Writing, Chances Are You Are Doing It Wrong

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Jodi Picoult

Writing is a central component of education.  We could argue that writing is the ultimate goal of higher education.  After all, the final project of an academic student is the writing and acceptance of the dissertation.  Even during undergraduate education, there is a lot of focus on writing.  Most undergraduate classes have at least one or two multipage writing assignments.  With all this focus on writing the US should be turning out the greatest writers in the world.

However, there are a lot of essays saying college graduates can’t write.  In $100K, You Would At Least Think That College Grads Could Write from the Forbes website, the author states “They (students) take lots of courses and study lots of stuff (or at least seem to), but don’t even learn how to use the English language well.”  Many others agree that students don’t learn to write.  “I didn’t say the ugly truth: that her bright boy might not graduate as a solid writer, no matter how good the college.” (Maguire)

In the book Academically Adrift Limited Learning on College Campuses the authors state “At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in CLA performance during the first two years of college.” (Arum and Roksa 2011, 204) The CLA uses open-ended questions to test critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem-solving, and written communication.  According to this study, almost half of all students show no improvement in writing ability after two years.

Outside of higher education, we see similar views.  George Leef starts his post on writing by saying, “One of the loudest complaints about college graduates once they enter the workforce is that they can’t write well.” (Leef, George. “Why So Few College Students Can Write Well.” National Review. retrieved August 24, 2019, from https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/college-students-cant-write-well/) In his essay for education week, Marc Trucker states, “My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants. Since the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked them to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.” (Trucker, 2017)

How did we get to this point were college graduates can’t write?  There are multiple issues that impact a student’s ability to write.  I have demonstrated one of the problems in paragraphs 2-4 of this blog post.  Can you identify it?  I will give you a hint.  In her article for Inside Higher Ed, Jennie Young talks about the problems that face the mostly adjunct Instructors (or graduate students) that teach the writing courses.  Based on the course load, these instructors carry, it is almost imposable to address all the problems in all the essays they need to grade. As she says, “Naturally, you begin looking for the easiest way to whittle down your load — some way to count some papers “in” and move others out of the way. And now imagine that just within your reach is the low-hanging fruit of MLA format (or APA, or Chicago or whatever).”  The title of the article is The Weaponization of Academic Citation.

Grading on style is easy, quick, and unambiguous.  The style manuals create the rubric. You can point to the rule or rules and say you didn’t follow the rules, and they are the base requirement.  Well, I followed the rules in paragraphs 2-4 of my blog; what do you think?  Actually, I followed five sets of rules (I will let you figure out which styles I used). 

I have written more than 54,000 words on my blog to this point.  I often conduct research when writing my posts.  However, I don’t follow a rigged citation or writing style. I use what feels right.  I want my readers to be able to find the works I’m referencing if they wish to, but my focus is on the thoughts and arguments I’m writing.  Would it improve my writing and arguments if I rigidly followed a style?  I guess you will have to tell me.  I do know that no style no matter how rigidly followed will correct incoherence.

Another issue with students writing abilities is the field of study.  I have had the opportunity to work with students, faculty, and administrators in many different disciplines.  What I have discovered over the years is how varied fields can be.  After all, a written critique of a new painting in the modernist style is not going to be like a research report describing a new and improved method to synthesize an organic compound.

Even within a single discipline thing can get confusing.  If you are in a field were publication is primarily through Journals articles well it seems each journal has its own rules and style guides.  If your field publishes books, it seems each publishing house has different requirements.

With all these differences between fields, publishers, and even writing styles the truth of the matter is that no matter how you write from someone’s point of view your essay, manuscript, or journal article is miswritten.  It’s a lot like the answer to the question Is hell Exothermic or Endothermic, “Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to Hell.”  Concerning writing, we could say, since every group or field has a correct way of writing, and the author can only write in one method, all writing is incorrect.

While the previous statement is an exaggeration, it is not entirely incorrect.  But I think it leads to a more critical question. At the undergraduate level, what are we trying to teach the students when it comes to writing?  What’s more important in an introductory writing class learning to construct well thought out and coherent sentences or committing to memory the proper position of every comma and period for your citations in the MLA, APA, and Chicago styles.

To reference Einstein, “why would I waste my time memorizing something I can look up in a book.”   At least for the undergraduates writing should focus on good writing, not styles.  There are tools like Zotero that will format citations and create bibliography correctly in whatever style your publisher wants.  Additionally, citation software can keep your citation style up to date without you having to thoroughly read through each new addition of a style guide looking for changes.

Yes, teaching students to write well is hard.  Much harder than taking the easy way out and quickly grading papers on incorrect styles, page lengths, and formatting.  However, no amount of style and proper formatting will save an essay from incoherent sentences and poorly constructed paragraphs. At the undergraduate level, the bulk of the focus should be on good writing.  Sometimes I think we forget that undergraduate majors don’t follow a single path.  I know students that have earned a BA in Spanish language that have gone on to pursue cares in Law, International Business, Medicine, or Professorships.  I often think the push towards specialization in undergraduate education has come at the cost of general education.

Ask yourself when you are developing an undergraduate writing assignment is that assignment helping the students learn to write? Or is it teaching them structure without substance? In the meantime, I think I will continue “citing” information in my blog based on what feels right.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Reference

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maguire, John. “Why Many College Students Never Learn How to Write Sentences.” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, 1 APR 2016, https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2016/04/why-many-college-students-never-learn-how-to-write-sentences/

Trucker, M. (2017). Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2017/01/our_students_cant_write_very_wellits_no_mystery_why.html 

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