Sunday, November 28, 2010

How Writing Skills Screw Us All

No matter your discipline, you assign papers. Student papers have a spectrum of success for both content and basic grammar/organization. We all know how this plays out: a handful of well-written pieces, a handful of woefully-written diarrhea, and then a big bulk of passable, boring, bare-minimum papers.

We are failing the low-end students by letting them go to University. I'm sure all of us here can agree to that. But it's now a customer service industry (The Dean's Thanksgiving message literally called it that, to my despair) and not a merit-based institution. So what to do with these people who cannot write to save their lives, who do not answer the question, who go on endless tangents?

If I follow my own rules, I send these awful writers to the writing center. But that doesn't really help. There is basically nothing tutors can do in the allotted 30 minutes to fix the endless problems posed by these students' godawful writing skills. So they send the student back to the professor.

Sometimes I break my own rules and I tutor the hell out of a student. I raise the level of competency; I show them how to write a clear introduction, use evidence wisely, check for common grammatical mistakes, etc. I analyze claims that make no sense. At the end of this tutoring session, which is usually many discussions over the course of a month or semester, I am exhausted and one student goes forth armed with the basic skills of communication that all college students are supposed to have in order to get into college in the first place.

But I can only do that for one student at a time. Because it's a little bit rewarding, a lot discouraging, and totally not my job. If I did it for all of them, I would not have time to teach my discipline.

So the circle goes on: I send the poor writers (so, 60% of students) to the Writing Center. A dozen might take my advice. Tutors teach students one or two golden rules (comma use, thesis statements) and send them back. The writing tutor does not have the time it takes to revamp their myriad mistakes.

Neither do I. So we screw them over, they screw us over, and we all sit in this pile of shit pretending that what we're doing is "higher learning."


  1. I refer them to Strunk and White. This covers the most egregious errors. For those who would actually like to be able to write CLEARLY - that is, the ones that do have some grammar, but still cannot yet communicate in prose - I recommend Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, which I got a lot out of myself.

  2. This article in today's NYT explains a lot about why students are coming to college unprepared. Apparently, it's some kind of revelation that schools should assign grades based on demonstrated academic competence rather than, say, punctuality and compliant behavior.

    I teach at a really good high school. Our kids graduate with excellent writing skills. It's not freakin' magic, what we do. We have good teachers, small-ish classes, and the students write often. They get prompt and substantive feedback on their work, and then they write some more. That's it. We don't need edu-hucksters selling us grand schemes, SmartBoards, classroom redesigns, laptops for everyone and his dog, "differentiated learning" theories or any other of the shite those scammers try to shovel at us to beef up their ridiculous consultancy profits.

    All we need is the freedom and support necessary to maintain high academic standards in our classrooms. It makes me sick that this is such a rarity. Any school district that turns out illiterate high school graduates should have its administration hauled in and charged with child abuse.

    Grrrr. Surly is especially surly on this topic!

  3. Everyone's experience is different of course.

    But I sit with half a dozen students after class nearly every day (during regular office hours) to cover writing problems that have come up in assignments. I do it in my office or a spare classroom. And those students go to our writing center which is not at all like the one expressed in the post above.

    My students login to some appointment and progress software, and meet with the same tutors several times over a semester. I meet with the tutors outside of those meetings 1-2 times a term to see what progress has been made. (I never send students to the writing center without an in-progress essay of some kind that I've already made notes on.) Our writing center also has the standard form that professors send with students - noting what items or ideas need addressing. (If you're writing center doesn't do this, then shame on them. You can make one up yourself!)

    Of course some students don't take advantage of any of what's offered. But that's a different problem.

  4. I teach writing classes, and I find that students fall into 4 categories:

    1. The ones who can already write well, but need the class for a course requirement. I push them a little bit, give them a few new tools, they earn As in the class, and go on their merry way.
    2. The ones who think they are in group #1. They bitch and moan about their grades, don't listen because they already know it, and either drop in a huff, or stay in and make everyone's life miserable.
    3. The ones who have reasonable basics, but need to learn to write at university level. As long as they pay attention and put a bit of effort in, the class helps them.
    4. The functionally illiterate. Their skills are so far below group #3, I might as well be teaching in French. I recommend that they go do the remedial class, and at least 50% of the time they say "I already did".

    The only ones I really help are group #3.

  5. @Merely. My experience is that when they can't write, they also can't read. Asking them to read a book on writing is less likely to happen then a sudden understanding of the difference between your and you're.

    @Surly, you sound fabulous. It isn't that they can't learn, I find, but that they need a lot of one-on-one counseling to understand these concepts. When I do that, it works every time. But finding the time and energy to do that is difficult because I'm supposed to be teaching them other concepts. (and I'm totally there with you on the snake oil teaching fixes)

    @WhatLadder and Bernice, the functionally illiterate are the students I'm most concerned about. I worked at a tutoring center as a grad student. I have friends who run tutoring centers. My mother runs a tutoring center at a CC. And it generally follows that there just isn't enough time/resources to do the level of teaching required. The guidelines usually ask tutors to spend between 30 and 60 minutes with any student. That's not enough to teach the functionally illiterate who pay their tuition and are filling our rosters.

  6. I fall somewhere in the middle: I don't think it's hopeless, but I do think that our students make far slower progress at every stage of their educations than they could given the kind of intense attention (on both the teacher's and the students' part) that Surly describes. My students generally show up in my junior-level writing in the disciplines course with some grasp of the basics, both on the sentence and essay level (there are, of course, exceptions). And I try to move them along to the next level (working with more sophisticated sources in more sophisticated ways, structuring the results according to both scholarly conventions and the internal logic of their arguments), usually with some success.

    However, in order to have time to work on the skills the course is supposed to address, I have to discipline myself *not* to spend time on stuff like your vs. you're, or apostrophes, which they should have mastered long ago. I tell them they're still having problems with mechanical matters; I name the broad categories of problems and suggest they consult a handbook; I grade down accordingly on the "mechanics" part of my rubric, but I don't teach them elementary or high school or freshman comp-level stuff. The one exception I make is for the basics of citation -- e.g. when to use quotation marks -- because those are so essential, and because I can't teach the higher-order citation skills that are central to the class if they don't have the basics. I can, however -- albeit sometimes with gritted teeth -- read past the plurals formed with apostrophes, after marking one as wrong.

    I've also found our writing center most helpful to students with problems ranging from the basics to higher-level organizational issues (and I felt that I was being genuinely helpful when I worked as a writing center tutor).

    But all of us -- high school teachers, college teachers, writing center tutors, and, equally important, students -- are stretched far too thin. All the professional associations that deal with college composition -- ADE, CCCC, etc. -- have said for over 20 years that an all-writing-intensive course load should be no more than 2-3 sections of 15-20 students, or 40-60 students in all, per semester. That guideline is violated every day, by almost every state-supported school, and most private ones. The only time my load has actually met the guidelines, either when I was adjuncting or when I was full time, was when I was teaching freshman comp at my Ivy League graduate institution. In that situation, I assigned an essay or a revision of an essay every week, and met with every student for half an hour once every two weeks. Those were the expectations, and they were perfectly reasonable, because I had 24-30 students spread over two sections. I'd structure the same situation differently today -- fewer individual essays, more building blocks to larger ones -- but I know I could move students -- Ivy League or otherwise -- a long way forward in the course of a semester given those conditions (the other important condition would be that students would need enough time outside of class to complete the substantial work I assigned -- another real problem, besides my 4/4 90+ student load, for my current students, who work far too many hours to pay their tuition, and so often don't do the best that they're currently capable of doing on their assignments for me -- which, of course, makes it hard to move them forward).

    As it is, we (and our students) do what we can with the time and energy we have per student (or course), and the progress is incremental -- and the increments covered during any one course are sometimes vanishingly small. I'm pretty sure it all adds up to progress over the course of a high school and/or college education, but not as much progress as there could or should be.

  7. I'm another one who teaches writing courses. They don't take my advice to go to the Writing Center, either--and I'm their friggin' writing instructor.

    They don't bother to come to office hours, either. In fact, I'm convinced they don't read the clear, instructive comments I give them on their work.

    At LD3C, though, in addition to the frustration of teaching many students who simply don't care to do the work, we writing instructors are also blamed for students' lack of writing skills by instructors in other departments. (Let me make it clear that I am not accusing Academic Monkey of that, at all. I'm just commiserating.)

  8. Bernice's school sounds a lot like mine. Students who can navigate the winding path to the out-of-the-way center can get semester-long help.

  9. When I started teaching writing 20+ years ago, I loved it. I was adjuncting at a small private college. My classes were capped at 18. I had time to do conferences with every student on every paper. I saw real improvement from the first essay to the last. I would have been thrilled to have a job teaching only writing classes.

    Today at Large Urban Community College, my classes are capped at 26 to 28, depending on the semester. Students who came out of developmental English used to do better than those who started in freshman comp. Now they do worse because far too many of my colleagues see developmental ed as their own social justice project. They pass the students who "try hard" and "are nice kids who deserve a break" because they know those of us who teach freshman comp will be the ones who have to weed them out.

    Now I dread teaching writing save one class: technical communication. Those classes tend to be smaller by default, the students in them have already passed freshman comp, and nearly everyone seems to be motivated because the students can see how what they learn is directly useful to the jobs they currently hold or would like to have once they finish school.

    We are lucky that we have a terrific writing center with stats to back up that their services really do help students do better in their courses. The problem is funding. Hours had to be cut severely this year, so students are waiting weeks for an appointment. Given the clientele we serve, planning that far in advance is not a skill they normally possess. Thus we've seen some pretty serious meltdowns when people discover that walk-in tutoring is a thing of the past and they really needed to make that tutoring appointment when the essay was assigned.

  10. It seems I have always been on the wrong side of the "global" education approach. As a science teacher in a math/science dept, we were told we had to co-teach math concepts, as math teachers don't have to take science to become math teachers. Now at the collegiate level, we are all de facto writing instructors as well.

    I probably devote too much time to my "second job" because, quite frankly, reading the incorrectly grammared, improperly cited, misspelled, mispunctuated, poorly constructed crap just hurts my semi-colon.

    But what quite literally paralyzes me when a new batch of papers arrive is the realization that at least one student will complain -- long, loud, and probably to an administrator -- that my efforts to assist them in becoming a competent writer is totally misguided, dammit, because they KNOW they are ALREADY an excellent writer.

    Even more agonizing than the full inbox of "What can I do to pass?" messages at this time of year, is the full inbox of "How dare you tell me my paper on the history of underwater basketweaving didn't meet the standards of the analyze a basket assignment. I am a great writer, I tried really hard, and you are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad instructor."

    (OK, that's a little long for a subject line, but you understand!)

    Of course, at this point in the semester, now the associated problem are those students who ignored the feedback on the first paper in the term and wrote a second paper overflowing with, quite literally, the same mistakes as the first.

    (For the love of red ink, is it so hard to remember that APA calls them "References" and MLA "Works Cited"??)

    Speaking of paralysis ... have to overcome mine. There is a pile of papers staring at me.

  11. As I may have mentioned, Kal Jr (a College Soph) is a math-oriented kid, but can write well (and is NOT verbally oriented). When he was in HS, I was amazed at how good his papers were (certainly better than Lois' and better than I was as an undergrad).

    But how? Some of it is organization. At our urban (but good!) public HS, the teachers taught them a structured style of writing papers.

    A number of years ago, this style got some flak in the local paper because college admission folks thought the essays were not creative, stifled expression, blah, blah, blah.

    "F" that.

    A structured approach is something I long to see in the gradflakes (including the ones who were deemed as good writers as undergrads and are now being awakened). Being able to put thoughts down in an organized fashion goes a long way.

    Of course, I'm dreaming that this will improve anytime soon.

  12. The students at the bottom are probably totally fucked for good. Let's just admit it. Some will rise up, but not most. Some will still pass, but none should.

    If a student is seriously struggling, they can get a tutor through my school for free.

    Our writing center where I work is 1/2 great and 1/2 absurd. Most students there want their papers proofread by a teacher and that's about it.

    How the HELL can I teach an ESL student how to write/read/speak English in 15-30 minutes? It's impossible, it's not my job, and they don't want to learn anyway. They want a proofreader to clean up their shit, fast.

    You have to weed students out SOMEWHERE IN THE PROCESS of education, now don't you? And if the K-12 system and the absolute pussies who administer and teach in it refuse to do so, THEN I WILL, and so should YOU!

    Why are any of us lamenting college illiteracy without flunking these students? You CAN do something about the problem: You can bar these students from proceeding in their charade, at least from your class to the next level of it, or at least you can throw a wrench in the works and slow them down. IT'S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO FLUNK THOSE WHO FAIL. YOU ARE A FILTER, NOT JUST A TEACHER.

  13. Cookies, that's a very interesting way to look at this. However, I'm not sure I can rectify weeding people out *after* they've paid $25,000 for tuition.

    They should be weeded out before. In the admissions process. Once they're in, we have some obligation to them. Because it's really hard to pay back $25000 in student loans, especially if they never get that degree.


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