We Must Overhaul College Writing

The poor writing of many American college students is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s much-discussed book Academically Adrift shows that most students don’t do much writing. The number of pages students have to write in most courses is depressingly low, but the problem, in my view, is much less one of quantity than of quality.

In trying to ascertain why so many graduate students have major writing problems, I began a pilot study with survey questions about the quantity of their writing in undergraduate courses. Often, they answered that they’d written well over 20 pages in individual courses and a total of over 100 pages per semester.

Yet, they still had difficulty mounting a logical argument, and had even more difficulty writing out that argument in coherent paragraph form. They had serious problems writing clear sentences; often they were addicted to passive constructions, believing that they sound “more academic.”   When I asked them to unravel a  sentence and explain who was doing what to whom in it, i.e., what the subject, verb, and object were, they looked at me as if I had arrived from another galaxy to torture them.

For my revised survey, I still ask about quantity but my key questions are now: “How many comments did the instructor who assigned the paper put on it?”  And: “Please describe the comments that the instructor put on the paper.”  The answers  are revealing–the vast majority of students indicate that the instructor (in upper division courses, usually of professorial rank) wrote but a sentence on the last page, often something like,  “An insightful view of this subject,” grading it “A.”  

(In today’s grade-inflated academy, even an “A-“ would require some justification in writing; a “B” would necessitate at least a paragraph or two of explanation; and a “C” or below could trigger a legal brief to ward off a potential lawsuit.)

Why do faculty members respond so tersely to student writing?   Beyond wanting to avoid the work of justifying below A- grades, the reasons probably connect to the evolution of English composition instruction during the last two generations. We’ve gone from traditional grammar-based pedagogy to what is usually termed “holistic writing,” i.e., trying to get students to grasp the language as a whole rather than in its grammatical parts. 

Thus, many faculty members justify their indifference to dreadful student writing by saying that when reading a paper, they mainly want to ascertain whether the student understands the ideas in the course and makes good use of them. Content alone matters, not how well the student has expressed it.

Nonsense. If a student doesn’t clearly express ideas so the reader can easily comprehend them, then it’s impossible to judge whether the student really understands the ideas or not.

Poor student writing is a terrible problem and I offer the following recommendations based on my 40 years of teaching composition.

Many students need to be taught the basic concepts of English composition. Start with words; students often insert totally inappropriate polysyllabic words when common, shorter ones would work much better.  Move on to sentences: Rule Number 1: avoid passive constructions whenever possible. Then on to paragraphs, followed by one-page papers, and finally, 3-to-5 page papers.  (Students should have learned those skills in middle and high school but most have not; colleges and universities must teach them.)

Most of all, instructors must line-edit student work. Yes, line-editing is very labor-intensive, but there is no shortcut for this key function.

Composition instructors should also stress rewriting; students must correct and resubmit all work that the instructor has line-edited. By the end of the semester, students may be able to revise on their own, but instructors should always ask for drafts of a paper—if nothing else, it short-circuits plagiarism.

Learning to write is not a mystical process; in fact, it is quite simple. Someone who knows more about writing than the student goes over the student’s work line-by-line, and demonstrates how to correct specific problems. A grad student in my survey, an excellent writer, attributed her ability to her mother working with her that way on her writing every night during her K-12 years.

Many other students who could write well had attended private colleges and had instructors who line-edited their work. Unfortunately, many graduates of public universities, even the “Public Ivies,” have never had anyone line-edit their work. As a result, they have serious writing problems, despite the fact that they’ve written a huge number of pages.

How to institutionalize my recommendations?  First, make basic English Composition a much more intensive writing course for undergraduate students than at present and hire trained instructors for this labor-intensive work. Some private universities do that, paying their comp teachers well and giving them five-year renewable contracts. Almost no public universities do anything remotely like that, except in some honors divisions.

Too many universities, even those making a serious attempt to include a quality Freshmen Comp course, do not follow up the basic course with subsequent intensive writing classes. Many students improve their writing during their freshman year and then either hit a plateau in their writing or, more often, forget what they learned and lapse into sloppy writing. Educators know that learned skills must be reinforced but many schools fail to do so.

Ideally, colleges would require sophomore and junior intensive writing courses with the subject matter meshing with the student’s major field of study, still with the instructor or an adjunct line-editing the work.  Supplementing these courses, or even as a substitute, schools should require students to take the Collegiate Learning Assessment test a number of times. If students took this exam at the end of each college year, they’d have to prove that their writing meets a minimum standard.

At a deeper level, however, intensive English Composition only works if students know how to think logically.   Many years ago as a freshman at Purdue University, I had to take a course in Basic Logic.  Initially, I was skeptical about the subject, but it turned out to be one of the best courses that I ever took.  Every day I use something that I learned in that class.  When I read a strained analogy, I often hear Virgil Lokke, the instructor, proclaiming, “Argument by analogy is inherently false.  No two things are the same.”  I cannot imagine how I could have had a life as a writer without that course.

These days, whenever I suggest requiring a logic course for freshmen, faculty are usually incredulous. How could an old-fashioned subject descended from Greek philosophy possibly have a place in the Digital Age?   In fact, the Digital Age has made logic more necessary than ever.

When assigned a paper, most students go to Google.  They immediately hit a major roadblock: they cannot logically figure out what keywords, prompted by the assignment, will locate useful information.  When they type something in the Google box and their search turns up a list, they confront another problem: they do not know how to distinguish between articles potentially useful for their paper and articles that aren’t worth looking at.

College students studying Shakespeare don’t need to memorize the Plantagenet kings, as they did when books were expensive and information hard to acquire. Today, typing “Plantagenet kings” into Google retrieves that list instantly. But students need to know how to figure out which Plantagenet kings were important to Shakespeare and whether a reference to a specific monarch is useful. Those higher order critical skills must underlie college writing.

Solving the keyword and article evaluation problem is easy for someone with logic skills, but  it’s often a mystery to today’s students.

In an ideal world, undergraduates would learn to think and write well; their degrees would indicate specific academic achievements. My plan requires a strong university commitment and enough money to hire and pay writing instructors to teach language fundamentals and line-edit all those student papers.

It is certainly worth the effort.