On a whim, I assigned my students an extra reading assignment this past semester. In hindsight, the timing of this assignment was not ideal since we had a relatively large amount of reading spread across three distinct topics. But we had just one more meeting before their papers were due, so I felt incapable of delaying any longer if I wanted them to read it before writing the paper. So, in an educational experiment, I assigned them to read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language , with the warning that we would indeed talk about it during class.
Though this essay has nothing what-so-ever to do with the history of the United States since 1965, the course for which I taught), I find it to be a valuable, funny, and insightful commentary on writing. Even if the rest of the text is overly dense, Orwell lists six “rules” for writing that I often refer to myself.
Not every student read the essay, but that is always the case. In fact, I found that a higher percentage of my students read this essay than read many, if not most, other assignments. Typically, some did not understand the point of the essay or the point of the exercise, including one student who did not understand how history could be written without using the passive voice (I suspect that he had confused passive voice and past tense in his head, but I never confirmed that since we just worked through what the passive voice was and he seemed to understand better after that). Of the students who responded to me specifically about the essay, all did so favorably.
I had to work through the essay quickly–too quickly–as has often been the case this semester for a variety of reasons. I couched the discussion within a larger discussion of their papers, going over the assignment, tips for writing, and how to write thesis statements. Due to the time constraints I focused on Orwell’s “rules” and sever select passages that encapsulate the sloppiness of most writing. Likewise, we addressed the vocabulary terms and some of the expressions used to make sure that the students understood them. For example, we went over what a “swan song” is and questioned the ability of a “fascist octopus” to sing it. Then we discussed whether or not an octopus can be a fascist.
Next time I do this, I would like to have the students work through the essay a bit more carefully and perhaps to analyze some passages of historical (rather than political) writing. I can probably muster up some of my own purple passages for them to analyze. There is a better way to incorporate this essay, I am sure, but I received a positive enough response that it justifies planning a little further in advance next time and incorporating it as an assigned reading in future courses with an emphasis on student writing.