By Joseph DiLuzio, May 9, 2011 in Uncategorized
With the end of the semester comes the grading of student papers, an onerous process that takes much of our time and energy. I’m not talking about exams here: I mean term papers, many of them, several pages in length. At some point in the process, I inevitably find myself asking why I bother to write comments and, in particular, why I bother to correct students’ grammar. This post offers a justification of sorts. In it, I wish to defend my belief in giving equal weight to form and content in the evaluation of student papers. This entails scrutinizing a student’s ideas as well as his or her command of the English language.
In the contemporary academy, there is little tension between philosophy and rhetoric. Philosophy reigns. As academics, we concern ourselves primarily with thought – the content of an argument – rather than the quality of its presentation. As evidence, most academic writing and most conferences fail to attract a wider audience, and it is not just because our work requires a certain level of expertise to be understood. How often do we attend a public lecture and find ourselves riveted by the speaker? How often do we find ourselves nodding off? This, I would argue, is a product of modern “philosophy,” by which I mean a focus on content to the exclusion of eloquence. This problem is not new: Cicero traced its origin to fifth-century Athens, to the teachings of Socrates as presented in the works of his student, Plato. In his dialogue On the Ideal Orator (de Oratore), Cicero – through the character of Crassus – accuses the Athenian philosopher of separating “wisdom” into its constituent parts – knowledge and expression. In Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus, rhetoric (the art of persuasion) comes in for sustained criticism, and at the same time, Socrates argues that rhetoric cannot function normatively in the absence of philosophy. The Phaedrus, in particular, suggests that orations and the written word are ultimately less effective at persuasion than (philosophical) dialectic.
Four centuries later, Cicero composed his response in two moves. First, he splits the difference between philosophy and rhetoric – thought and expression – by saying that knowledge of both is essential for the ideal orator to practice “eloquence.” Second, he posits that philosophy entails speaking about virtue, morality as well as the laws of nature and the state. Crassus concludes, “the real power of eloquence is so enormous that its scope includes the origin, essence, and transformations of everything.” Philosophy requires language and persuasion to be effective, just as rhetoric requires the true knowledge of philosophy. In theory, both pursuits are of equal value, but as Crassus notes, philosophers tend to shun politics in order pursue their studies in peace. Having no use for it, they scorn the practice of speaking, thereby exchanging the true wisdom of old for knowledge alone.
A similar phenomenon plagues the modern academy. Ironically, one of the justifications routinely offered for a humanities education is that, unlike the sciences, it promises to teach students to think critically and write well. In other words, we claim to teach wisdom, but what we actually value is thought. How can we claim to teach students to write well and fail to address poor punctuation, incorrect spelling, and improper usage? A major contribution of twentieth-century thought was the realization that the meaning of a word is relative rather than essential. Successful communication requires writer and reader to share a common system of signs and a context that includes the same physical, psychological, and social environment. In other words, the sharing of ideas requires a common grammar, and apart from this grammar, ideas have no significance. When evaluating student papers, our written comments should be intended to enhance the significance of their ideas by addressing (in as much as they can be distinguished) issues of form and content.
In addition, the language an author uses says something about his “character.” By “character” (ethos in Greek), I mean the image he conveys of himself to his audience. The Greek theorists maintained that ethos was essential because of the correlation between the perceived credibility of the speaker and the receptiveness of the audience. So it is with the written word: poor punctuation may be viewed as evidence of carelessness and imprecision; muddled syntax may be construed as muddled thought, and improper usage, ignorance. Moreover, how we evaluate student papers says something about us as teachers. It signals to the student what our standards are, whether attention to detail is important to us, and whether we ourselves take the assignment or our class seriously. As such, how we evaluate a paper is as important as the final grade.