Does Our Education System Overemphasize Literature at the Expense of Writing?

Let me start by saying that I’m posing this as a question based on my own experience. If there’s research that flies in the face of what I’m going to suggest, please post it in the comments.

Frequently I hear professors lament that students come to Baruch College with inadequate writing skills. This sentiment is not bound by discipline, as I’ve heard it from faculty members in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences as well as the Zicklin School of Business. The latter even felt compelled to create a pair of zero credit Business Communication courses that all MBA students are required to take. This is a Communication Across the Curriculum blog, so it seems as good a venue as any to consider what causes this issue.

The natural inclination is to blame it on Baruch’s high percentage of non-native English speakers. However, I’ve found that the bulk of students who were born and raised in the U.S. come into my classes without knowing the most basic rules of writing, like those found in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

Elements of Style

Was I supposed to read this?

The first time I taught Journalistic Writing, I was shocked to receive the first set of papers and find that I had to go over some of the most commonsense stylistic rules with junior and senior journalism majors. These are students who, presumably, decided they liked writing enough to pursue it as a career — or at least enough to occupy 24 credits of their undergraduate education. But as I prepared my lesson on what I thought were the most basic concepts, I realized something embarrassing: I had never formally learned the lessons taught in Elements of Style.

Oh, I owned a copy. I had to buy it along with an AP Stylebook for one of the first journalism classes I took as an undergrad. But we never actually did anything with it because it was assigned as a tool to brush up on concepts we should have learned long before. So as I thumbed through the book and scribbled down Strunk & White’s rules to then teach hours later as though I were an expert, I felt like a hypocrite. I was about to go preach the importance of writing rules when I had earned my own journalism degree simply by using one I made up for myself: If it sounds right, it probably is right. That’s not very scientific.

So why didn’t I ever get these lessons? Probably because my English classes in grades 7 through 12 were taught as literature classes with writing as a secondary focus, if that.

I understand the idea behind forming writing assignments around classic works of literature to kill two birds with one stone, but I always felt like I was graded much more on what themes and allusions I could pluck from a work and not on how well I could actually explain my reasoning. This totally ignores writing for daily life — the kind of writing that you’ll actually be judged upon outside of an academic sitting. Explain what your problem is. Explain why I need to know what you’re telling me. Convince me of something.

Clearly educators agree that this type of writing needs to be taught beyond elementary school, because we require college students to take composition classes. So why do students go from age 12 to 18 without having to do any of it? Instead, classes reward the use of big words and convoluted sentences, and reaching page minimums instead of working within page maximums.

It’s widely and rightly accepted now that you don’t teach writing by drilling students with grammar rules, and I’m not saying we should. I’m also not suggesting we scrap literature from the K-12 curriculum in favor of more practical forms of writing. But can’t we have both? Shouldn’t we have both?

Student Coverage of Superstorm Sandy

When Baruch College re-opened after Hurricane Sandy left the campus without power for a week, several of the school’s journalism and photography professors asked students to recount their own storm experiences in blog posts and pictures. These assignments gave glimpses of the tumult in different neighborhoods across the city. Taken as a whole, they provided as clear a picture of New York City during and after the storm as anything I’ve seen in mainstream media.

Much of this work was published on Blogs@Baruch course blogs, many of which are viewable outside of the class and some even outside of the Baruch community. But the stories received further exposure when the faculty editors of Baruch’s student-written online magazine, Dollars & Sense, put together a package of photographs and excerpts with the help of Schwartz Institute Multimedia Fellow Emily Johnson.

By culling vignettes from blog posts and packaging them with photographs from Professor Fran Antmann’s Basic Photography class, Dollars & Sensewas able to create a relevant and moving multimedia package.

I’ve heard from several people – both inside Baruch and out – who said they found the students’ work to be heartfelt and compelling. This response is a tribute to the hard work of the Dollars & Sense faculty editors, professors Joshua Mills and Carl Rollyson, as well as the students who shared their stories.

It is also further reinforcement of the value of open blogging platforms outside of the classroom.

Historically, school assignments have been treated as transactions between student and professor, rarely if ever seen by even a third set of eyeballs. As more and more professors use course blogs to teach students not only about writing but also about the responsibilities and values of having their work available for all to see, those students are hopefully finding opportunities to use their best work for professional development purposes — or even just a bit of self promotion.

While almost all of the Sandy coverage published in Dollars & Sense came from class assignments, the attention it received shows how coursework can — and often should — reach beyond the classroom walls.

Good to the Last Step

When I started at the Schwartz Institute last August, our office did not have a coffee maker. As a hopeless caffeine addict but admitted tightwad, I found what I thought would be a simple fix: Melitta’s Ready Set Joe. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s essentially just the basket from a standard drip coffee maker.

Ready Set Joe

Image from Drugstore.com.

It seemed like a good solution to our coffee problem. It’s small, cheap (a whopping $2.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond), and promised the “perfect brew” in three simple steps:

  1. Place the Melitta Ready Set Joe filter cone on your ceramic mug.
  2. Insert a Melitta #2 filter, scoop in your favorite ground coffee.
  3. Pour hot water through cone & enjoy your fresh brewed coffee.

Following these instructions, I ended up with some of the lightest, weakest coffee I’ve ever tasted. So Schwartz tech guy Tom Harbison and I came up with various theories about how to make the coffee better. First we tried pouring the water in such a way that it would touch as many of the grounds as possible. Still weak. Then we thought maybe a second cup using the same grounds would be better, as if the coffee needed some sort of initiation before it was ready to make a good cup of joe. Not so.

The next step was to give up on the Ready Set Joe and convince the director of the Institute that we couldn’t live without a coffee system that removes any potential for human error. So now we have a Keurig single-cup brewer, and the Ready Set Joe collects dust next to my copy of “Head First HTML.”

I had all but forgotten the seemingly useless brewing cone until I was at a Joe: The Art of Coffee with other Upper West Side yuppies last weekend. There, I saw a glass cone that looked awfully similar to the cheap-o plastic Ready Set Joe. It was a Hario Coffee Dripper and it sold for $24, or eight times the price of the Ready Set Joe. “Clearly,” I thought, “this thing has to have some sort of extra compartment that steeps the coffee before dumping it in your cup.” It had to do something that the $2.99 piece of plastic didn’t, right? Wrong.

Hario Dripper

Image from CliveCoffee.com

As I inspected the box for some sign of added value, I noticed the one major difference. Instructions.

  1. Fold the paper filter at the seams and place inside the cone. Add coffee grounds (medium-fine grind) for your required servings and shake it lightly to level.
    *10-12g is normally good for one serving. Adjust proportions for a stronger or weaker brew. Using freshly ground coffee is recommended.
  2. Slowly pour in just enough hot water to saturate the grounds, moving the stream in a circular pattern, starting in the middle and moving outward for even saturation. Wait 30 seconds until next pouring.
  3. Slowly start adding more water using the same slow, swirling motion as before. Brewing should take 3 minutes.

It’s debatable if those instructions are worth an extra $21.01, but they’re clearly superior. The number of items in the instructions is the same, but the details help remove some of the potential pitfalls: shake the grounds to level; saturate the grounds and let them sit for 30 seconds; use a slow, circular motion. So I went back and tried these instructions on the Ready Set Joe and I actually got a dark, flavorful, drinkable cup of coffee.

This gave me some renewed faith in the pour-over process, which is apparently a hot trend. The interesting thing is that the article is all about how slow the process is, which flies in the face of the implied promise of a race-inspired title like Ready Set Joe. (This might also explain the reasoning behind the abridged instructions, as well as alternately marketing the product as the “Perfect Brew Filter Cone.”)

This seemingly trivial experience also gave me a renewed sense of purpose in writing a massive help document for Blogs@Baruch. The work is undeniably tedious and sometimes has me wondering if I’m insulting a reader’s intelligence, but the Ready Set Joe/Hario case is a good example of how unspecific instructions can be worse than no instructions at all. Better that the user chuckle because you’ve stated the obvious than write off the product as useless because you didn’t. And often you’d be shocked at what people don’t consider obvious at all.

I feel this is also an important lesson for teaching. As an MBA student at Baruch I’ve found several assignments frustrating because of the lack of clarity or structure in the assignment description (including, ironically, many assignments in the Business Communication course). But I’m not above these issues as an instructor, either.

For three semesters I taught “Perspectives on the News,” an introductory course in the journalism department at Baruch College. The midterm was always the same — a report on the perceptions of journalists and the media as portrayed in a Hollywood movie. The assignment required students to find two reviews of the movie written by film critics, and two others written by journalists who focus on the portrayal of their trade.

In the third semester, very few of the students wrote the report as I had intended even though the instructions on the syllabus were the same as previous semesters. I also spent half a class session giving a detailed breakdown of what I expected in the report, so I was baffled when the students blatantly ignored the outline. Many of them included no journalistic reviews, or used critics’ reviews that briefly mentioned the journalistic aspects of the movie. I had always attributed the issue to laziness or indifference on the part of the students, which was easier to do since I haven’t had to teach the class again. But, strangely enough, the Ready Set Joe has me looking back and wondering if I played a bigger role in the issue than I was willing to admit. I realize now that my failing had been in shortening my lessons on LexisNexis and Factiva, which is where I told the students to look for journalistic reviews of the films. I incorrectly assumed they had received this training in previous courses, and if I teach “Perspectives” in the future I’ll know not to make the same mistake.

Lesson learned. Hey, even coffee giant Starbucks writes crappy instructions sometimes.

Assessing the value of the Social Media Expert

I had the privilege of attending the annual Online News Association conference in Boston from Sept. 22-24 and I learned several things that I’ll put to use in my work on East20sEats.com and Dollars & Sense (both run by Baruch College’s Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions, where I am an adjunct). However, my biggest takeaway was that no one has any real, specific advice when it comes to building a fan or follower base on various social networks. Oh, they’ll tell you how great Google+ Circles are and how Twitter is where real news comes from nowadays, but when it comes to maximizing your outreach the advice gets vague in a hurry:

Be passionate about your subject matter. Be a part of the community. It’s a conversation not a lecture.

Aren’t those the same things that people in the know have been saying about journalism as a whole for at least 7 years?

That’s not to say there’s no value in hearing from those who have built huge “personal brands” — as much as I hate the term — on social media. There are lessons to be learned from sharing success stories. But, as I found in the social media and branding session, those who have made it work don’t sit around examining why it worked. They don’t have time to because they’re too busy doing it.

And that’s why it’s become clear to me that there’s no such thing as a social media expert, at least as it pertains to the analysis of its uses in the professional world. There are people doing great work who have built a large following around that work, but only the rare breed of self promoter can achieve social media celebrity simply by talking about the merits of existing social media over the medium of existing social media. Because at the end of the day, what’s the point?

To me, the beauty of Facebook, Twitter and others lies in three facets, all of which render the alleged social media expert useless.

First, they’re easy to use. It doesn’t take a specialist to set up a Facebook account and upload photos, or to write in under 140 characters at a time.

Second, and most important, the experience of social networking is different for every user. That’s why asking someone at Aviation Week for specific examples of how to build a follower base is useless when you run a foodie site.

Third, social media is inherently self-propagating. By their very nature, these platforms create huge networks of people who will keep you apprised of the latest trends in social media.

So if those three things are true, what’s the value of the social media expert? Is it to sing the gospel of Facebook, Google and Twitter? That seems unnecessary when each of these outlets boasts hundreds of millions of users. As Peter Shankman of HARO (Help a Reporter Out) wrote in May, “Being an expert in social media is like being an expert at taking the bread out of the refrigerator. You might be the best bread-taker-outer in the world, but you know what? The goal is to make an amazing sandwich, and you can’t do that if all you’ve done in your life is taken the bread out of the fridge.”

Shankman was writing from a marketing perspective, but the concept holds true in journalism (or any other field, for that matter). You still have to do good reporting for anyone to care.

Putting the “expert” label on social media work just discourages potential in-house users and encourages companies to seek out expensive consultants, when all they really need is the slightest bit of tech savvy and a willingness to play around in the medium to find out what works for them.

You don’t need a social media expert, and you certainly don’t need to become a social media expert. You need to become an expert in your field who actively uses social media and isn’t afraid to experiment in its new forms. As American University professor David Johnson said in a pitch for an “unconference” session that unfortunately didn’t get picked up: “It’s not the medium, it’s the message.”

Granted, you can’t ignore the power of Facebook or Twitter, both as a marketing vehicle and as a way to bring more voices to the reporting process. But it’s 2011. Hopefully you don’t need a self-anointed guru to explain that.