Sunday, February 24, 2008
The Value in BS
After talking about BS in class and reading students' papers, I have good evidence that many of them believe that they are expected to BS their way through most of the writing they do in college, including in the class I'm teaching, and that their professors (including me) can't tell the difference between BS and sincere conviction.
Frankfurt's analysis encourages the students' belief that it's all BS, all the way down. That's because Frankfurt identifies author intent as the marker of BS, and the kind of intent that a BS artist has is the intention of speaking something about a topic when she is not an expert, especially when she is not passionate about it or sure of the truth.
But that is inevitably the circumstance of a learner. Students take courses because they are not yet experts. They write papers to practice skills and to learn how to develop arguments. They don't have enough experience with a topic to have a stake in it. And yet, some papers are merely BS and others are creative and well-developed. So I think that Frankfurt is wrong, and that content and form do have something to do with BS.
I understand exactly the feeling that students are reporting--that they can't help but BS when they don't know how well their ideas will fly. But I think that feeling of producing BS is a necessary stage of doing original work. It's how I feel in the early stages of writing--not yet convinced that I have something new to say. Making it all the way through a rough draft and then rewriting and rewriting cures that feeling. Of course student writing usually is not put through multiple drafts. But just because it stinks doesn't mean that it's bull.