RU WREEDIN N WRIGHTIN ENUFF? A Guest Post by Professor Jenny Bell Jones

WHAAAT? Someone put this c*** on an academic blog … and that someone is an Emeritus Professor …REALLY… POOR…???

OK, now that I have your attention let’s get serious. I am going to “talk story’ about reading and writing and how they are intimately connected as well as why it really matters that we do them both well. If you have ever taken any of my classes you will know I assign a lot of reading. Some of you have complained about the reading assignments; “too long’, “too many’, “too advanced, difficult, complicated etc.’ If you are in my 100 level courses you may think I’m picking on you with the readings but please put these thoughts to rest … I get exactly the same complaints from graduate students about too much reading! And yes, they complain about too much writing as well.

First things first; reading and writing are intimately connected. You will not be able to write well unless you spend time reading the types of documents you hope to write. If you want to become a judge and write legal decisions you will need to read a lot of them. Want to write reports about global warming? Better start reading what is already out there. Interested in obtaining funding for language and culture revitalization? You will need to read about successful projects that have been undertaken and look at the proposals that were submitted. If your dream is to write a historical novel then I really recommend you read some of those before you start on your own.

Reading is not easy for everyone; I am dyslexic and I read very slowly and had to really work hard to improve my speed and comprehension when I started college at 50. After I sobered up back in 1982 I found I had pretty much lost the ability to read so I retaught myself by reading every novel Louis L’Amour ever wrote. Definitely not academic material but it got me going and the repetition was very helpful. Starting with something that was easy gave me confidence to go on to harder stuff. Today I still take a break from more serious reading by picking up a good historical novel every so often and I’ve learned a lot about the world from them in addition to increasing my reading speed.

Writing is hard; if it was easy we would not need to spend years learning how to do it correctly. Notice I used the word “correctly’ … this is very important but a lot of us tend to ignore it. Some of us struggle with the idea that we need to write correctly because we feel that the requirement for “correct’ writing is a colonial imposition that we should not have to comply with. I fought with this as an undergraduate as I confronted the thinking that writing correctly would somehow make me “less Native’ until I really thought it through. Yes, writing came to us from colonization but it is a tool and a very useful one and, like any other tool, it should be used properly. We would never try to load a 30.06 rifle with 30.30 shells nor would we try to use straight gas in the chainsaw (or if we do we will only do it once) so why would we allow ourselves to write sloppily? We don’t misuse the other tools that colonization brought so why would we misuse something as important as writing, the tool that allows us to communicate with people all over the world?

We are not “decolonizing’ by writing poorly; poor writing equals poor communication and it makes the writer look bad whether they come from a colonized population or not. I will spend hours helping students whose writing skills need improvement, and I am very sympathetic to the challenges of learning to write in a language other than ones heritage language, but I have very little time for those who continue to write poorly using the excuse that they are decolonizing by doing so. If we want to convey a positive message about decolonization it helps if our audience can read and understand our work.

We also need to be cautious about “writing the way we talk’ … there is a place for that but usually not in academic writing because if writing the way we talk means writing in a local dialect only a very limited number of readers will understand us. Here is an example: a number of years ago I was sitting in the bus station in Edinburgh, Scotland, waiting for a bus to Aberdeen and struck up a conversation with a mother and young son who were going to Dundee. When the little boy heard I lived in Alaska he looked up at me and asked “Witsit likeby yeurbut’. I understood him because I used to speak a similar dialect but most of you would have had no idea that he was asking “What is it like where you live?’ Unless we are actually writing about the use of local dialects and want to provide an example we should translate before we write so that we can reach the widest possible group of readers.

If we want to write using a heritage language then we need to provide a good translation unless we want to limit our audience to other readers of that language. Would it be nice if our readers took the time to learn our language? Yes, of course it would, but the reality is that most people will not, so we need to consider the goal of our writing. If we want to reach a wide audience then using a language that a large number of people can read and understand is very helpful. People today are probably not disrespecting us or our language by not learning it; we all only have so much time to learn new things and spending a lot of time to learn a language that we may never actually use is not an option for most of us.

Is there ever a time when it is OK to write sloppily? In the humble opinion of an old lady the answer is no. Like it or not, others form opinions about us based on what they see us do. Hunters who do not care for their catch properly are generally not well regarded when others see spoiled meat. Fish and meat allowed to go to waste show disrespect for the animals that gave themselves. Misuse of tools and transportation equipment indicates carelessness. Sloppy writing suggests that we don’t care very much how we are perceived by others and that we have not taken time to do it right. We also run the risk of having our writing misunderstood by the recipient. We are disrespecting ourselves and our readers when we do not take the time to make corrections even when doing so is very easy.
What to do to improve? Yes, you knew they were coming … the bullet points …

Practice reading. Don’t just read the required readings, add others by using suggested reading lists and reference lists. Read something several times if you need to.
Don’t limit your reading choices to authors you know you will agree with. Make a point of including works by writers with different backgrounds and opposing points of view.
Set aside time to read without distraction. Forget all that nonsense about multi-tasking. Turn off the devices and the TV.
Read for fun. At least once every month or two read something that has nothing to do with school requirements.
Dump the excuses and make the effort. Reading is a visual skill, one that connects the eyes and the mind so, if you are a visual learner, don’t let that deter you from reading.
Practice writing. We don’t give you all those writing assignments because we love grading. Practice makes perfect and the more you write the better you will become provided you take note of our corrections and suggestions.
Get a style guide and learn how to use it. Ask someone to help if you do not understand how to use. I did not do this and have always regretted it.
Take the time when you write an email and always use spell check. Consider who your recipient is and address them respectfully…’Hey Dude’ is not a respectful way to address an instructor. If you are in doubt about the academic title, “Professor James’ is always a good default. Be very careful about forwards and carbon copying so that you do not include unintended recipients.
Use the advice of Dr. Emil Notti and “Be determined’. We may not all become brilliant writers but we can all become proficient if we work at it and proficiency is what counts.

In closing, reading and writing are the weapons of the modern warriors. Use them both to the best extent of your ability and do everything you can to become expert marksmen with these weapons. And remember… this piece was written by someone who quit school at fourteen and never completed 8th grade. If I can do it you can too!