Saturday, May 12, 2007

Why "Can’t" (Doesn’t/Won’t) Johnny Write Well?

I’ve been listening to complaints about student writing for a few decades now. Professors complain that students can’t compose sentences, can’t construct paragraphs, can’t even demonstrate a command of seventh grade English grammar, and eschew anything resembling critical thinking or revision. Employers complain that colleges award degrees to functionally illiterate graduates. Students complain that high school doesn’t prepare them for college writing, and at the same time, complain that their courses require too much writing. High school teachers frantically try to teach writing while mostly teaching to the New York State Regents exams, all while handling large classes and behavior problems.

The usual culprits are the Internet, Instant Messaging and cell phone text messaging. Students are used to short, abbreviated language (lol, btw, and so forth), runs the argument, thereby atrophying written language skills.

I don’t buy it.

“I can design an assignment to interest and involve any student,” boasted a colleague, a student teacher supervisor, at a recent small group meeting for the National Writing Project (designed to bring high school teachers together with college professors to address the quality of student writing). “It’s just not that hard.” But this is the problem. Sure, engaging students is important, but often their entire high school education is nothing more than assignments such as these. Students write little more than agree/disagree statements, personal reflections, and other self-indulgent writing that dances along the surface of real issues, repeating stereotypes and generalities, rather than broaching any true analysis.

High school students then bring these habits to college, convinced that every article by a Native American is about getting kicked off the land, that every article about women is about how the media forces them to live their lives as bulimic Barbie dolls, that poverty exists because some people are lazy, that all the world’s problems would vanish if everyone would just support the President. The textbooks reinforce such superficial thinking, organized in pro/con fashion, promoting the simplistic view that every issue has two sides instead of delving into the multiple positions reflected in true debates.

Perhaps even worse is the commitment to the “Self Esteem Movement,” the idea that education should continually reinforce students’ self image. Who invented this nonsense? Granted, attacking students would be counterproductive, just shutting them down, but how does THIS help: “That’s OK, dear. I understand that you’re doing the best you can, so we’ll just lower the standards to your level so that you will then be doing well. Feel better?” That’s not encouragement. That’s not building self-esteem. That’s patronizing. That’s telling students, “I know you just aren't good enough to learn this material, so just never mind—it doesn’t really matter anyway.” It’s an insult, and a horrible thing to do to a child—or to a college student. Yet, SAT scoring was revised for exactly this reason.

So students learn to play the victim—and get rewarded for doing so. “I don’t get it,” they claim. “What specifically?” I ask. “Any of it,” comes the answer. A college student can’t understand a single word of an article. “Well then—there’s no way I can help you,” I inform them. That’s the point, right? They’ve completely blocked any avenue except telling them what to write. You should see the look of shock on their faces. But it’s true—once they throw their hands up, game over.

They’ve been taught to play the angles. Got behind? You had “family problems” or “personal issues.” Got a test, or a paper due? You weren’t feeling well that morning—but you’re feeling better later in the day and can get the paper done then. Challenged too much? Turn to your parents, or the Chair, or the Dean. Log on to and warn your classmates that this instructor teaches for real, and try (as the site explicitly notes) to get such instructors fired.

Current college structures aggravate the problem. Administration leans heavily on student evaluation of courses to assess instructors, ignoring the obvious point that students don’t yet have the skills to effectively judge faculty. So, the predictable happens—the goal is keeping students happy, not education. Reading assignments address students’ preferences instead of challenging them. Writing assignments are predictable and avoid any real difficulties. Students are given specific step by step guidelines to follow, instead of organizing their thoughts themselves. One of my colleagues stresses that she doesn’t worry about specifics, teaching instead “the joy of writing.” Give me a break. If you need a friend, get a dog. Students have friends—they need teachers.

I’m all for building self-esteem, but REAL self-esteem. Set high standards. Help students learn the skills needed to reach those standards. Let them try. Gently redirect them when they fall short. Have them try again. Encourage them. Have them try again, and again, until, as one of my students noted on her final assessment of her writing in my course, they “earn the coveted ‘Good.’” THAT’S self-esteem, knowing they’ve faced challenges and successfully mastered them, not just told so. After all, in the “real world,” they need demonstrable skills, not platitudes. True education should provide those skills.

I’m all for models, too, but not “Here, just do it this way” formulas. What true music teacher would teach an instrument without demonstrating that instrument for the student? Writing teachers must do the same—write for students. Explain the process as it unfolds. Note that the “answer” isn’t to “do it this way” but rather to begin to understand the abstract principles involved. And once learned, those abstract principles won’t mean instant success. Can a piano student master scales just because the teacher explained how to play them? Obviously not—weeks and months and years (depending on how high the students wishes to rise) of practice lie ahead.

And finally, writing instructors must themselves write. Would you take guitar lessons from someone who never played? Then why writing? No wonder students decide that since they’ve had a writing course in the past, they’re all set. What musician doesn’t realize that continual improvement is mandatory, and that excellence just means “get in line with the other excellent players”? Writing instructors must recognize the same--and maybe they'd stop teaching such damaging misinformation as "put a comma where you want a pause" instead of looking at sentence sense, or "forecast the next paragraph by abruptly changing the subject in the last sentence, repeating it in the first sentence of the next paragraph" instead of composing writing with clear direction, or "write a bunch of general sentences to slowly get to a point, then go back to general statements" instead of clearly developing ideas. Reaching a minimum word count doesn't equal effective writing.

How else can we show students that writing is a process, that writing well involves thinking and analysis, that writing can always improve—and that the journey is worth the effort?


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