New and old thoughts on the challenges of fycomp and/or “why students can’t write” through the lens of John Warner

John “Just Visiting” Warner had a very good column/blog entry at Inside Higher Ed the other day called “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc…) Papers.” It’s a smart piece; here’s how it starts:

Occasionally, one hears grumbling from faculty who assign writing in their courses about the apparent lack of preparation of students to successfully execute those assignments. They wonder what’s happening in the general education writing courses when so many students seem to arrive in without the skills necessary to succeed at college-level writing, particularly research-based analytical work.

As an instructor of first-year writing it can be hard not to take these things personally.

I do my best to help students succeed for the future writing occasions they’ll confront in college and beyond, but the truth is, I cannot properly prepare them for what’s coming.

And then from there, Warner goes on to a list that I’ll build on in a moment/after the break.

Warner’s piece really struck a cord with me for a variety of different reasons, most of them timing around the end of the semester and what-not. This isn’t new territory for anyone involved in first year composition– certainly not for folks who have some kind of quasi-administrative connection to writing programs– and, personally, I long ago stopped taking these things personally. The first time some professor from outside of writing studies (though not always from outside English or even the field of writing studies, frankly) or some administrator confronts you with “hey, how come students come out of that first year writing program you teach in (and/or run) can’t even write a decent sentence?!” you get angry and/or you kind of get that whole deer in headlights freeze. The 200th time you get some version of this question/confrontation, you just kind of smile and sigh.

Warner’s article here is basically a list– a good one, and one that I thought was worthy of embellishing, at least for my own purposes. After all, I’m finishing up this semester as the associate director of the first year writing program and while Derek Mueller is on sabbatical in the winter, I’ll be in the director’s chair. I might need this post in the near future. Maybe others will find my expansions on Warner’s points interesting and useful as well.

Warner begins:

1. “First-year writing is only one semester long” (though as he points out, some places do require two semesters); and

2. “The students are young or inexperienced or both, and writing is a skill that develops over our lifetimes, not a semester. We are all works in progress.” (and he goes on from there).

Both good points. Teachers often forget that our students are “new” every year, so when we say or think things like “how come these students come into my class every year and I have to reteach them ‘x’ every year,” we’re really making a commentary about ourselves and our own age and our own marking of time rather than the abilities of our always new students.

But as a tangent/thought experiment, let’s take the opposite approach here for a moment. If first-year writing “doesn’t work,” suppose we eliminated the universal requirement? Instead of requiring everyone to take the course, suppose instead that we only offered it as an elective to those who wanted to take it and then left it at that? Believe me, I’m not the first person to suggest this; in fact, one of the writers and thinkers I admire most in the field, Sharon Crowley, essentially made her career (well, part of it, at least) by making this argument in different ways.

Don’t get me wrong– while I have a lot of sympathies for Crowley’s point of view, I do think that first-year writing serves a purpose, and if we’re going to require a lot of other gen ed courses (or areas of the gen ed that need to be fulfilled), we might as well require this one. But Crowley’s point of view is important here; I mean, how would the campus community respond to the idea of eliminating the requirement? There might be a wide-spread feeling that the course doesn’t “work” as well as it should, but I’m pretty sure there is even a stronger feeling that all students should take first-year writing, at least at institutions like mine.

Back to Warner:

3. “Many students arrive in the college classroom with writing processes stunted by a near-exclusive diet writing in the context of standardized assessment. They are armed with the 5-paragraph essay and an ability to parrot existing information.”…

4. “One of the biggest reasons students have a hard time writing analysis and argument is because they often don’t have sufficient subject and domain expertise about what is being argued. They can describe what someone else says, but don’t yet have the knowledge to build upon that information.” …

Very true, and these are points well articulated by Joesph Williams in  Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, a book that I’ve used in my upper-level writing classes for what seems like hundreds of times. I’m thinking in particular of one of the opening chapters of the book where Williams suggests some of the larger “causes” of bad writing. Williams argues that many students see writing assignments as like a minefield, places where you never know if your next step is going to kill you. Not all but many students arrive in college kind of “shell-shocked” from their high school writing experiences with weird five paragraph demands or rules from teachers that (at best) range from “pet peeves” to flat-out wrong. There is often a lot to “unteach” in first year writing.

Williams also makes another more complicated argument about a cause for “bad writing.” When any of us– even those of us with strong skills as a writer– enter into a new subject/domain area or “discourse community,” we always struggle for a time with trying to understand the rules of writing in that discourse community. In my own life: I am a very good writer and a well-trained scholar in rhetoric and writing studies, but whenever I’m asked to write one of these institutional documents about program review or grant requests or whatever, I always struggle. “What do these people want?” I ask myself or others. “Can you give me an example?” Our students are doing exactly the same thing.

Conversely, experts in any given field are more likely to be more forgiving of “bad writing” in their field. We’re usually able to look past kind of “turgid” prose (Williams uses the word “turgid” a lot in that book) if the content in the prose is important, the particular person doing the writing has a high level of ethos in the academic field (despite being a bad writer), or both. We tend not to give students this “pass” on bad writing because they lack both expertise and ethos.

Back to Warner’s list:

“5. If I am successful, students exit my course armed with a flexible and adaptable writing process rooted in an analysis of the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, genre), but when they encounter a new genre they often regress, often in every dimension, even down to the sentence level.”

What Warner is talking about here is teaching a process, trying to equip students with the basics (and only the basics) of how rhetoric “works” and to give them tools in terms of the writing process that are broad and flexible enough to be adapted to many different writing experiences. That’s about the most we can do in a course like first year writing. What we don’t do and can’t do is teach students about every genre they might encounter in and beyond academic life, and we also can’t teach students how to solve and/or avoid errors in their writing forever.

And just further complicating/frustrating matters: we can’t guarantee that students are actually going to use the rhetorical “apparatus” that we’re trying to give them in first year writing. A simple example: just about every first year writing assignment includes some kind of process-based and revision-focused approach, meaning that we ask our students to begin with some kind of pre-writing/invention exercises, to write a draft, to rethink/re-view that draft, to show that draft to other readers (besides the teacher) for feedback, and then to revise that draft before turning in something that becomes a final copy. We teach writing this way because, basically, this is what the field believes should be the “ideal” path for any sort of significant writing experience, student or otherwise.  But that doesn’t mean students (or any of us) automatically follow these “best practices.” This process approach doesn’t necessarily “work” well in all situations (timed writing exams, genres that are more akin to filling out a report, etc.), and of course lots of us often skip these steps (how many of us rush past the draft and revision to just the final “product” because we’re late, lazy, or both?). And making matters worse is few faculty outside of writing studies include any discussion of process with their assignments.

Or, another way I am fond of putting it: there is a big difference between teaching writing and assigning writing.

Warner again:

Numbers six, seven, and eight on his list are basically that students likely “do not understand the genre you are asking them to write within. Inside of our own fields, we usually have thoroughly internalized genre conventions to the point that we don’t even think about them,” but to our students, the genre is an entirely new thing. He goes on: “Actually, it’s worse. It’s not entirely new, but somewhat familiar, which means they will trot out the closest template with which they’re comfortable and try to use that.”

To me, this speaks to the need more advanced “Writing Across the Curriculum” approaches, and at EMU, we do have “Writing Intensive” courses within majors. But here’s the problem (at least here’s part of the problem at EMU): first, a significant number of “WI” courses do not list our required first year writing course as a prerequisite. My best guess is that most students in these WI courses have taken first year writing even without the requirement. But there’s no guarantee that’s the case and we have no actual data on this, and we also know that a number of students don’t take first year writing until they have to, often in their junior or senior year. And as a slight tangent: I will often enough teach our first year writing course during one of our summer sessions, and let me assure you no student who thought they had graduated but who is forced to take first year writing during the summer after they walked at graduation is even remotely happy about it.

Beyond these “late bloomers,” we also have a lot of students who somehow satisfy our first year requirement before they get here (some combination of grades, test scores, AP courses, etc.) or, as transfer students (and we have a lot of community college transfer students at EMU), they take a version of first year writing somewhere else which we credit them but which might not be as rigorous and systematic as our program. My point here is simple: when a colleague says something like “hey, how come students come out of that first year writing program you teach in (and/or run) can’t even write a decent sentence,” it is entirely possible that the student in question did not have anything to do with our first year writing program.

Finally, let’s not discount the problems with student writing that result from bad writing assignments. A study just came out in the the journal Research in the Teaching of English called “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development:
Results from a Large-Scale Multi-institutional Study” by Paul Anderson, Chris Anson, Robert Gonyea, and Charles Paine. At this point, I’ve only skimmed it, but one of the things that I take away from it is students learn more (and write more effectively) if assignments are well-constructed and about making meaning, then students perform better. Or, garbage in, garbage out.

Number nine for Warner:

9. When faculty in other disciplines complain that students “can’t even write a decent sentence,” (likely true when looking at the actual assignments), the problem is not that students don’t know grammar and syntax, but because they are struggling badly with making meaning, and because they have no idea what they’re trying to say, why they’re trying to say it, or to whom, flailing commences.

Exactly, and for me, this brings up another important point/tangent. I was literally having a conversation the other day with someone who said something along the lines of “It’s just that it seems like the students today are a lot less prepared than they used to be and they just can’t write as well.” My response to this person was “oh, that’s not even remotely true,” and it kind of took them back a bit. But really, that’s what the research says.

One of my favorite examples of this is the 1988 essay “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” by Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford. Besides being funny, charmingly self-deprecating (the “Ma and Pa Kettle” thing is because of Connors’ and Lunsford’s feelings of being more like “good-hearted bumblers” rather than efficient “white-coated Researchers”), and well-written, it also is great research. They studied a large corpus of student papers from the mid 1980s, did an elaborate error analysis, and they compared their results to research done in 1930 and 1917. Among other findings, there was no statistical difference between the number of errors students like me were making (I was a freshman in 1985), or the errors my grandparent and great-grandparents (had they gone to college) were making. Lunsford and Connors put it like this:

The consistency of these numbers seems to us extraordinary. It suggests that although the length of the average paper demanded in freshman composition has been steadily rising, the formal skills of students have not declined precipitously.

In the light of the “Johnny Can’t Write” furor of the 1970s and the sometimes hysterical claims of educational decline oft heard today, these results are striking-and heartening. They suggest that in some ways we are doing a better job than we might have known. The number of errors has not gone down, but neither has it risen in the past five decades. In spite of open admissions, in spite of radical shifts in the demographics of college students, in spite of the huge escalation in the population percentage as well as in sheer numbers of people attending American colleges, freshmen are still committing approximately the same number of formal errors per 100 words they were before World War One. In this case, not losing means that we are winning. (406-7)

And of course, this kind of study has been replicated in small and large ways and the results have been reasonably similar. When it comes to the “war” on student error, the results of all of our efforts seem to be a draw.

Warner closes with good advice about assigning (and teaching) writing in “non-English” (or I’d say non-Writing) courses. He says “help students understand the genre they are writing in,” and I would add to that “do not assume that students know what genre (or citation style or whatever else) you are talking about,” and also to make assignments that build “through a process of observation, inference, and analysis through examining examples” so that they understand the rhetorical situation, and also “so that when it is time for them to write, they know who they’re writing to and why.”

And finally, Warner reminds us that students struggling with writing doesn’t mean they aren’t learning; “struggle is actually an excellent educational outcome.” Indeed, maybe your students “can’t write” precisely because that struggle is the evidence that they’re learning. Our jobs as teachers is to help students through that struggle, to (again in Warner’s words) make that struggle “meaningful to students, and so even if they are defeated, they are better armed for the next battle.”

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