The Reaction Was Swift

Common Swift. Photo: Marcel van Kammen/Minden Pictures

“The reaction was swift” 

Now there’s a cliche. We are three times more likely to come across that phrase in newspapers than to read ‘the reaction was slow’. and as George Orwell advised in his essay Politics and the English Language over seventy-five years ago, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” In other words, avoid cliches like ‘The reaction was swift’. 

NB: The language testing company Alta has a very concise definition of the ’cliché’ “a French term dating to the early 19th century that meant “to produce or print in stereotype.” A stereotype was a printing plate used to create abundant versions of the same design. Printers heard a ‘clicking’ sound during this process, which gave birth to the onomatopoeic word ‘cliché.’” 

Yet after resuming posts here in Testing: A Personal History after a hiatus of more than a half year, the appearance of two comments in less than twenty-four hours made me think that the reaction was… swift. Not Jonathan Swift and not Taylor Swift, but rapid, quick, speedy. (BTW-1: Avoid a Taylor Swift reaction I am told as they can sting.) 

(BTW-2 if you’ve never read Jonathan Swift’s Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversations, which satirizes the use of cliches or Myles na gCopaleen’s Catechism of Cliches, which hilariously deconstructs their use, get thee to a book store or to Google to find links like this one from Myles (also known as Flann O’Brien and yet born Brian Nolan) and the text from Dean Swift here )

Greg Mulligan whose knowledge of education practices exceeds mine by a mile (another cliché alert) commented on ‘ungrading’ here. Marianne Talbot who was very generous in her attention and ideas during thirty posts in thirty days this past January offers her comment halfway down the page at this link. Here are two prompt (note: I am not claiming them as swift) comments on the comments: 

  1. Greg usefully and insightfully gets at the complexity of the situation in that students do not come in one size or at one level. We need to think of the effect of any intervention upon those students who are not currently operating as expected at the grade level. At the end of his comment, Greg asks if it wouldn’t be nice if we had “a system which records academic effort and growth and a separate grade for demonstrable mastery of curriculum.” Indeed, and we will return to this topic again and again because the crucial question right now in education is whether we need reform or change to our current systems. Here the 18th century British statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, provides useful instruction. Reform builds prudently upon what already exists, change can happen naturally and slowly or be induced by radical movements such as revolutions. The problem with our current educational system is that there are so many interests deeply invested in the way things are that reform might be impossible; those interests block the necessary shifts. However, as Burke also pointed out “for reform to be effective, it must be both acceptable to the people and practical as well.” Arriving at systemic changes like the one that Greg envisions in his comment will prove challenging. More on that in later posts. 
  1. Marianne finishes her comment by praising the author of the ungrading paper we discussed as “quite brave to stick one’s head above the parapet like this, given how unstretchy the envelope tends to be in the world of assessment.” Yep, that gets at one of the purposes of reestablishing this blog, which will also now be on Substack. We should support those who are sticking their head above the parapet (which does not qualify as a cliche at least in my neighborhood despite more than a few neo-Gothic parapets on Princeton’s campus) and foster conversations about how and why we need the systems of education and assessment to at least modify to better serve the needs of everyone right now. That means that I will be asking the readers of these pieces not only to reply, but also to propagate (To spread from person to person, or from place to place; to disseminate or promote NOT ‘To produce offspring; to breed, reproduce, multiply” — not unless you want to.) 

That’s the point: create conversations that lead to at least consideration and avoid cliches. Please join in. 

A Swift Reaction

2 thoughts on “The Reaction Was Swift

  1. Marianne Talbot

    Not a ‘swift’ comment, but to echo the call for systemic change, which I believe can only be initiated and achieved through copious dialogue between all sorts of stakeholders, dabblers, interested parties, etc. Bring on the revolution! Unless that is a cliché?

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