“Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.”
– William Zinsser
I’m requiring attendance at a campus-wide convocation and asked them to respond to the sessions they attend on the Facebook page.
I’m no luddite, obviously. In the past I have required them to follow a certain Twitter account or set up RSS feeds to content I found helpful.
And even keep blogs. There is something vaguely comforting about long form writing in an academic context, and blogging seems right.
But the world is filled with thoughtless microbursts on Twitter and Facebook and it’s time to put a stop to it. The thoughtless part. And this requires asking students to reflect in concise ways, a necessary and important skill.
Andy Selsberg made the point convincingly in Teaching to the Text Message over at the New York Times. An English teacher, master of the five paragraph essays and all the other fixed forms of academic expectations, he now slips in assignments like “Come up with two lines of copy to sell something you’re wearing now on eBay.”
“I’d rather my students master skills like these than proper style for citations,” he says, noting that philosophers like Confucius and Nietzsche were “kings of the aphorism. “
So was Jesus. “Do unto others” comes to mind.
But students? Not so much. Much of their short form content is hurried and lazy. Not that everything has to be, or even can be, profound.
But Selesberg says students should be able “to leave behind text messages and comment threads that our civilization can be proud of. “
My goal is much more modest. I’m thinking coherent and concise.
By the time they finish college many have mastered the art of saying practically nothing in 500 words, padding and repeating until they stretch a good Tweet into a three page essay.
At least a few of them already do their best writing on Facebook, with a real sense of audience and a passion for their topic.
Can we turn these short form opportunities into teachable moments?
I hope so. There is much to say and less space to say it.
So I should stop.
What are your ideas? Suggest a short form writing assignment, three sentences or less.