Writing center focuses on poppycock

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Writing center focuses on poppycock

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When Ben Jonson, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, got a paper he recently wrote for one of his business classes returned to him, he was shocked by the grade: a C+.

“It was disheartening,” Jonson said. “And it’s not like I haven’t gotten low grades before. I seriously put a lot of time into that paper, and I thought that it was one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.”

The paper, however, according to comments written on it by Jonson’s professor, had one fatal flaw: it was too clear.

“I understand what you’re trying to say, and that’s a problem,” Jonson’s professor penned in the margin. “Where are the power words? Where’s the academic mumbo-jumbo?”

Jonson was floored by the critique; he says that he’s spent a great deal of time in the writing center perfecting his narrative voice and argumentative style.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I’ve gotten better grades on papers that I thought were absolute crap, stuff that I literally scribbled down five minutes before class.”

And Jonson is not alone. The results of an academic survey conducted by SLU at the beginning of the semester show that many other students are struggling with the same issue – professors are increasingly giving them bad marks for their clean, sparse writing.

“What, do you think I’m a child?” one professor wrote on the paper of a student who agreed to show his work to The University News on the condition that he remain anonymous. “No words in this paper have more than five syllables, and you haven’t made any nouns into verbs – I can’t give this any higher than a D.”

But the university has finally decided to respond. In a letter sent out today to the student population, SLU administrators announced the opening of a new writing center, dubbed the Balderdash Update to Language Lessons – or BULL for short. The center will be staffed by undergraduates from a number of disciplines – notably sociology, business, psychology and political science – but it will be open for use by all members of the SLU community. In the letter announcing the center’s opening, the administration gave a few examples of the work that will be done in the center to make student writing more jargon-friendly. A few examples of sentence fixes were provided:

Sample sentence 1: The United States and other democracies are well equipped to confront political challenges.

Edited version: The democratization of the United States has greatly increased its inclusionary ability to face issues that have been problematized by abundantly prevalent worldly woes – woes whose promulgatory aspects are increasingly apparent.

Sample sentence 2: Authors constantly try to perfect the dialogue of their literary characters.

Edited version: Book writers fervently attempt to legitimize the players in their works by giving them satisfactorily significant lines, ones which are indices of deep analytic thought.

Jonson and other students expressed hesitation, however, and some students see the new center’s goals as antithetical to everything they’ve ever learned in school. The SLU English department agrees.

“We are appalled by the university’s commitment to being confusing,” the department said in a letter released soon after the announcement of BULL’s creation. “Nobody benefits from this. All along, we have been teaching students to be clear, to use less adverbs and adjectives – to show and not to tell – and now all of that seems to have gone down the drain. This is unbelievable, and we hope that the administration will reconsider this move.”

The university countered by stating how important BULL will be in securing jobs for students. Employers, the school stressed, are increasingly looking for big words, for sentences that sound important and for writing that can be easily construed in multiple ways.

“This is the future,” the university said in its letter to students. “Who has a job and who doesn’t have a job will be determined by one’s level of expertise in obfuscation. Commitment is a scary thing, so if what you’re saying is ambiguous, you’ll definitely have a leg up.”

Jonson, however, is still skeptical. He did recently receive an A for a paper written in the new BULL-approved style, but he regrets what he’s lost.

“My writing used to define me,” he said. “But now it seems to just make me more unsure of myself. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.”