Because Internet?

August 23, 2020 at 11:12 am | Posted in class,, Internet,, Writing, | 3 Comments

I think back, occasionally, to an experience I had a few years ago. I was teaching a January interim course on environmental racism at New York Theological Seminary, the Black Hispanic and Asian interdenominational seminary up near Columbia where I have an appointment.  I have been teaching in majority Black seminaries since the late 1990s.

It has long been my practice, when teaching a seminary course, to have the students write a two-page paper to the assigned readings, a practice I learned from my own dissertation advisor, Laura Levitt. When I read the papers, I correct them for spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as content. I deduct half a letter grade for every five errors, but if the student rewrites the paper, I restore the grade. Students at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, in Berkeley, where I taught for ten years, were fascinated, and in many cases, deeply grateful for the corrections. One of them asked me once whether, if she made the corrections I had indicated, that would make the paper better. I said I certainly hoped so. In some cases, no one had ever had a paper marked for them before.

Three students from Union Theological Seminary, across the way from NYTS, had cross-registered for the environmental racism course. After the second class, when I had returned the papers, they came up and asked me how I justified the corrections I had made. “The Chicago Manual of Style,” I responded. They subsequently dropped out of the course.

I assumed at the time that their offense at my corrections had something to do with class, though a friend who taught at Union at the time said they would never have had a paper marked in such a way; Union professors occasionally wrote a comment at the end of a paper, and the grade, but nothing else. Union is an Ivy-League seminary, with tuition something like four times as high as the tuition at NYTS. The three students themselves were all Black, but I still figured they wondered how this woman from the inferior seminary across the street had dared correct them. I myself had enrolled in the M.Div program at NYTS in the 1980s after taking a few courses at Union because my working-class self was seriously put off by the economic privilege of many of the students at Union. It was also the case that the NYTS courses were offered at night, and I had to work in the daytime to support myself.

In recent months, I have begun to think that their objections might have arisen from something besides class, however. I began thinking about this after I read the Times review of Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet, on the impact of the Internet on writing.  I, for example, require that quotations of more than forty words be indented separate from the other writing but not have quotation marks around them, which is standard literary practice. But I now see indented paragraphs with quotation marks around them in many of the publications I read on-line, even fairly high-class ones. One publication, I forget which one, puts a quotation mark at the beginning of indented paragraphs but not at the end. And the New York Times book review puts book titles in quotation marks, not in italics; the latter was once accepted editorial practice, but clearly, no more.

The Times reviewer indicates that McCulloch thinks that formal language—academic papers, one would think—will retain explicit rules, but I am more skeptical. The seminary attempts to remedy the current chaos with its own style guide which every student receives when they enroll, but good luck with enforcing what the guide says. Kind of like wearing face masks. Who are you to tell me how to punctuate my paper?




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