On What Is Proper

I recently read an interesting article about a conference held at Harvard aimed at shaking up the way we teach. And it became linked in my mind with this blog post (Nymeth being her wonderful self) on the recent spate of online interest in what constitutes a proper review. In both of these cases there’s speculation about the best way to distribute information. What does a proper review look like, what does a proper lecture or proper essay do? For me, the words review, lecture and essay are less interesting than that sneaky little policing term ‘proper’. Proper is a very busy word, it means ‘appropriate’, or ‘suited for a certain purpose’; it means ‘excessively correct in conduct’ or ‘up to a regulated or required standard’. It is used as a way of excluding anything that does not belong, and it is profoundly tied up in belonging as we can see when it turns into ‘property’.  So ‘proper’ has all kinds of connotations which add up to the subtext: if you don’t do it one particular way, you’re out of the club.

Now for me, what a piece of writing looks like is a whole lot less important than what it does. A review, for instance, is simply the act of looking backwards over an experience and expressing what one sees. That can be done in three sentences, or in three thousand words. I’ve just spent the afternoon with students discussing what the word ‘essay’ really invites you to do. The essay comes in all sorts of shapes and forms and sizes, and people all have individual ways of tackling the topic concerned. That’s as it should be. But what an essay must do is attempt to tackle a topic analytically, and look at it from a variety of perspectives. The word itself comes from the old French – an essaie – a try, an attempt. To my mind these terms have flexibility built into them out of sheer necessity. They are creative endeavours, both the review and the essay, and to pin them down to particular and ‘proper’ forms is to strangle the life out of them and to undermine their interest. I’m all for people trying their best to bend the so-called rules and see if what comes out the other end can still be called a review or an essay. If they have conveyed information, shown the reader why something is interesting, and how something is interesting, then the writing is doing exactly what it should.

As for education, it becomes messy as soon as we lose sight of what we’re trying to do for students. We’re suffering at present from having had years of excessive concern about young people leaving education looking all the same. It must be something hardwired into human beings, this mania for similarity – after all, isn’t that the supposed problem at the origin of this fuss about reviews on blogs? The fact that they do not all look alike? Equality is not the same thing as similarity. We ought to want to educate students to the best of their individual capacities, but that will not mean they all have to come out of exams with the same results. In fact, far from it. A good education is all about permitting the individual to realise their unique skills and potential, and that may well mean allowing them to understand they are less good at some things than others. In fact, kids know this already, and it’s the well-meaning attempt by adults to dissimulate difference that causes the problem. As for university teaching, it’s all about the best way to convey complex information and keep the students up to speed, not to mention awake. That’s effectively about getting teachers to understand that they do some things better than others, and permitting them to teach in the forms at which they excel. I can only hope that happens.

There is little more ordinarily distressing than the pointing finger that says ‘what you do isn’t proper because it doesn’t look right.’ And there is perhaps little as encouraging as the spectator who says ‘what you do is so different and I love that.’ And both writing and teaching are creative acts, that seek to interest others by being as fresh and original as possible. Whatever task we set out to achieve, we often accomplish it much better by taking an unusual and striking approach. I think it’s so much more sensible to focus on ends rather than police the means.


15 thoughts on “On What Is Proper

  1. Yes. Although I write, teaching is my day job–and no one who is not currently and continuously teaching should be allowed to offer Cool Ideas about how “teachers should improve.”

    • Teachers have the toughest job, don’t they? And then there’s endless speculation about how it could all be done better! It’s true you’ve got to have been there and done it to know what it’s really like. I’m let off easy as I see students individually. How real teachers cope with crowd control AND get information across, I will never know!

  2. “Equality is not the same thing as similarity”

    Well said! Just because two things aren’t the same, such as a book review, doesn’t mean that they each don’t accomplish what they set out to do. It would be a shame and life would be so dull if there was not such a variety to be had.

    • Absolutely! I read a Voltaire quote recently that I really liked which was (I’ll have to paraphrase) along the lines of, I hate what you have to say but I defend to the death your right to say it! It’s not quite the gist of what we’re discussing here, about form in reviewing, but the same sentiments apply.

  3. This might sound strange, but your post reminded me so much of Madeleine L’Engle’s excellent novel A Wrinkle in Time, which I revisited recently. There’s a line in it almost exactly like “equality is not the same thing as similarity” – which is such a great point, and one that needs to be made every bit as much now as fifty years ago. As always, thank you for the wonderful thoughts.

    • Nymeth – this is really a footnote to your post, which covers the real field of debate so much better! And I adore that Madeleine L’Engle book. I read it with my son many years ago now, and will definitely have to revisit it myself one day.

  4. Yours is certainly a progressive view of education… and, makes a lot of sense… form flexible, approach student-centred, subject content-based. Your students are privileged indeed, being allowed to learn in freedom, their individuality respected. Bravo!

    • Arti, I am lucky, in that all my teaching life, I’ve had small groups of students and been able to pay them a lot of attention. I can’t imagine how other teachers manage with huge groups and vast lecture rooms. But given that I do have this advantage, I use it to be as flexible and student-centred as possible. They work so hard, they really deserve the best attention possible.

  5. This makes me think of something different but still on the same topic. A friend of mine was the Glogal Head of Diversity in a huge corporate company, one of the so-called “Global Players”. Diversity is one of those buzz words in a corporate context that drives me up the walls and made my friend ultimately leave her job. Because it is misleading and a fake. I first realized this when we spoke about style diversity. Something that is essentially unacceptable in a corporate setting. So all they want is making people of different culltures, skin tones and gender equals but at the same time, they must be similar. Similar in style and behaviour. I know it’s not exactly where you are coming from but it is interesting to see how a concept gets picked up by the industry and is then perverted.

    • Caroline, no I think that’s a very pertinent analogy. Diversity is so often contaminated by tokenism, so there’s difference, but it’s either an exhibit, designed to prove political credentials, or it’s misunderstood. Proper difference can be hard to take, but there is much value in making a serious effort to do so.

  6. I particularly love the way you define an essay, just perfect. Yes I agree of course there shouldn’t be a one size fits all “proper” way to write any form. Isn’t that the antithesis of creativity?

    • Ms Thrifty, that is exactly so. It was my main intention when teaching to communicate my passion for literature to the students, and it seemed to work. They were capable of figuring out the details themselves by that stage, but wanting to put the effort in, wanting to make progress, well, that only came from understanding that there were benefits of pleasure to be had from doing so.

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