No One Wants to Teach Writing

Perhaps the most glaring weakness among American college students is their writing. Many enter college lacking the ability to put together even a single good paragraph—and graduate without much improvement. It has been that way for a long time.

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported that American educational institutions had failed to achieve their purpose and that the failure had forced businesses to adopt costly remedial programs.  A stream of subsequent studies and initiatives has continued to point to skills gaps with respect to writing and other cognitive skills. 

Nevertheless, higher educational institutions have tended to ignore writing shortfalls. Educators pay lip service to educational excellence but avoid the work necessary to help students to write better. My institution, Brooklyn College, is no exception.

Most of the college’s students come from New York, where changes in the city’s school system during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, specifically a progressive, learn-through-doing education program called balanced literacy, made a bad situation worse.  A decade after that change was made, City Journal’s Sol Stern reports that now-former schools chancellor Joel Klein subsequently researched the subject and admitted that his balanced literacy program was a failure. 

Even before the city’s school system adopted the “balanced” curriculum, however, few of my business students could write at a level acceptable to leading New York-area businesses. Many come from immigrant families where English is a second language, and some of my U.S.-born students are similar to my ESL students in that they speak and write in street dialect. Well-intentioned educators have not required them to read and write in standard English. In the end, ambitious students pay because the job market penalizes those who use street dialect.    

Brooklyn College students need writing help. For instance, a student told me that the big insurance company AFLAC had refused his invitation to attend a campus event because of the writing errors in his emails. Another student, a Brazilian immigrant who works at a money center bank, said that her supervisor had told her that she needed to improve her writing. Strangely, when she took English classes at Brooklyn College, her instructor said that her writing was excellent and didn’t need improvement.  

In response to my suggestion that Brooklyn College provide the help she needs, a colleague asked whether the bank should instead consider implementing its own remedial programs. Since then, I have found that the “let’s pass the buck” attitude is commonplace. But why don’t most college professors want to work with students on their writing?

At the college level, there are three crucial blockages to helping students with their writing. First, professors do not see themselves as teachers of basic skills. They believe that they should teach the content of their courses, not engage in mundane tasks like grading student writing.

Second, correcting writing is hard, time-consuming, and a possible source of conflict.

Third, there is no incentive to do it. Almost never will a professor find himself earning any rewards, much less additional compensation, for devoting time to working with students on their writing.

Recently, I put forward a proposal to adopt a writing prerequisite and to better integrate writing instruction into the Brooklyn College School of Business’s curriculum. A colleague argued against it, however, saying that it is the English department’s responsibility to teach writing. No one disputed her claim.

Nevertheless, the English department said that it does not teach grammar and composition. When I asked the chair of the English department why the students do not learn writing in their English classes, she wrote back, “You should direct these questions to…the director of composition…” 

I invited the business school’s dean to a discussion about how to improve writing, but he wrote back,  “As some of you may already know, the School of Business is in the process of hiring an Associate Dean…My suggestion is that we wait until an Associate Dean is in place…and let her take the lead on this project.”

When the associate dean, a specialist in benchmarking and quantitative assessment, was hired from a branch campus of the University of Massachusetts, she wrote this in several emails:   

I regret having to say this, but this is not our job…we lack the data to say with any degree of certainty whether…writing problems are common among our students…it is a waste of taxpayers’ money to have Ph.D.s doing remedial training.  

In short, no one at Brooklyn College—save the small, ignored composition department and the underfunded writing-across-the-curriculum program—cares whether the students develop writing skill. Students are allowed to waive out of all composition classes with a minimal score on the New York State Regents Exam. The score is so low that non-English-speaking students waive out. With respect to the writing-across-the-curriculum program, its only requirement is a single 15-page paper in a single “writing-intensive” course. In order to minimize the grading load, the chair of the business program declared in a departmental meeting that the writing-intensive course would be the last one taken; frequently, adjunct and ESL faculty are assigned to teach it. 

The result is that many students remain stuck with grade-school writing ability. Here is an illustration, written by one of my students whose native language is English:

This is my second semester at Brooklyn College and i have only written 2 papers and i will accrued 25 credits by the end of this semesters, with one of those papers being from this class. Some of the classes that are taken as part of your major for business do not necessarily require you to write papers, and with it being like that we will tend to forgot certain grammatical rules. College standards have dropped but yet there is nothing being done about it from what i see.

A colleague offered this solution to such poor writing—the business school should only require students to write in bullet points rather than essays because business executives use bullets. The associate dean agreed that, because of texting, students really don’t need to learn how to write: “I’m going back to [the] idea about bullet points,” she wrote.

In its recruiting, Brooklyn College promises students that they will find high-quality jobs when they graduate. Leading employers in the region tell me that they require strong writing skills. On paper, the business school claims to be committed to providing its students with such skills. Sadly, it is failing in that.