Active marketing for active learning

From my faculty inbox:

Dear Katharine,

The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to impart knowledge to students. With Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops providing an endless supply of distractions, savvy educators must rely on new teaching methods for classroom engagement.

Our new Active Learning Handbook highlights how using active learning techniques can result in higher student engagement, improved grades and a lower dropout rate.

“Active learning techniques,” apparently, do not include active banning of smartphones and laptops, nor do they include old methods like active calling on students, active class discussions, and active writing assignments that require active listening to lectures.

re: diminishing expectations…

I’ve just read Katharine’s A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?. (For what it’s worth, my answer is yes).

Reminds me of a change I’ve seen.

I never took a college writing course myself, but I was sufficiently alert to understand that the Big Flaw in student writing, in those days, was overuse of big words and passive voice.

Later on, in graduate school, my friend Val told me that her most mortifying experience as an undergraduate had been using a thesaurus to look up and replace every word in a paper with a bigger, more important word, then having her professor tell her that using a thesaurus to look up and replace every word with a bigger one was a terrible way to write. She was crushed.

When I returned to teaching freshman writing a few years ago, I found that contemporary textbooks were just as concerned with big word-mongering and excessive passive voice as they had been in my day. Any composition handbook worth its salt seemed to include a lengthy section on editing your paper to make it sound more like a human wrote it.

So I expected to address the issue with my students …. and then it never came up. No one in my classes was using passive voice, and no one was looking up big words in the thesaurus. Just the opposite. My students erred on the side of being too colloquial and still do.

I don’t know why.

Too much memoir writing in K-12?

Too little reading of sophisticated literary prose?

It’s a mystery to me because I can’t imagine that either Val or I had read much literary prose when we went to college….yet somehow we knew that college professors used big words and passive voice, so we figured we should, too.

Why was that?

And why are things different today?

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.