I have spent the week in orientation for new TAs. For about an hour on Monday, I sat in on a colleague's orientation for an oral and written communication class, and the rest of this week I have been doing--mostly observing--the orientation for Speech Comm 101, "The Principles of Effective Speaking." I'm directing 101 this year. Fortunately, there are many other people involved, including a coordinator, an assistant director, and three peer leaders (all five really fantastic) and so my main job is to think about the course itself and the training we do.
On Monday, one of the new TAs in the other orientation used English classes as a point of contrast for this particular course. The main idea there was that the writing that gets done in English classes is, well, overdone. And the unspoken assumption was that such writing (think of the words flowery, beautiful, ornate, and use really elaborate 19th-century gestures when describing such writing) is not only condoned by English professors but demanded. Hm. That's not really how it works, though it is often true that students in English classes come in thinking that this is what we want as well. The result is often (not always, but often) clotted, thesaurized prose that needs to be pruned. Badly.
Then today in a really terrific teaching demonstration, the assistant director of 101 used English papers several times as a point of contrast when describing the kind of writing students need to do for an oral presentation. She used the phrase "write for the ear." Writing for the ear, incidentally, is something that really, really interests me, and Quintilian was a little obsessed with it too. And while it seems like writing for a composition class is more writing for the eye, written discourse also, Sharon and I stress in our book, ought to be composed for the ear. Why? Because when someone reads, even silently, they often hear the language. Now, it is definitely true--and I'm pretty sure this is what the a.d. was getting at--that writing for an oral presentation needs to be quite crisp, and that shorter sentences are almost always more articulable and therefore more easily understood when spoken (or in the case of a conference featuring mostly English professors and graduate students, when read out loud). It's also true that when speaking from an outline of keywords, it would be next to impossible to recall a complex sentence, draped with dependent clauses, kind of like this one.**
But. I praise crisp, short sentences in essays written in my English classes just as much (perhaps more than) I do really complicated sentences. Both can have a certain elegance that gets worn away when the same sentence structure gets repeated over and over. This wearing away might not happen as easily in oral presentation, but I'm still thinking about that.
There were many more instances in which my training as a teacher of English seemed to go against the training as a teacher of communication. There is, in one (the speech comm class), a huge emphasis on thesis statements, whereas it's a big no-no in current writing pedagogy to build everything around a thesis sentence.* I also had to wrestle my own hand back to the desk to keep from pointing out a really big (huge) misplaced modifier in one of the model sentences today. (I didn't want people to roll their eyes at the English professor.) For now, I'm content to observe and to reflect on the disciplinary distinctions--or assumptions about disciplinary distinctions--and what might be behind them.
*note: For the record, in the hour I sat in on the oral and written comm orientation, I didn't hear a single mention of thesis statements, so I don't want to generalize from 101 to the entire discipline of communication. Instead, there was a heck of a lot of rhetorical training going on. That probably owes to the person in charge.
**updated to add: I've had even more a.d.-inspired thoughts on the two-wayness of memory in writing-for-speaking pedagogy, but I've recorded those in a comment below, like the 8th one or so. I expect to have much more to say on these distinctions (and nondistinctions) later on in the term, and am loving the comments, so keep 'em coming!