Category Archives: teaching

Is Twitter Destroying the English language?

Coming out of the NITLE seminar on Undergraduate Research in Digital Humanities, my title question was one of the more interesting questions on my mind.  Janis Chinn, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, posed this question as a motivation for her research on shifts in linguistic register on Twitter.  I’m a recent convert to Twitter and see it as an interesting communication tool, but also an information network aggregator.  I don’t really worry about whether twitter is eroding my ability to write traditional academic prose, but then, I’ve inhabited that prose for so long its more the case that I can’t easily adapt to the more restrictive conventions of twitter.  And while I do think students are putting twitterisms in their papers, I don’t take this as specifically different than the tendency of students to use speech patterns as the basis for constructing their papers, and not recognizing the different conventions of academic prose.  So twitter poses some interesting issues, but not issues that strike me as different in kind from other kinds of language uses.

I gather from the website for her project that Janis is only at the beginning of her research and hasn’t developed her findings yet, but it looks like a fascinating study.  Part of her description of the work is as follows:

Speakers shift linguistic register all the time without conscious thought. One register is used to talk to professors, another for friends, another for close family, another for one’s grandparents. Linguistic register is the variety of language a speaker uses in a given situation. For example, one would not use the same kind of language to talk to one’s grandmother as to your friends. One avoids the use of slang and vulgar language in an academic setting, and the language used in a formal presentation is not the language used in conversation. This is not just a phenomenon in English, of course; in languages like Japanese there are special verbs only used in honorific or humble situations and different structures which can increase or decrease the politeness of a sentence to suit any situation. This sort of shift takes place effortlessly most of the time, but relatively new forms of communication such as Twitter and other social media sites may be blocking this process somehow.

In response to informal claims that the current generation’s language is negatively affected by modern communication tools likeTwitter, Mark Liberman undertook a brief analysis comparing the inaugural addresses of various Presidents. This analysis can be found on University of Pennsylvania‘s popular linguistics blog “Language Log”. Remarkably, he found a significant trend of shortening sentence and word lengths over the last 200 years. My research, while not addressing this directly, will demonstrate whether using these services affects a user’s ability to shift linguistic registers to match the situation as they would normally be expected to.

Fascinating question in and of itself. I think on some level I’ve always been deeply aware of these kinds of shifts.  As I kid when my parents were missionaries in New Guinea, I would speak with an Aussie accent while I was with kids at the school across the valley, which shifting back in to my Okie brogue on the mission field and in my house.  And as I made my way in to academe my southern and southwesternisms gradually dropped away with a very few exceptions–aware as I was that my accent somehow did not signal intelligence and accomplishment.  Mockery of southern white speech remains a last bastion of prejudice in the academy generally.  I don’t think these are the kinds of register shifts Janis is looking at, but same territory.

I’m also more interested in the general motive questions.  If we could prove that Twitter inhibited the ability to shift registers, would that count as destroying or damaging the language in some sense?  If we could demonstrate that Twitter was leading people to use shorter and shorter sentences–or to be less and less able to comprehend sentences longer than 160 characters.  Would this signal an erosion in the language.  We must have some notion that language can be used in more effective and less effective ways since we are all very aware that communication can fail abysmally or succeed beyond our hopes, and usually ends up somewhere in-between.  Does the restricted nature of Twitter limit or disable some forms of effective communication, while simultaneously enabling others.  These are interesting questions.  I’m sure more intelligent people than I am are working on them.

Takeaways–NITLE Seminar: Undergraduates Collaborating in Digital Humanities Research

Yesterday afternoon at 3:00 about 30 Messiah College humanities faculty and undergraduates gathered to listen in on and virtually participate in the NITLE Seminar focusing on Undergraduates Collaborating in Digital Humanities Research.  A number of our faculty and students were tweeting the event, and a Storify version with our contributions can be found here.I am amazed and gratified to have such a showing late on a Friday afternoon.  Students and faculty alike were engaged and interested by the possibilities they saw being pursued in undergraduate programs across the country, and our own conversation afterwards extended for more than a half hour beyond the seminar itself. Although most of us freely admit that we are only at the beginning and feeling our way, there was a broad agreement that undergraduate research and participation in Digital Humanities work was something we needed to keep pushing on.

If you are interested in reviewing the entire seminar, including chat room questions and the like, you can connect through this link.  I had to download webex in order to participate in the seminar, so you may need to do the same, even though the instructions I received said I wouldn’t need to.  My own takeaways from the seminar were as follows:

  • Undergraduates are scholars, not scholars in waiting.  If original scholarship is defined as increasing the fund of human knowledge, discovering and categorizing and interpreting data that helps us better understand human events and artifacts, developing tools that can be employed by other scholars who can explore and confirm or disconfirm or further your findings, these young people are scholars by any definition.
  • Digital Humanities research extends (and, to be sure, modifies) our traditional ways of doing humanities work;  it does not oppose it.  None of these young scholars felt inordinate tensions between their traditional humanities training and their digital humanities research.  A student who reviewed a database of 1000 Russian folks tales extended and modified her understanding arrived at by the close reading of a dozen.  Digital Humanities tools enable closer reading and better contextual understanding of the poet Agha Shahid Ali, rather than pushing students away in to extraneous material.
  • Many or most of these students learned their tools as they went along, within the context of what they were trying to achieve.  I was especially fascinated that a couple of the students had had no exposure to Digital Humanities work prior to their honors projects, and they learned the coding and digital savvy they needed as they went along.  Learning tools within the context of how they are needed seems to make more and more sense to me.  You would not teach a person how to use a hammer simply by giving them a board and nails, at least not if you don’t want them to get bored.  Rather, give them something to build, and show or have them figure out how the hammer and nails will help them get there.

I’m looking forward to the Places We’ll Go.

More Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

This afternoon the School of the Humanities at Messiah College will be connecting to the NITLE Symposium on Undergraduate work in the digital Humanities. Messiah College is currently considering making the development of undergraduate research, and especially collaborative research between faculty and students, a central theme of our next strategic plan.  Like many colleges and universities across the country, we are seeing undergraduate research as a way of deepening student learning outcomes and engagement with their education, while also providing more and better skills for life after college.

The push toward student research has some detractors–Andrew DelBanco and Geoffrey Galt Harpham among them–but I’ll blog at some other time about my disagreement with them on liberal arts grounds.  I’ve been on record before as to how I think Digital Humanities is a (or THE) way to go with this effort within my own disciplines.  I was glad to receive the video below from Adeline Koh at Richard Stockton College, chronicling the achievements of the RE:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  A nice overview of the conference.  If you look closely and don’t blink there’s a couple of shots of my colleagues, Larry Lake, and one of me apparently typing away distractedly on my iPad.  Although perhaps I was tweeting and achieving a transcendent level of attention and interaction without really having to listen.  🙂

This afternoon, the School of the Humanities here at Messiah College is going to consider some more whether and how Digital Humanities might be applicable to our situation by participating in the NITLE symposium on this topic at 3:00.

A teacher’s work

As professors we often make the mistake of asking each other in the hallway whether we are getting time “for our own work,”  as if whatever it is that we are doing everyday in class and in our offices is not our own work but some alien thing forced upon us that belongs to others.  Our identities get wrapped in the books we’ve written or fantasized about, or the books we’d like to read, and we forget that our real work is the minds and hearts of the human beings in front of us every day.  I’ve been really blessed with some amazing students over the years, and it is especially gratifying to me this week to be seeing so many of them doing so well, and getting notice for their achievements.  A brief sample.

First Liz Laribee, who could not finish an assignment on time to save her life, (and I think there were several that she never finished) but is one of my favorite student ever.  Liz has gone on to become a community organizer, an impresario for the arts at the Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg,  and a fine artist with a growing reputation in her own right.  I’m happy to say that I and my family are the proud owners of three Laribee originals.  Liz and her work were just recognized in Harrisburg magazine. A brief taste of the interview:

Q. What kind of thing would you like to do but have no idea how to accomplish it? What would it be like, and what would people say about it?

I love Harrisburg. I talk about this city more than I talk about men, and that makes my mom really sad. Harrisburg

The only people for me are the mad ones--Liz Laribee, commissioned for Colin Powers.

has continued to feel like my home more than any other place in the world. But this a home in the process of redefining itself. Frankly, to live and work here is to understand the depths and limitations of this geography, these people, this government, and what entropy looks like on the ground. Our current situation is the kind that gets covered by NPR. In varied and

diverse ways, I have seen that act as breeding ground for a changed sociology. As a member of the artistic community here, I find myself surrounded by truly innovative, collaborative people who are committed to bettering this reality. More than anything I’d like to help give Harrisburg a process to funnel its energy into innovation and collaboration: an incubator for the culture being formed in its basement studios. This is the best town on the planet, and I would like to see us live up to our potential. I would love to find a way to help Harrisburg tell a story worthy of its citizens.

via Harrisburg Magazine : Recovering/Uncovering: the Art of Liz Laribee.

Congrats to Liz.

On Saturday, Kimi Cunningham Grant will be giving a reading at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore from her new book, Silver Like Dust: One Family’s Story of Japanese Internment (Open Road Media, 2012).    I just found out about this, so I haven’t had a chance to read Kimi’s book, but the publicity materials describe it as follows:

The poignant story of a Japanese American woman’s journey through one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

Sipping tea by the fire, preparing sushi for the family, or indulgently listening to her husband tell the same story for the hundredth time, Kimi Grant’s grandmother, Obaachan, was a missing link to Kimi’s Japanese heritage, something she had had a mixed relationship with all her life. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, all Kimi ever wanted to do was fit in, spurning traditional Japanese cuisine and her grandfather’s attempts to teach her the language.

But there was one part of Obaachan’s life that had fascinated and haunted Kimi ever since the age of eleven—her gentle yet proud Obaachan had once been a prisoner, along with 112,000 Japanese Americans, for more than five years of her life. Obaachan never spoke of those years, and Kimi’s own mother only spoke of it in whispers. It was a source of haji, or shame. But what had really happened to Obaachan, then a young woman, and the thousands of other men, women, and children like her?

Obaachan would meet her husband in the camps and watch her mother die there, too. From the turmoil, racism, and paranoia that sprang up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrifying train ride to Heart Mountain, to the false promise of V-J Day, Silver Like Dust captures a vital chapter of the Japanese American experience through the journey of one remarkable woman.

Her story is one of thousands, yet is a powerful testament to the enduring bonds of family and an unusual look at the American dream.

I was lucky enough to have Kimi as an advisee and am thrilled to read her book over the next few days.

And these are only two.  I think of Carmen McCain, writing so courageously and passionately in Nigeria.  Of Debbie DeGeorge who had another play produced this past year.  Both of whom I was lucky enough to work with on honors projects in their senior year.  Of Janel Atlas, who has done so much for mothers who have experienced the loss of still birth.  And Shawn Smucker, traveling across the country in a bus, his kids in tow.  And Sarah Ginolfi, on her way to ordination.  And Louie Marven.  And Paul Gee, and Jonathan Scovner, and Jonathan Felton. And John Francis, traveling the world with guitar in hand. And Morgan Lee–whose honors projects on the politics of memoir I was honored to listen in on today.  And Elena Casey, whose work I will hear on Monday.  And on and on.

And all the many, many, many others, too many to name, every one of them in their own way.

This is our real work.  When we forget that, we forget them, we forget ourselves.

Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent book, Humanities and the Dream of America, whiling away the hours on my exercise bike.  Ok, half hours.  I’ve been struck by the similarities in analysis between Harpham and Andrew Delbanco’s analysis of the college as a distinctly American achievement, having just finished Delbanco’s meditation on the nature of the college a week or so ago.

For both, the fundamental antagonist to the ideals of the liberal arts has not been professional programs per se–though undergraduate programs in things like businesss, nursing, and engineering (and a host of others) are favorite bete noirs of our current humanistic discourse about the purposes of education.  Rather, for both the real threat lies in the research university and the ethos of specialization that it entails.  This emphasis of specialized knowledge is itself inherently narrowing, and is opposed to the generous expansiveness of spirit that, at least in theory, characterizes the highest ideals of a liberal arts education.

Like Delbanco, Harpham draws on Newman as a first resource for the fully articulated ideal of the idea that education should enrich our human experience, fitting us primarily for a life well lived, rather than for the specifics of a living.  I’m intrigued, though, that Harpham brings out this ethos not only as characterizing the curricular choices and the spiritual, ethical and cultural teloi of the undergraduate [side note, we no longer would use a word like teloi; we would invoke learning objectives];  more than that, this ethos characterizes the faculty and their understanding of their role in the life of the mind.

Moreover, the institution devoted to producing Newman’s protege bears little resemblance to today’s institutions of higher learning. Newman’s idea of a university had no room for either specialized or comprehensive knowledge, and the professors who taught there should, he fervently believed-it is the very first statement in the book-have nothing to do with research, an obsessive activity best conducted by those whose minds were too sadly contracted to engage in full life. …

Newman intuitively understood that the real threat to liberal education in his own time was not the shade of Locke but the spirit of research then crescent in Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had begun to Germanize its academy, with some university faculties organizing themselves into departments that granted degrees that came to constitute credentials. With credentialing came professionalism, and with professionalism growth. President Lawrence Lowell of Harvard (1909-33) laid the foundation for Harvard’s eminence as a research powerhouse by encouraging his faculty to think of themselves as professionals.4 This meant adopting impersonal criteria of scholarly competence within each discipline, cultivating a spirit of empirical and methodological rigor, and coming to agreement about what would count as standards of achievement in a small, self-certifying group of mandarins

The new professionalism functioned as a way of insulating the university from extra-academic pressures by creating a separate world of academe that could be judged only by its own standards. But professionalism was accompanied by its dark familiars, partition and competition. A professionalized faculty was a faculty divided into units, each claiming considerable autonomy in matters of hiring and promotion, and competing with other units for salaries, students, office space, and prestige. Such competition naturally placed some stress on amity, and so while undergraduates were expected to enjoy four stress-free years in the groves of academe, the faculty in the same institutions were facing the prospect of going at it hammer and tong, competing with each other virtually face to face, for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

This seems about right to me, and it might pass without comment, but it raises a troubling contradiction.  In most of the strong defenses of the liberal arts that I hear, the notion that faculty should abandon research or that the fullness of the liberal arts spirit is best embodied by a faculty full of generalists is never among them.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  We want an institution to display its commitment to the liberal arts precisely by giving more support to faculty research so that faculty can become more and more specialized, more fully recognized in their professional disciplines, more disconnected from the immediacy of their liberal arts institutions, and less able to exemplify the generalist qualities that we say we value as fully humanizing.

What this argument for the liberal arts wants (I’m not saying there aren’t other arguments), is a research university, or at least a research college, with a commitment to research in the liberal arts and all the prestige that entails.  What we definitely do not want to do is give up the right to writing books that no one wants to read so that we can demonstrate our particularly specialized knowledge.

The faculty, as Harpham recognizes, is fully professionalized, and in many respects in the liberal arts we have created specialized professional programs, imagining that our students are professors in embryo.  The college major is now, in many respects, a professional program ,and it is worth noting that the idea of a college major is coextensive with the advent of the research university.  Indeed, I have heard the argument that we should have much larger majors in the humanities than we do have because the size of the major is a measure of its prestige in the college, competing then as it would with the gargantuan programs in engineering, nursing, and many of the hard sciences, programs that students can barely finish in four years, if they can.  So much for our sentimental sop about the value of breadth of mind and spirit.

Can a research faculty that shows no real interest in giving up the ideals of research exemplify and support a genuine liberal arts ethos in an American college today (leaving aside the question of whether liberal arts colleges will survive at all)? I am not sure what the route out of this conundrum actually is.  I stopped in the middle of Harpham’s chapter where he actually has just noted that faculty in the liberal arts are essentially professionals and conceive of themselves as professionals in ways quite similar to their brethren in professional programs.  I am not sure where he is going with that insight, but I look forward to finding out.

What is the Digital Humanities and Where can I get some of it?

As I’ve started listening in on Digital Humanities conversations over the past 12 to 18 months, and especially in the last three or four months as I’ve gotten more fully onto Twitter and understood its potential for academics, I’ve realized that I am mostly just a bobbing rubber duck in a great wave of ignorant interest in Digital Humanities.  “What is this thing, Digital Humanities, and where can I get some of it?”  seems to be a general hue and cry, and I’ve added my own voice to the mix.  Some of that wave is no doubt driven by the general malaise that seems to be afflicting the humanistic ecosystem, and mid-career academics look back with rose-colored nostalgia to culture wars of the 80s when our classes were full and our conflicts were played out in middle-brow journals so we could feel self-important.  Maybe digital humanities will make us relevant again and keep our budgets from getting cut.

On the other hand, I think that most people recognize that many different aspects of digital humanities practice seem to coalesce and provide responses to driving forces in academe at the moment:  our students’ need for technical proficiency, the increasingly porous border between distanced and bricks and mortar instruction, the needs to connect effectively with the public while maintaining high standards of academic rigor, the need for our students to be involved in “real world” experiential learning, the effort to provide opportunities for serious and original undergraduate research, the need to support collaborative forms of learning.

I have been terribly impressed with the generosity of Digital Humanities folks in responding to these repeated pleas to “Show me how to do like you.  Show me how to do it.”   There’s been a lot of different things I’ve discovered over the past year, and as many more than have been put out.  The most recent is a bibliographic blog compiled by Matthew Huculak.  As with any bibliography it is an act of interpretation. There are inclusions I’ve not seen elsewhere–Franco Moretti’s book on data in literary studies was on the list and is now on mine. [Though I admit this is at least as much because I had Moretti as a prof while a grad student at Duke, the same semester I completed my first essay ever on a Macintosh computer].  The blog skews toward the literary–and I have increasingly realized that while there is this strong discourse of solidarity among digital humanists, the traditional disciplinary divisions still play a strong role in much of the practical work that is actually done.  DH’ers have conferences together but it’s not always clear that they work together on projects across their humanistic disciplines. There are also obviously omissions (I thought that the new Journal of the Digital Humanities should have made the list).

My larger concern though is that I’m actually beginning to feel that there may actually be a glut of introductory materials, so many different possible things to do at the beginning that it is actually impossible to point to a place and say, “this is where to start.”  To some degree on this score the Digital Humanities are reflecting what Geoffrey Harpham has indicated is a basic feature of the Humanities in general.

In a great many colleges and universities, there is no “Intro to English” class at all, because there is no agreement among the faculty on what constitutes a proper introduction to a field in which the goals, methods, basic concepts, and even objects are so loosely defined, and in which individual subjective experience plays such a large part. This lack of consensus has sometimes been lamented, but has never been considered a serious problem.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (p. 101). Kindle Edition.

The details don’t quite apply.  I’m not entirely sure individual subjective experience is at the heart of DH work, and that is one of the biggest bones of contention with DH work as it has been reflected in English departments (see my reflections on Fish and his comments on DH in yesterdays post).  But I do think the general pragmatic feel of humanities departments where you can begin almost anywhere, which is in stark contrast to the methodical and even rigid approach to immersing students in the STEM disciplines, may be characteristic of DH as well.  Start where you are and get where you want to go.

In reading Harpham, I was reminded of one of Stanley Fish’s essays, which one I forget, in which he talks about the best way to introduce students to literary criticism is not to give them a theory, but to give them examples and say “Go thou and do likewise”.  I’m increasingly feeling this is the case for the Digital Humanities.  Figure out what seems appealing to you, and then figure out what you have to figure out so you can do like that.

Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.

Writing and rites of manhood at Hampden Sydney College

It’s pedagogically incorrect to say so, but I have to say the grammar and test intensive writing curriculum at Hampden Sydney College really works. I taught there for a year right out of grad school at Duke, was skeptical of the whole idea of a sophomore year grammar and writing test when I came, and have never tried to implement it anywhere else I’ve been. But I will say it worked. For Hampden Sydney College, it worked. Hampden Sydney College produces competent writers across the board, its share of truly skilled writers, and a campus culture that is deeply committed to writing, all through the musty and most unlikely aegis of that thing called grammar.

Success there is bred, I think, partly through the usual ways: small intense classes and several of them. Learning to write is labor intensive, so mostly as a nation we get the kinds of writers we pay for. But I also think the grammar and writing exam plays a crucial cultural role at the all male school. It is a rite of passage that every student anticipates from the moment of matriculation, that every first year prepares for throughout the year, and that every sophomore endures more or less at the same time. At the end of the sophomore year it marks the passageway to upperclass status. Who would have thought that grammar and rhetoric could become an initiation into manhood.

An excerpt from the recent Inside Higher Ed story on hsc and Old Dominiom. (Side note: I got to hear an address from Hampden Sydney’s President, Chris Howard, at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest. Impressive.)

But at Hampden-Sydney, qualifying to take the test is the culmination of a yearlong (or more) process. The 1,100 men there must first pass two rhetoric classes (or three if they test poorly as incoming freshmen) before sitting for the test. The classes, which are capped at 14 students, stress grammar and essay composition. If a student fails the test, generally taken late in his sophomore year, he has two opportunities to pass it again as a junior and to seek help from writing instructors.

If a student still hasn’t passed by the start of his senior year – something faculty say rarely happens – he places into a writing-intensive course in which he is tutored and then asked to write three essays but isn’t held to a time limit. Lowell Frye and Elizabeth Deis, both professors in the rhetoric department since 1983, said they can’t remember a student not graduating solely because of the writing assessment.

But, they said, the test provides accountability and encourages a collegewide emphasis on writing. “It creates a climate in which writing is important for faculty and for students,” Deis said. “The students, and especially the alumni, are absolutely committed to the idea of this test.”

(via Instapaper)