Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to improve writing (no. 32)

In August 2008, I wrote myself a note re: bookbuying:

When you learn of new non-fiction that addresses matters of culture, education, language, or technology, wait. Read a sample online or in a bookstore. Consider whether you’re willing to take on several hundred pages of the writer’s prose. Look at Amazon reviews (which are occasionally far more discerning than those found in traditional media). And ask yourself, self, the crucial question: do you need to buy this book, or can you be happy getting it from the library?
Thus I borrowed Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010). That ungainly subtitle suggests the quality of the prose within. Here is a sample paragraph, introducing descriptions of ten colleges that Hacker and Dreifus “like”:
Frankly, in a system this vast and varied, there are good people and good schools everywhere; the trick is to find them. What follows are a few places that caught our attention. The list isn’t comprehensive, but rather focuses on a few good colleges that strike the right balance. Some of the things the schools we liked had in common: they are student-centered, rather than driven by the whims of the faculty or by administrators’ ambitions. We liked schools led by idealists, the only kind of leaders with the courage to buck the conformity that cripples most corners of contemporary higher education. We were drawn to schools that had good core values, for want of a better term, which were genuinely adhered to. Most of all, we preferred schools that actively tried to keep fees low — or free. Confined by financial limitations, their leaders could keep their eyes on what really mattered, which is always the students. At the end of the day, any school must be about putting the “higher” back into education.
I see many problems here.

Frankly: like personally, it’s usually meaningless when prefacing a statement. And personally, I’ve disliked frankly since 1977, when I was interning at a publishing house and an editor told me, frankly, just what he was willing to pay me to do some part-time copywriting.

“[G]ood people and good schools”: the trick here though is to find the schools, not good professors scattered here and there.

“What follows are”: a clumsy juxtaposition of singular and plural. Singular and plural forms pose a strangely persistent problem in this book:
Kenyon is often the fallback choice when Jennifer or Jeremy fail to get fat envelopes from Dartmouth or Brown.

They are freed from committee chores and can keep their offices, although they may share it with a visitor during their off-semesters.
“The list isn’t comprehensive”: unneccesarily repetitious, as the preceding sentence refers to “a few places.”

“Some of the things”: the sentence goes on to state only one thing the schools have in common.

“[T]he conformity that cripples most corners”: a ghastly metaphor. What’s more, this sentence creates a deep contradiction in the paragraph: if “most corners of contemporary higher education” are crippled, how can it be that good schools are “everywhere”?

“[F]or want of a better term”: what’s wrong with “core values”?

“[V]alues . . . which were genuinely adhered to”: an awkward use of the passive voice, and another unnecessary adverb. But also: just as there is no difference between genuinely adhering to values and adhering to them, there is also no difference between having values and adhering to them. One’s values are those one adheres to.

“[W]e preferred schools that actively tried to keep fees low — or free”: actively seems meaningless here. (Can one try inactively?) And fees cannot be free. Notice too the shifts between the present and past that have begun to turn up in the paragraph. As the descriptions of colleges that will follow are meant to be current, the present tense, stating what is the case, would be appropriate.

“At the end of the day”: sigh.

“[A]ny school must be about putting the ‘higher’ back into education:” more precisely, putting the higher back into higher education.

Here’s my revised version, shrinking the paragraph from 175 to 94 words:
In a system this vast and varied, there are many good schools; the trick is to find them. Here we present a handful, all of them serving students, not faculty whims or administrative ambition. Idealists lead these schools, men and women courageous enough to resist the conformity that cripples much of contemporary higher education. We have chosen schools that adhere to good core values, and we give preference to schools that keep fees low — or eliminate them. Working with limited funds, focusing on students, these schools are putting the “higher” back into higher education.
What about the argument of the book? Hacker and Dreifus’s survey of higher ed is largely anecdotal, in the manner of an article in Newsweek or Time. There’s one story of professorial laziness (with a student using the notes that her mother took when she was a student) that’s almost certainly apocryphal. The depiction of pampered faculty working a handful of hours per week bears no relation to academic life as it’s lived in what profs sometimes call “the trenches.” And the book’s contradictions bespeak incoherence. Faculty research is a bad idea, Hacker and Dreifus say, but they make an exception for Arizona State, which they praise as a “research powerhouse.” And while Hacker and Dreifus acknowledge both the exploitation of contingent faculty and correlations between contingent instruction and student failure, they praise a community college where, as they acknowledge, 75% of faculty are part-time, without offices or even desks. Students in the know, they say, “plan their programs around full-time professors.” That’s core values for you.

For a far more perceptive and persuasive analysis of problems in American higher education, I’d recommend Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works.

[This post is no. 32 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Related reading
All How to improve writing posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 6

Slywy said...

So, like, their writing is proof the "higher" is missing from "education"? Perhaps publishers could reintroduce the concept of editing.

I haven't gotten around to reviewing Generation Me by Jean Twenge yet. My favorite bit was when she proved how much more tolerant young people are of gays than oldies like us, then moves right into an anecdote about a teenager who won't come out of the closet because he's afraid of his peers. Who, frankly, aren't oldies like us. Personally speaking.

(I acknowledge I can't edit myself.)

Michael Leddy said...

I think Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic could both have benefited from careful editing, frankly.

I hope you do review GM; I’d like to see what you say.

normann said...

"At the end of the day"...reminds me of a "quality assurance" assignment at my former place of employment some years back. Some freelancer had been given the task of translating an analysis of gas delivery contracts under EC law from German to English. The project manager sent the translation to our best Norwegian to English translator for a review of the English (he is not fluent in German and could therefore not gauge the accuracy of the translation). How ever, even he could tell there was something wrong, commenting that the text still seemed to be in German somehow and that the translator consistently translated "Rechtsprechung" as "jurisdiction" rather than "case law", which was the only possible translation in the context. That wasn't the half of it. Now I had been authorized to translated one phrase highlighted in yellow, but when I started to read, I was flabbergasted. We could not send this translation to the customer and charge NOK 800 a page. Not only did was the translator unaware that every single ECJ judgment and every EU directive and regulation already existed in approved English translation, freely available on the Internet (he made up his own botched translations to no avail), he did not even know that "Amtsblatt" is called the "Official Journal" (it's like not ever having heard of the Congressional Record). Any lawyer with even the vaguest knowledge of European Community law would have flung that sorry excuse of a translation back in our faces and never given us another job again. Even though I was not authorized to do so, I spent 24 extra hours to fix it (overtime and weekend work, for which I took comp time). I did it to protect the reputation of the company. And I made sure that that translator never got another job from us again.
What prompted this rant was that he invariably translated "schießlich" (after all, in the event, finally, ultimately) as "at the end of the day", thus appliquéing the diction of sportscasters onto a legal brief.

Michael Leddy said...

Oh my.

Elaine went a little crazy this fall hearing Joe Sestak use and reuse “at the end ofthe day.” Here’s a sample, twice in two sentences: “But at the end of the day, I feel it’s incumbent upon me that they need a U.S. senator that works for the people of Pennsylvania, and the success of that is my responsibility, because not to succeed means people get hurt. So at the end of the day, I make decisions on what will win.”

stefan Hagemann said...

That was a fun revision, Michael. Hacker's and Dreifus' gratuitous use of alliteration makes me think of an exchange in Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" where Juan is trying to explain his notion of the life force and mentions "the flies and the fleas and the Fathers of the Church." Dona Ana interrupts to complain about the reference to the Church. Juan graciously explains that he mentioned the Fathers "purely for the sake of alliteration" and promises to "make no further allusion to them."

Michael Leddy said...

Good call on the alliteration, Stefan. Now that I see it all — not just “vast and varied” but also “courageous,” “conformity,” and so on — I want to walk away from the scene of these sentences.