?  Alternately, why aren’t we hearing about the impact of sustained educational austerity on the next generation?  Why don’t we get our stories out there?

We don’t train for that.  We don’t hire for that.  Maybe we should.

In one way, community colleges have an advantage.  We hire for teaching ability, as opposed to research.  In research, obscurantism can sometimes pass for profundity.  But in teaching -- and especially in teaching students who may be the first generation in college -- clarity matters.  Clear and effective communication matters more here because teaching matters more here.  But the teaching loads, and the relative lack of help, can make it difficult to keep up a prolific writing schedule.  I can attest personally that a prolific writing schedule isn’t easy.

Michael Lewis, Ta-Nahesi Coates, and Sara Goldrick-Rab have shown us that there’s a market for substantive, academically informed non-fiction if it’s written well.  It can be done.  Until now, academe has treated it as a distraction or worse.  It shouldn’t.  If we don’t win the public, others will.  As I’ve told my own kids through their respective baseball and softball careers, strikeouts are part of the game, but if you must strike out, I’d rather see you go down swinging.  Let’s start.