Comments: /Teaching_Folder/skov_teaching.html : LUSENET : Economic History (and Related Observations) : One Thread

Josh Skov on Teaching Writing

-- Bradford DeLong (, May 04, 2000


I have been thinking about Skov's piece on writing for a few months now. I am a fellow graduate student of Josh's and perhaps it is out of envy that his work is so admired that I constantly come back to thinking about this piece. However, I still can't shake the nightmare of what it would be like to have Mr. Skov as my writing tutor in an upper level, say, eocnomics course.

Consider yourself a member of this hypothetical class.You are studying the impact of immigration on American wgaes. You are asked to write a short comment on one of Williamson's papers. In the hypothetical paper it turns out you have more than a few spelling errors but you have come up with a better method of estimating the impact of immigrants on domestic wages.

Now Mr. Skov would have spent the greater protion of a half hour grading your paper and making comments. You would be correcting the paper which would take nearly half an hour or more. The total time spent on correcting errors in spelling and "grammar" being an hour or more.

Linguist Robin Lakoff argues forcefully that as long as we understand each other the words that come out do not matter. Another linguist Suzanne Fleischman argues that "today's grammatical mistakes are tomorrow's grammar." Now if these specialists are to be believed, one, two or three spelling errors should not in the long run make any difference while the correction of them would come at substantial short run cost.

In sum knowing you made an error may be important but I would argue strongly that teaching writing should be much more concentrated on more substantive issues such as logical coherence and clarity.

About how to teach that...well I guess I should create a piece for next year's writing contest.

-- Chris Meissner (, May 04, 2000.

Yes, if you and I are talking to each other and understand each other, it doesn't matter whether we're using "proper English" or not.

But if you are writing an article that I and hundreds of other people are going to read, or if we're co-workers who have never met and you have to send me a message about something important, then we shouldn't have to waste time establishing a common understanding of terms and grammar before getting to the content of your message. We need to have a standard that all of us know about in advance. So if you're going to be communicating in the English-speaking academic and business world, you should know and use the standard forms of English used in that world.

Yes, these rules are arbitrary; the definition of "kilogram" is also pretty arbitrary, but it's a good thing we all agree on how much a kilogram weighs. Yes, knowing these rules is trivial compared with knowing, say, advanced economic theory; that's why people should know them before they graduate from high school. The people who teach writing to graduate students are making a last-ditch attempt to make up for failure in the rest of the educational system.

In my work as a technical writer, I have to read the white papers that programmers write to summarize new features of my company's products. When smart people who can't write have to communicate in print, the results aren't pretty.

-- Seth Gordon (, May 04, 2000.

speaking of linguists, visit:


-- imme (¿¿¿??, January 21, 2003.

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