No Wonder Johnny (Still) Can’t Write

Ask college professors what their biggest gripe is with undergraduates today, and most will tell you that they don’t read and they can’t write. Ask college students if their professors are taking the time to teach them, and most will tell you that they aren’t.

Let’s focus on writing. Good writing is largely a matter of taste and judgment that is cultivated through practice, experience, and extensive reading. Teaching it requires dexterity and finesse.  Students can improve as writers when their teachers give them the attention they both need and deserve.

Here’s a typical introductory paragraph from a paper in Western Civ II discussing how humanism and the Protestant reformation represent a radical break with the Middle Ages:

During the fourteenth through the sixteenth century the motivation was religion. During this time Christian meant Catholic as in Roman Catholic. As they believed in the Pope as the one who would save them to go to heaven. Just as the people who believed in the Prince, as the ruler for all to look up to as an example.

Students who write like this need more than a few marginal comments on their papers; they need rigorous criticism of their writing and guidance in making substantive revisions.

One way I’ve done this is to have students submit their introductory paragraphs to me in advance, from which I select two or three to review in class. I split them into groups and ask each group to tell the rest of the class what is good or bad about the paragraphs and why. Then we rewrite the paragraphs together as a class. That gives them concrete models of what I expect and consider good writing as they write their papers.

After the papers have been turned in and graded, I select one good paper and one bad paper, which we review as we reviewed the paragraphs. Once again, this allows me to reinforce the elements of good writing while providing additional concrete instruction from which they should benefit for subsequent assignments.

William Strunk told us this almost a hundred years ago. “Once past the essentials,” he wrote in The Elements of Style, “students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work.” Giving them that attention is time-consuming and often frustrating, but essential if they are going to improve.

Modern studies back Strunk up. Summing up the data, Derek Bok writes in Our Underachieving Colleges that progress in writing depends mostly on “how much writing students did, how much specific feedback they received, whether they wrote about something they knew a lot about, and whether their subject let them bring their own intellectual interests into their composition.”

Unfortunately, many college students are not getting the writing work and attention they need. In 2011, most freshmen reported “little academic demand in terms of writing“ while half of the seniors said that they hadn’t written a paper longer than twenty pages in the last year of college, the authors of Academically Adrift recently informed us. And as Professor Murray Sperber noted in a Pope Center article last year, when students do write, they often get only some general comments, not the careful editing they need.

Students themselves are aware of this deficiency in their education. In a study of 30,000 undergraduates at 26 selective colleges, fewer than 50 percent felt that their writing had improved over four years, according to Alexander Astin in What Matters in College?

In another study of 24,000 students at larger institutions, only 27.6 percent saw improvement in their writing, Astin writes. He adds that 80 percent of the students surveyed felt that they would have become better writers if they had received more feedback from their professors and had more direct contact with them.

The simple fact is that student writing would improve if professors at all levels spent more time actually teaching it, as the National Committee on Writing concluded in 2006: “More attention must be paid to writing. More time must be found for it. And teachers must be provided with the time and resources required if they are to perform their work professionally.”

More attention would reduce other common problems, such as plagiarism, because, by taking time to get to know their students and how they think, professors would be able to detect if the content matched the level of their knowledge and their style reflected their personality and character. They wouldn’t need or such other web sites if they simply did their jobs.

Instead, most have made a calculated decision not to work with students on their writing. It’s just not worth it. It’s easier to ignore the problem or pretend that they’re teaching students how to write, pass them in their classes, and get on with their own work. And students are worse off for it. They get to graduate school or take jobs where their supervisors are astounded that they can’t write clear and distinct prose, costing American corporations as much as $3.1 billion annually, as the National Committee on Writing also concluded.

If colleges and universities were serious about teaching students to write, all professors—not only English professors—would be required to devote more time to teaching it in the classroom. They would also be required to do away with multiple-choice exams, assignments that require only factual answers, and jejune exercises like book reports in which students regurgitate what someone else has written.

Professors would be evaluated on their students’ graded papers, which would become part of hiring, tenure, and promotion. They would be required to submit an entire class’s worth of papers over several years to show the kinds of comments and critical reading that they have done. This would evaluate more judiciously how they actually teach writing because it would show the progression of assignments and substantive criticisms—or lack of them. Their evaluators would judge them at their tasks in the same way teachers evaluate students at theirs.

Professors would certainly be more conscientious about grading if they knew that getting a job or tenure or promotion depended on their students’ knowing how to write. And their students might actually be grateful and flattered that they took what they wrote seriously.

To write well, students must know how to think; to learn to think, they must know how to read. Professors need to spend more time turning them into competent thinkers, readers, and writers.