Back around 2013, when I was writing the original edition of The Critical Reader, I happened across research showing that one of the primary differences between teenagers’ writing and that of adults lies in the use of concessions—words like however and nevertheless and until, which are used to signal the introduction of an objection or a conflicting point. The adult writers used these types of words consistently, but they were largely absent from the students’ papers. I’ve thought about the implications of that fact in a general way before, but as I’ve recently come to realize, I’ve never really thought them through. This post is my attempt to do so.
The first implication is that students do not use concessions in their papers because they do not discuss opposing ideas or consider alternate points of view at all (nor, it should be said, are they expected/required to do so). That is a serious problem in and of itself, but I suspect that the issue is even more basic than that.
The second issue is that many students do not know the literal definitions of many concessions, particularly less common ones such as nevertheless and that notwithstanding.
The third implication, of which I have only recently become aware, is that students may not really grasp how to construct such statements at a grammatical level. This is related to the meaning issue but is an additional dimension of the problem.
As I’ve written about before, every time I think I’ve rid myself of preconceived notions about what students do and don’t know, I discover that I am unconsciously taking certain knowledge for granted. In this case, I fell prey to a naturalistic assumption about learning, namely the belief that because students are exposed to concessions in their reading (assuming, of course, they actually do their reading), they automatically absorb what such constructions signify and how they are used.
In retrospect, the fact that one of my first—and persistently lowest-scoring—ACT students told me she didn’t know what “all those little words” tested on transition questions meant should have been a flashing red signal. But at the time, I didn’t recognize the significance of the statement. Nor did I really see what was going when, a few years later, I attempted to explain to another student that an author was discussing an opposing point of view, and he could not even really grasp what that meant, insisting that the author was “just saying stuff.”
In fact, I didn’t put two and two together until recently, when I came across an Atlantic article about New Dorp high school, a low-scoring school on Staten Island that had experienced a remarkable turnaround after implementing Writing Revolution, a highly structured grammar and reading program that focuses heavily on… conjunctions, of all things.
I was immediately intrigued by the article because the difficulties experienced by the New Dorp students so precisely mirrored those I saw in my former students:
Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.
Watching the videos of these classes, I was genuinely stunned. Not only did the teachers not shy away from using technical grammatical terminology, but they actively encouraged the students to use it as well. After being exposed to so much edu-babble, it was pretty shocking to hear kids utter the term “subordinating conjunction” in a modern-day classroom. And when I saw the examples of the exercises students were given, something clicked in for me: essentially, students were asked—in every class—to create complex, subject-specific statements using particular conjunctions.
Nothing about this was easy or natural for the students; I got the distinct impression that new neural pathways were actually being carved out in their brains as they thought about what sort of statement would logically complete a clause begun by, say, unless. As I read about and then watched them, I thought, “This is what it means to teach concessions. You’re literally teaching them how to think.”
And then I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is only one school. How many kids at how many schools all over the country are not ever learning how to work with these types of statements in an academic context? How many kids see constructions like this and ignore them, or outright dismiss them as ‘Oh, the guy’s just saying more stuff’ without ever really understanding what their purpose is? And how many of them grow into adults who don’t understand either?”
I also realized I’d also been seeing a different version of this problem with my higher-scoring students, particularly those stuck right below the 700 line in reading on the old SAT. The one concept that pretty much all of them struggled with was “qualification”—answers that required them to identify when an author was “qualifying a statement” almost always threw them because they didn’t really get what the concept meant, even after we went over it (repeatedly). It was just too foreign, too abstract for them to recognize when an author was softening the extremity of a statement in the context of such challenging readings. It actually got to the point where if a new student came in with, say, a 680 in reading, I’d start off by discussing qualification since it was pretty much guaranteed to be a stumbling block.
The only kids I ever saw who didn’t struggle with it were the ones scoring above 700 with minimal effort—basically, those who were reading at a solidly adult level and who were invariably headed to the Ivies or other elite programs. That’s a reallyselect group. As far as I can tell, the SAT no longer tests this concept, which I don’t think is a coincidence.
Anyway, as I mulled over all this, I started to wonder about the relationship between the lack of comfort with concessions and the ever-more impoverished level of national discourse.
What happens when the default mode of thought for large portions of a citizenry revolves around extremes and absolutes? There is no way to have a nuanced conversation about, well, anything without involving concessions; the very purposes of words like unless and despite is to indicate when and under what circumstances and to what extent phenomena are true. In other words, they are used to acknowledge that reality is complicated. And, moreover, they are used to admit that there are limits to one’s claims, there are instances in which they do not apply, that one does not in fact know everything… When this sort of discourse is abandoned… Well, the United States is living through an experiment in that right now.
Concession and qualification are also concepts very much associated with written language. As I’ve discussed before, the only time students tend to encounter these types of words in speech is in lectures, which are increasingly disparaged as a pedagogical tool at both the high school and college levels. (As a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article asked, apparently without irony, “Is it Ever Okay to Lecture?”) As a result, the experience of hearing these words spoken aloud is becoming ever more rarified, increasingly viewed as elitist and pretentious and out-of-touch and all those wonderful epithets that Americans love to hurl at people who like to think.
Moreover, people who are unfamiliar with this type of speech—and perhaps at some level embarrassed that they have difficulty following it—are wont to assume that anyone who uses it must be talking down to them and become accordingly defensive. Shame drives rage. (One of the first lessons I learned as a tutor was to never, neverlet on that I was surprised that a student didn’t understand something, no matter how basic. Otherwise, they would never trust me enough to let me see their weaknesses.) I suspect that this dynamic is in part responsible for the disconnect between this group and many members of the academic and media class, who take for granted that this is simply how people communicate. It’s not only a matter of vocabulary; it’s also a type of syntax that allows for analysis rather than just repetition.
This is in large part why I find the SAT’s abandonment of the They Say/I Saymodel so disconcerting. Whatever the flaws of the old SAT, one of the themes running through the test was that people can both agree and disagree, that issues are not always black and white, and that writers can approach those complexities in a variety of ways, some overt and others quite subtle (e.g., through dry or wry humor, up there with qualification in terms of difficulty). That is essentially the basis for civilized conversation.
In contrast, the “informational texts” on the redesigned test are, to a much greater extent, “just saying stuff.” I find it oddly telling that the new test was rolled in 2016, only about six months before the presidential election. Although the “they say/I say” aspect of the old SAT was lost on most students, the move away from it seemed to reflect a larger cultural shift in adults’mindset, a move away from rationality and reasoned conversation as norms, and toward something… flattened, harder-edged. The parroting of a canned, market- and tech-driven discourse in which ideas were reduced to stale graphs and data points. There was something dehumanizing about it. And the amazing part was that people who should have known better embraced it so quickly and wholeheartedly. I know that this shouldn’t still surprise me, but it does. And that is why I can’t get over it, and why I keep writing about it.