Study Examines College Writing Courses

RALEIGH – Postmodern theorists have changed the way composition courses in college are taught, eliminating literature and grammar instruction by imposing group discussions with little involvement from the teachers, according to a new study released Monday by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

The study, written by Nan Miller, a former English professor at North Carolina State University and Meredith College, discusses several fallacies that she believes have severely lowered the quality of writing among college students.

Those fallacies are:
• The purpose of English 101 is “to empower writers to membership in various discourse communities.”
• The best way to ensure quality instruction in English 101 is to hire instructors who are trained in composition theory.
• The use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.
• A “student-centered” class provides the best format for “the making of knowledge.”
• If composition theorists talk about writing in language they themselves have invented, no one will notice that their mission in English 101 has more to do with promoting theorist ideology than it does with promoting literacy.
• Freshmen composition is no place for literature.

“Professor Miller’s paper is yet more evidence that American higher education is failing to do what people expect of it,” said George Leef, executive director of the Pope Center. “We are constantly told that our colleges and universities are ‘the envy of the world’ but she shows that they are doing a poor job of teaching one of the most basic skills – how to write clear English. There’s nothing to be envied in the fact that we have allowed educational theorists to take over an important course and run it into the ground.”

Miller said most students and parents do not realize there is a problem with how writing is taught in college. She said that will remain so until it becomes a market issue where parents and taxpayers begin to realize that they’re paying for very little value.

To correct the problems she identifies, Miller recommends 15 changes that should be made by administrators. Among those include leaving “discourse methodology” to the experts in their fields, requiring essays be graded by instructors, and using class time to teach writing instead of squandering it on small groups.

“I think reform will come only when parents and taxpayers make college administrators aware that their students are being short changed in their education and demand a better return on their money,” Miller concluded in a presentation today.