Have had other things to do for awhile, but wanted to continue a couple
threads that were running when I got busy.
First on writing and intelligence, then quick notes on Milton and the
concept of "off topic."
Gunnar Jauch wrote:
> I disagree, dear Carrol,
> Your statement on a list dedicated to such a genius of the written word
> seems almost sacrilegious ;-)!
> But: Don't you agree that precise writing is a sign of precise thinking?
> Mind you, I'm using the term "writing skill" as you did, and this has
> nothing to do with grammar and its often arbitrary and illogical rules.
DISTINGUO, as the Scholastics used to say (if I remember the latin
1. Precise writing is a sign of precise thinking: this is probably true,
so long as you remember that "precise" or "powerful" thinking is _not_
necessarily the same as "true thinking." Thomas Aquinas, Bertrand
Russell, & Karl Marx were all precise and powerful writers, _and_
thinkers. But they can't all three have reached correct results.
2. Imprecise, bad, sloppy writing is a sign of imprecise, bad, sloppy
thinking. ABSOLUTELY FALSE.
I provoked a lengthy discussion of this on the ISU English Dept. list a
few years ago. I'll give you here my initial post (concealing the name
of the poster responded to). The discussion began with Smith's remarks
on spelling, but rapidly in subsequent posts widenened to include
"writing skill" as both you and I use it here.
Smith writes: "Spelling is admittedly a lowly, gradeschool skill, but
our students haven't conquered it. Since the basic problem of writing
is attracting a reader and since almost every reader can fault a
Preliminary: I spent my teaching career attempting (not too
successfully) to persuade students that an example, even many examples,
proved nothing; on the other hand as Thoreau remarked (I no longer
remember the remark accurately, or where he said it) a trout in the milk
can makes one think. Given that -- an example from the early 1960s. At
that time there was a 10 hour requirement in English: two semesters of
comp (4 sem. hrs each) followed by a 2 hr Intro to Lit. I had this
student who was a delight to have in the classroom, willing to speak,
and always speaking intelligently. In 101 and 102 I gave him a C for
this reason and out of general charity, but in those two courses I don't
believe he ever submitted a paper with a single complete sentence.
Then in the lit class, one day he was in my office discussing the novel
we were reading, *Rabbit Run*. At that time I possessed a fairly sharp
ability to memorize an oral statement of several sentences and project
in on a screen in my mind, and I did so with what he said to me at one
What I saw on that screen was as well "written" a passage as any I ever
received from an ISU student. The syntax was complex, flexible, and
perfect; the observation on Updike's novel intelligent and striking.
Examining his papers from that perspective, it was quite clear that all
those sentence fragments were just that, broken pieces of sentences that
in themselves were quite unexceptionable. He had no trouble with
grammar, with sentence rhythms, with the articulation of his ideas.
There was simply some horrid glitch between brain and fingers, but not
between brain and vocal cords.******
That started a long discussion, which revealed that there was concrete
research, and conducted by an young assistant professor at ISU I hadn't
known. The post from which I just quoted drew the following response
from Patricia Dunn of the dept:
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 1998 16:27:34 -0600
To: [log in to unmask]
From: "Patrica A. Dunn" <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: pedagogically speaking
I wish more teachers/professors recognized the phenomenon you described
For too long, good WRITING, interpreted narrowly, has been correlated
with intelligence. What's worse, people with the kind of glitch you
described--they can speak in syntactically complex sentences but can't
get them on a page or screen--have been told, explicitly or implicitly,
that they are NOT intelligent.
Those of us who are good "writers" (and I would venture to guess most of
us on this listserv are decent writers or we wouldn't be doing what
we're doing) can only imagine what society's assumed and often false
association between writing and intelligence does to people with the
kind of horrid glitch you describe.
Susan Vogel and others have done research that confirms what you say
about some students having highly complex and sophisticated sentence
patterns that for some reason they can't get down in writing. At the
risk of sounding like a show-off, I must here put in a plug for my book
(LEARNING REABLED: THE LEARNING DISABILITY CONTROVERSY AND COMPOSITION
STUDIES - Boynton/Cook Heinemann), in which I summarize and analyze this
and other related research.
Also, now that voice activated computer systems are getting much more
sophisticated,(i.e. Dragon Naturally Speaking), perhaps the academic
playing field, with its over-emphasis on the written word, will begin to
become more equitable for people who must deal with this frustrating
* * * * *
I later received the following off-list post from Patty:
* * * * *
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 1998 17:23:19 -0600
To: Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>
From: "Patrica A. Dunn" <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: The Glitch
Thanks for your reply. I wish I could say that most of the research
regarding this issue is in Composition, but it's not. It's scattered all
over in neuroscience, ed psychology, speech acquisition, you name it.
Most Composition people aren't aware of it. Sadly, I don't think they're
But I'm glad to hear you noticed that about that student.
Thank you for your post. Composition was never my field, and I never
became really acquainted with the scope of research in it, so I had no
way of knowing whether my suspicion of physical\neurological glitches
had real content or not. I'm delighted to hear that there is actual
research that backs me up.
The student I spoke of in my post printed his papers, and printing is of
course much slower than cursive writing, so I have always thought *one*
possible or partial explanation might be that some people lose the race
between transcription and short-term memory decay. And if so it exists
in degrees. I could never compose on a typewriter but had to use legal
pads then write and rewrite on typewriter. But ever since I got a
computer (an early Osborne) back in 1981 I have increasingly done my
thinking on screen, and the difference is in part speed. But that's
probably too simple.
My older daughter always had to (I presume still has to) read her
writing aloud to correct it. So in her case the difference is between
visual and aural judgment I guess.
* * * *
There is probably a relationship between facility in language and the
ability to think in sophisticated terms - BUT facility in language is
NOT identical with facility in written language. And to the extent that
the latter facility (under the present structure of education) is the
entrance ticket to higher training, the identification of bad writing
with bad thinking may well constitute a great waste of human talent. I
may have more to say on this later.
Oh yes, Gunnar, I too like "ability to wiggle one's ears"; I have
frequently used it as an analogy for various specialized or aberrant
human capacities. J
Then on Milton:
Marcia Karp wrote:
> I think your point about variation showing only against regularity is a good
> one. I wonder what you make of the erratum for the first edition of PL-"Lib. 2.
> v. 414, for we read wee." Why do you limit the function his spellings might have
> served to _symbolism_ (in scare quotes, yet)?
From Roy Flannagan (ed), _The Riverside Milton_, note to PL II.414:
For some reason that has caused all subsequent editors confusion, the
_1668 errata_ call for "wee" here, but the word is not stressed in the
line (stress should fall on "now"), nor does the compositor of _1674_
make the change, though he does make the change in all other corrections
listed. I have assumed, with Fletcher (3;136n), that "we" is correct.
On "off topic" topics. How can one isolate a writer from the world? When
I taught the _Odyssey_ for many years I would spend a good deal of time
exploring the division of mental and manual labor and its various
historical manifestations. I would also discuss the different
relationships between present and future generated by tributary modes of
production (with production fundamentally for direct use) and a mode of
production in which almost all production was of commodities. Students
would often ask, "What does this have to do with Homer?" and I would
have a double answer. The first was simply that we couldn't even begin
to understand Homer without having some sense of the gap between him and
us. But the second and more important response was that the question was
wrong. Rather than asking "How is X relevant to Homer?" we should be
asking "How is Homer relevant to X?" And usually the answer to that was
that the Odyssey-poet (who we call Homer for lack of a better name) was
really quite relevant to a number of things. And then there is that
marvellous passage in Pound's Canto XI:
And they want to know what we talked about?
_"de litteris et de armis, praestantisbusque ingeniis,_
Both of ancient times and our own; books, arms
And men of unusual genius,
Both of ancient times and our own, in short the usual subjects
Of conversation between intelligent men."
Should not the discussion of a poet always incorporate a good deal of
the "usual subjects" of conversation among "intelligent humans"? And is
not the significance of any poem at least in part the number of
connections that can be drawn between it and the rest of human history?