I’VE been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clich├ęs. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.
I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.
So a few years ago, I started slipping my classes short writing assignments alongside the required papers. Once, I asked them, “Come up with two lines of copy to sell something you’re wearing now on eBay.” The mix of commerce and fashion stirred interest, and despite having 30 students in each class, I could give everyone serious individual attention. For another project, I asked them to describe the essence of the chalkboard in one or two sentences. One student wrote, “A chalkboard is a lot like memory: often jumbled, unorganized and sloppy. Even after it’s erased, there are traces of everything that’s been written on it.”
This was great, but I want to go shorter. Like many who teach, I keep thinking the perfect syllabus is a semester away — with just a few tweaks, and maybe a total pedagogical overhaul. My ideal composition class would include assignments like “Write coherent and original comments for five YouTube videos, quickly telling us why surprised kittens or unconventional wedding dances resonate with millions,” and “Write Amazon reviews, including a bit of summary, insight and analysis, for three canonical works we read this semester (points off for gratuitous modern argot and emoticons).”
The longest assignment could be a cover letter, and even that might be streamlined to a networking e-mail. I’d rather my students master skills like these than proper style for citations.
A lot can be said with a little — the mundane and the extraordinary. Philosophers like Confucius (“Learning without thought is labor lost. Thought without learning is perilous.”) and Nietzsche were kings of the aphorism.
And short isn’t necessarily a shortcut. When you have only a sentence or two, there’s nowhere to hide. I’m not suggesting that colleges eliminate long writing projects from English courses, but maybe we should save them for the second semester. Rewarding concision first will encourage students to be economical and innovative with language. Who knows, we might even start to leave behind text messages and comment threads that our civilization can be proud of.
Andy Selsberg, the editor of “Dear Old Love: Anonymous Notes to Former Crushes, Sweethearts, Husbands, Wives and Ones That Got Away,” teaches English at John Jay College.