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The farmer and the cowman can be friends, but would either want their kid to study English?

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All it took in Oklahoma was a rousing dance—and a few right hooks—to convince farmers and cowmen–two different disciplines–they could hang together. But a few generations later, getting their grandkids to combine art and commerce in the college classroom requires a completely different kind of dance: one few are prepared for and even fewer seek.

Momentum is building (again) for those questioning the value of a liberal arts education. Sameer Pandya, a lecturer at UC-Santa Barbara wrote recently in Miller-McCune, of his soul-searching when a student asked for advice: whether to major in something she found fascinating or something that might produce a job at the other end of the coursework. He said what anybody with a bias toward the liberal arts says: choose what you enjoy and the work will take care of itself. But privately he backtracked as he worked through the cost/benefit ratio: just how will the dollars spent reading F. Scott Fitzgerald help the student outside the classroom? And “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It,” a recent book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Driefus, has given the debate legs, and will surely be a topic of conversation as students lament tuition bills and make the way back to school (or not).

It is clear we need a new educational model that rewards thinking and practical skills. But wait: who ever said thinking and practice were poles apart?

One of my jobs is to teach professional writing classes to college juniors and seniors. These are (often) talented students who have made their way through the rudimentary composition classes and exhibit ongoing interest in writing in a work setting. Some even envision themselves using the skill to make some coin. I teach because I earn my living as a copywriter, which means I serve organizations, companies and advertising agencies by thinking and writing. I teach because writing is fun (really!), and because these interested students are excellent communicators who participate in lively discussions. And I teach because I have an axe to grind with those who think they can find themselves only by writing poetry or short stories. Don’t misunderstand: I’m a great fan of poetry and short stories. But there’s a mood that begins somewhere in undergraduate education, perhaps even earlier in high school, that applies the romance of the fiction writer or poet to our own scribbly ways. We think the more we burrow into our selves, the more we tell our stories or embellish stories we make up, the more we’ll figure out who we really are. I believe there is much truth in that notion, but the burrowing-in may not lead where we want to go. And it may not lead to the place we need to be.

There is another way to personal formation.

I tell my writing students that poetry and short stories are good—indeed, very good—but that you can also learn quite a lot about yourself, you can grow in your craft, and put beans and rice on the table (even Spam sometimes), by writing for others. Yes—serving others through writing. It’s not an easily-caught vision for poets and fiction writers, frankly. Because of clients—they’re always changing my words! And because the technical detail clients use to serve their customers can feel, well, boring. There is very little room for plot or the arc of a story in a brochure or print ad. Right? And yet, it is precisely these missing artful bits that are helping to change the face of communication as restless writers find new ways to communicate with audiences—new ways that break down the old forms. I’ve seen the short-story writing student effectively bring story into a product brochure—to excellent effect. In our changing communication world, where corporate monologue is even now giving way to engaging dialogue, it’s the writers who resist the high walls of the old forms that will move us all forward.

That’s why I think the farmer and the cowmen’s grandkids will help us establish this new communication frontier as they find themselves making friends with art and commerce, with every use of their English degree.


Written by kirkistan

August 24, 2010 at 6:52 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] I teach college writing students, I want them to grip their firm’s innerworkings as well as to put their head up in the space […]

  2. […] Writing helps move people and organizations to better places. And as we use our writing to serve, it changes us. […]

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