I was doing a good bit of grading over the Thanksgiving break, and I was once again struck by a rhetorical habit in a lot of undergraduate papers, including some otherwise very strong, well-written ones. Namely, criticizing an author by saying that the author has “failed to consider” some important issue. Occasionally, this is a perfectly reasonable criticism, in which the student is observing that there is some concrete kind of information or knowledge on a particular topic which the text in question should evaluate, could evaluate, is already predisposed to evaluate, but for some reason does not. Sometimes there really are odd, notable absences, gaps, or lacunae.
Much of time, however, what the student really means is, “This text argues against the value of a particular kind of knowledge and I disagree”. I think students avoid saying so because this is a much bolder kind of claim. “Fails to consider” is a rhetorical device that resembles passive-voice constructions: it’s polite, it hedges some bets, and it doesn’t require the student to claim to know anything more than “there are other texts in this class which the text we read doesn’t consider”. I’d rather a student say, “I disagree with the author” than “he forgot to discuss an important issue” even if the student feels tentative about that disagreement. In fact, a well-reasoned description of an uneasy, tentative disagreement can be the basis for a great analytic essay. There are ways in which “failed to consider” is even more arrogant a judgement than “wrong”.
Isn’t this a variant on Nedra Picklerism?
Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe observes that student writing rarely uses any of the vast inventory of verbs to describe mental actions: he argues, she assumes, they challenge, I infer, he claims… Instead students return again and again to variations of “discusses,” “considers,” or “talks about.” Graff relates this to a broader difficulty with familiarizing students to argument culture, where our students often understand the process of “choosing topics” but not of “forming arguments.”
I myself wonder if the problem you describe might be exacerbated by the way we as teachers respond to student writing. How often do we (by which I mean the vague collective we–I’m sure you’re terrific at teaching writing) as teachers fault a paper for “failing to consider” point A or literature B, rather than engaging directly and forcefully with (and against) our students’ arguments? Many students, it seems to me, have a sense that the perfect paper, the one that could not be faulted by professor or TA, would be one that “considered” everything and made no statement that could be argued against. Where did they learn that if not from us?
Dear Professor Burke:
You fail to consider the fact that I am right and you are wrong.
So, can you please give me a better grade? Kthxbye.
Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University, in “The Failure of the Founding Fathers,” says,
â€œI begin with the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and its failure to foresee the development of democratic party competition.â€
Madison talks about parties and their problems in the “Federalist,” and Washington devotes 20% of his “Farewell Address” to their ways and dangers. In fact in that address Washington says,
â€œThe alternate domination of one faction [party] over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.â€
Sounds to me like he failed to foresee the competition between parties.
But the most irritating offender is the United States Department of State. It maintains a website under the management of its Bureau of International Information Programs. There you will find the text of the “Farewell Address” as well as the following introductory paragraph (emphasis added):
â€œWashington, like many of his contemporaries, did not understand or believe in political parties, and saw them as fractious agencies subversive of domestic tranquility. When political parties began forming during his administration, and in direct response to some of his policies, he failed to comprehend that parties would be the chief device through which the American people would debate and resolve major public issues. It was his fear of what parties would do to the nation that led Washington to draft his Farewell Address.â€
So your students are not unique. Ackerman, at another place in his book, actually describes the Framers as “dumb” and “stupid,” and I always thought that those guys were about as far from “dumb” and “stupid” as it is humanly possible to be. Shows you how dumb and stupid I am.
Rob MacD’s point about the limited use of available verbs reminds me of something I observed in years of hiring computer programmers. I found that many of them were unable to make distinctions, and I found that language was a way to see how well they might do. They often could not get the disinction between “lay” and “lie” or “sit” and “set.” They had difficulty in using “bring” and “take” properly. And so on. When a programmer had trouble making language distinctions they would have trouble making programming distinctions when defining data elements. They lacked clarity.
In grade school, I was taught to never, ever use the word “I” in a paper. My first couple of years of undergraduate study (in a history department) continued that reinforcement.
This past year I took a fourth year seminar course in philosophy, and found myself using “I think” and feeling guilty (this 15 years after I took my first undergraduate course), but I left it in and still did ok.
Students are taught that using words like “I think” is not objective, and is to be avoided at all costs. I’d like to go back and tell my previous teachers that they failed to consider the long-term consequences of their reinforcements. They had every good intention, I’m sure, but the more I read about writing well, the less and less happy I am with how writing is taught. (I’m watching my stepdaughter go through the same thing in junior high and agonizing over whether or not I should correct her. I’m thinking not, since I’m not the one grading her work.)
Yeah, I’m always a little surprised to run into this particular directive, and how intensely it is enforced in some K-12 education. This instruction is one reason why there are so many passive-voice writers out there: they’ve been told that under no circumstances can they say “I think” etcetera.
Language Log’s Arnold Zwicky has a post about getting email that uses the constructions “you fail to consider” and “you neglect to consider” <a href=http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005201.html”here.
Screwed up that link. The correct one.