Student writing is getting worse– or wait, it’s getting better!

Ladies and gentlemen:  It is time for the main event, the forever battle over students getting worse and worse as time goes on.  Let’s get ready to


Representing the world champion, the “going to hell in a hand-basket,” the eternal the youth are getting worse and worse, and carrying on the tradition of complaining about students that dates back in western culture to at least Isocrates, I give you Stanley Fish’s “What Should Colleges Teach?” on his New York Times “blog.” Judging by the many comments here that repeat “oh yes, the students are so much worse today than they used to be,” he’s clearly the champ and the crowd favorite.  And why wouldn’t he be?  Isn’t it much more satisfying for grown-ups to note the weaknesses of youth?  After all, to do so simultaneously suggests that the grown-ups of today are both “better” than the current youth, and it suggests that the previous youth (e.g., today’s grown-ups) were also better than the current youth (“When I was their age, we learned this stuff.  But now…”).

In the challenger’s corner, we have Clive Thompson and his WIRED article “The New Literacy,” in which he argues that “it’s not that today’s students can’t write.  It’s that they’re doing it in different places and in different ways.”  Boos from the crowd; looks like Thompson has an uphill battle.  Let’s see how this works out.


Fish opens with what he even admits is a pretty old attack:  the problem is that composition classes in college don’t teach the craft of writing, and they instead teach something– well, something else.  Political stuff.  Saving the world.  Not writing and grammar and rhetoric.  “As I learned more about the world of composition studies,” Fish writes, “I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.”  Those bastards in composition!!

Thompson’s opening anticipates and parries this old attack: “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into “bleak, bald, sad shorthand” (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?” Right. Oh wait, the idea that the kids can’t write isn’t right? Perhaps we will read on….

Fish argues that his position now has “received (indirect) support from a source that makes me slightly uncomfortable, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.”  What could possibly be wrong with these folks?

Founded by Lynne Cheney and Jerry Martin in 1995, ACTA (I quote from its website) is “an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges.” Sounds good, but that “commitment” takes the form of mobilizing trustees and alumni in an effort to pressure college and universities to make changes in their curricula and requirements. Academic institutions, the ACTA website declares, “need checks and balances” because “internal constituencies” — which means professors — cannot be trusted to be responsive to public concerns about the state of higher education.

Ouch.  Having a right-wing group supporting your position on education is always a little, um, uncomfortable.  What have you got, Thompson?

Andrea Lunsford isn’t so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

Ah-HA!  One of those evil compositionalists!  Of course she is saying this! The problem is though that Lunsford actually uses this stuff that academics like Fish and Cheney are supposed to respect, this stuff– oh, what’s it called?  right!  Actual research with actual student writers.

I think the thing that Fish gets most wrong is to assume that somehow, it is even possible to teach “grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.”  Grammar and rhetoric are always about something; you can’t just teach rules are about how to persuade and not have some kind of content.  And I think where Thompson and the Stanford study get it most right is to recognize that students (and everyone else) need to write with some kind of purpose and for some kind of audience, and they do this often in out of school settings, like Facebook and blogs and Twitter:

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.

This fight ends sort of  like the first Rocky, I am sure:  the upstart still loses.  But who knows?  Maybe after a dozen sequels, we’ll finally get a round where the good guys win.

3 thoughts on “Student writing is getting worse– or wait, it’s getting better!”

  1. A wonderful post! And as usual, the best representations of a two sided debate represent a middle path as possibility: if we actually talk about what constitutes good writing, we might learn how to teach it better! Thank you.

  2. Hah, thank you so much for this post! I’m getting ready to start teaching freshman composition at Emerson College for the first time. I read Stanley Fish’s article and felt that I should revise my syllabus because we spend time discussing outsourcing, graffiti, generational gaps…a lot of stuff other than grammar and rhetoric. But I could not figure out how I could teach just grammar and rhetoric. What would I use as examples? Some kind of ethereal Platonic pure form of rhetoric? And how could I get the students interested in writing without having something to write about?

    Then I realized Fish’s evidence that students aren’t as good as they used to be is sort of fishy. I do not believe him when he says that his grad students could not “write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart.” How could it even be possible that grad students could only write six words?

    Thanks for your post!

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