Grading papers for a graduate literature course, Professor Stanley Fish “became alarmed at the “inability of my students to write a clear English sentence,” he blogs at the New York Times. Most were instructors in the college’s composition program. He discovered that only four of 104 composition sections focused on the craft of writing. In the other 100, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.”
. . . 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.
Fish cites What Will They Learn? by American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which criticizes general education requirements that let students earn math, science or foreign language credit for courses that don’t teach competency in the subject. As for writing, ACTA opposes giving credit for courses that require writing but don’t teach writing.
In order to qualify, a course must be devoted to “grammar, style, clarity, and argument.” The rationale behind these exclusions is compelling: mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject. You can tell when you are being taught a mathematical function or a scientific procedure or a foreign language or the uses of the subjunctive and when you are being taught something else.
The damage is done long before college, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.
Writing instruction – especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically.
The first step in good writing is to figure out what you want to say. But it’s not the only step. I worry about the journal fad, which encourages students to practice writing to themselves but doesn’t teach them how to communicate with other people.