Back in March I wrote a post on whether it is dangerous to relax our writing standards when blogging. I argued that, even while blogging we still have an obligation to use skills we have learned in school to fact check ourselves and others on the Internet. Many commenters responded by arguing that blogging is not academic writing–i.e. no one wants to read jargon-laden prose geared towards an expert audience on the blog and we should be allowed to write colloquially or with contractions. These comments did not surprise me because they align with the understanding of writing that is propagated in American high schools (and perhaps other schools, though I am not qualified to speak on that).
Note the disparity in the argument and the response above. I argued that we should do research, provide evidence, and fact check ourselves and others. That is, I was speaking about the overall strength of the argument and the need to be able to discern true claims from false claims. The responses spoke about grammar and word choice–stylistic features of the writing rather than the content of the writing. The implication is that one can distinguish academic writing from other writing because it looks or sounds a certain way. You could theoretically write about the totally made-up group of blue aliens living in Kansas, but if your grammar is correct, you’ve written a “good” essay.
Of course, when I put things that way, it sounds ridiculous and probably most people would argue that they are not in favor of writing about imaginary aliens and calling it nonfiction. But this exactly what students in American high schools tend to learn writing is. It’s called “writing for correctness” and it happens when teachers spend most of their time marking small stylistic features such as punctuation, word choice, and MLA citations instead of focusing on the content of the paper–the strength of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the structure and logic of the paper. It’s much easier and less time-consuming to circle a misspelled word than it is to explain to someone why the structure of the paper is not a logical trajectory and how they can revise it. So overworked teachers lean on these stylistic features in their rubrics and their grading and students learn that they can write whatever they want as long as the grammar is in keeping with Standard English. The same attitude prevails on standardized tests, where the ability of a student to write in a five-paragraph essay is prioritized over what they actually say in that essay.
However, an essay can be written in nonstandard English and still be lively and intelligent, just as an essay can be written with excellent grammar but offer no new or complex thoughts. And schools increasingly are reconsidering the attitude that good grammar equals good writing, especially as a result of the increased numbers of international students being accepted into American universities (and sometimes private high schools as well). There are ethical questions being raised about attempts to change “accented” writing to fit a standardized mold.
But if I did not mean to say good writing is determined by stylistic features, what did I mean to say? Quite simply, I was talking about the ethical stakes of blogging. We may conceive of blogging as a hobby, but we have real audiences and can create real effects in the world. If we do not do our research, we may inadvertently spread misinformation or harm another person. If we do not check the sources or evaluate the evidence of what we read, we may inadvertently believe false claims.
When we think about how we can use the tools and skills we have learned in school, we should be thinking about how we can use them in an ethical manner. How can we ensure that we are advancing true claims, that we are doing our research, and that we are assessing the credibility of sources and the potential bias of evidence? How can we ensure that we are helping others rather than harming them? Words matter. How we use words matters. Our responsibility to the truth does not end when we leave school.