My students were meant to be writing about Hank Reichmann’s essay “Is ‘Incivility’ the New Communism?” on Academe Magazine’s blog, his idea that calls for “civility” on college campuses are intended to stifle unpopular opinions just as accusations of communist affiliations did in the 1950s—they were to agree or disagree, considering his example of a student’s use of the “ice bucket challenge” to protest the violence in Gaza and any other examples they could find or had experienced. Although I knew the essay would be a bit much to ask a first-year writer to manage fully, I wanted to start the semester off with something thought-provoking and difficult. For the most part, they did their best to rise to the occasion.
But the high school lesson to “define your terms” took its toll, particularly with the student quoted here. Oh, dear. She knew she should; but Reichmann doesn’t provide a “concrete definition,” and I try to be clear that “defining one’s terms” doesn’t mean “copy the meaning from the dictionary.” To add to the problem here, it’s possible that she wasn’t familiar enough with the word to be confident with it on her own. Whatever adjurations and counter-adjurations were roiling around in her mind, when she put finger to keyboard she meant to do things right. Hence “Civility is something….”
But how to go on from there? She didn’t know what to say.
I believe I know what she meant, and I also believe that if she had just stopped to think, she could have done better. We had been reading S. I. Hayakawa’s classic Language In Thought and Action, still a wonderful and useful exploration of living semantics and the role of language in thought, and she could have pulled the word “abstraction” from its pages and wielded it here. “Like most abstractions, the word ‘civility’ has no single, clear meaning.” But she didn’t connect the reading assignment with the writing assignment. (Why, I wonder, is this so often the case? Do we really have to direct our students’ thoughts that preemptively, telling them “remember that you can relate your reading assignment to your writing assignment”?)
She also didn’t follow my urgent suggestion, given to every writing class with almost pathological frequency, that she read her draft aloud as part of proofreading and revision. Surely “Civility is something that isn’t something” would have given her pause? No. She wrote “Civility is something that…” and couldn’t go on with a “concrete definition,” so she pushed along and re-opened the sentence without closing it: “isn’t something with a clear definition.” Oh, my dear, go BACK! go BACK! Get rid of the “is something” and you’ll have “Civility isn’t something with a concrete definition.” Shorten it: “Civility has no concrete definition.” Add quotation marks so we know you mean the word, not the thing: “‘Civility’ has no concrete definition.” That isn’t elegant, but it’s a start that might get you there eventually. At least you and your reader will both know what you’re saying to begin with.
Well, she did get somewhere eventually, but that staggering first sentence was followed by a lot more staggering before she found her verbal and conceptual feet. So much work…so much effort that might have been saved, or made more efficient, with a little thought. And I mean thought ahead of time, before beginning to write. I tell my students, sympathetically, that I can always tell where in their papers they’re unsure of their facts, or their idea, or their reasoning: the sentences always go crazy, the grammar breaks down, the words go in circles. As here.
Because as it is, her first sentence is something that isn’t something that inspires confidence.