Honest Prose

Recently, I read an essay which quoted the following from Kingsley Amis: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since [World War II], it’s Workshop.” Though I wasn’t quite sure what about it struck me, I annotated the sentence so that I could return to it. A few weeks later a colleague mentioned how one of the teachers she supervises defended her effectiveness in the classroom based—among other things—on the fact that she “ran a great writing workshop.”

I cringed.

David Padilla

David Padilla

Thinking back to Amis’s words, I think I now know why the teacher’s statement elicited this reaction. Admittedly, I don’t know if the teacher in question does or does not run a “great writing workshop,” but I do know that simply stating she does something doesn’t necessarily mean she does. Nor does it mean that her perception of what is or is not “great” is accurate. After all, what does it mean to “workshop” something? Are all workshops created equally? Does her understanding of a writing workshop match up with mine? Who knows?

ELA teachers absolutely need a common vocabulary to discuss what we do. Especially in an age of “standards” and “accountability” (Two more words which give me pause.), we need to be able to speak to each other in ways which open the door to transferability, to talk about things that work in a meaningful way. I fear, however, the ELA world has unwittingly piled on layer after layer of catch phrases which simply give the impression of clarity. We do PD in our PLCs so teachers can brainstorm best practices for anything from formative assessments to literature circles to critical thinking skills.

You get the idea.

Way back in 1916, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch produced a handbook of sorts which has consistently remained in publication and which has been a staple for ELA teachers for nearly a century. In it, he took on a variety of topics, but one—in a section “On Jargon”—seemed to capture a dilemma we all face. The writers too often retreat behind stock phrases and clichés to capture their ideas.  Quiller-Couch calls such empty language “sham prose.” He tells us that only “by clearing this sham prose out of the way, we shall the better deal with honest prose when we come to it.”  Each year, it seems, I begin my classes by declaring war on automatic phrases which actually don’t say anything. I have students who disengage their minds as they reach for some pat saying that they’ve heard thrown around in ELA classrooms. For obvious reasons, educators need to make sure we hold ourselves to the same standards. We, too, need to avoid the trap of pseudo-clarity. Don’t assume everyone agrees on what we mean. Moreover, we need to make sure that what we mean when we reach into the barrel of stock phrases accurately captures our intent. There must be at least some measure of understanding of what we are addressing.

I don’t mean to be simplistic. After all, it would be inefficient–or even reductive–simply to pursue an endless series of “clarifications.” But too often, I have been in professional meetings where the “sham prose” ends up veiling—or outright overwhelming—the “honest prose.” Someone spouts off the latest collection of Common Core-appropriate phrases or terms, and the eyes of all participants simply glaze over. The retreat to jargonism unfortunately allows us to disengage. When someone begins dipping into the well of stock phrases, what follows is just too predictable. The most electrifying, engaging, and productive presentations I’ve seen have been remarkably jargon-free.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell famously advocated the adoption of six “rules” for writing which included, among other things, the directive that writers “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I’m not so simplistic as to think that one can—or even should—abide unfailingly this rule; after all, ELA teachers need to be able to provide some kind of umbrella terminology so we can move on to the important conversations about improving reading and writing. Still, in the same essay, Orwell tells us, “[i]n prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.” My concern is that we sometimes fall back on (or surrender to) what we assume to be a common understanding packaged in the vocabulary we share. While a certain amount of clarification arises in conversation between capable people, we’ve all had the experience of expecting the terminology umbrella to cover something which it doesn’t, in fact, cover.

So what does this mean for ELA leaders? Basically, leaders at all levels simply need to be attuned to the dangers of slipping into jargonese. We need to do all we can to make sure that stock phrases do not undermine the potential for progress. In our classrooms, in department meetings, in district meetings, or at professional gatherings, we need to work consciously to make sure the language we value doesn’t undercut us. This may mean that we are mindful of dedicating more time to framing conversations, to setting clear definitions/descriptions for common terminology. But it is, I believe, time well spent. We should also be clear that passive agreement about vocabulary won’t necessarily ensure effectiveness; however, it might provide a baseline for making sure that we’re not hiding behind jargon. As the poet, critic, and teacher Donald Hall writes, “Jargon is a language by which we attempt to prove that we are the initiated, and to keep noninitiates in confusion and befuddlement. It is language, not to communicate, but to exclude.”  ELA teachers purport to make our professional work the improvement of communication, the expansion of opportunity, the pursuit of clarity. We just want to make sure that we don’t let the vocabulary of this pursuit get in the way.

David Padilla
English Instructor & Upper School Head
Baylor School, TN

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One thought on “Honest Prose

  1. A thoughtful piece, David. How unfortunate that we educators DO often resort to jargon! The ideas you express should help us overcome that trend.

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