Why college grads can’t write

College graduates can’t write because Freshman Comp doesn’t teach them, writes R.V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State, on the Pope Center’s Clarion Call.

When the GI Bill opened college doors to many more students after World War II, freshman comp “became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language,” Young writes.

. . . At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.

In the last 30 years, freshman comp has been taken over by “the social sciences and the public education establishment.” Researchers write up their theories; adjuncts do the teaching.

Since theorists believe reading and writing are different skills, literature has been banished from composition classes.

Theorists believe grammar and usage conventions are unimportant, unteachable and “may even be damaging to minorities.” They tell adjuncts not to mark errors on student papers:  Students “best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and ‘peer-reviewing’ their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.”

In the 1970’s, when Young started at North Carolina State, English professors taught freshman comp.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences.  The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper.  It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

Asking students to write essays about works of literature gave them a common topic,  which they approached with few preconceptions, Young writes. Freshman find it easier to assess the role of faith in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, than to “give thoughtful, unself-conscious account of their views on abortion or global warming — the kind of topic that is typical nowadays.”

Young no longer teaches writing. As a literature professor with no “composition theory” training, he’s considered unqualified.

How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.

Frisky blogger Jessica Wakeman wishes she’d learned more about literature, history and politics and taken fewer gender studies courses. “There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life,” she writes.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It would be interesting to know why Wakeman thought taking gender studies courses was cool.
    Who told her? Why did she believe?

  2. (1) It’s been a while since I was at school, but at the time Freshman Comp was basically a grammar and sentence construction course. It was something that made sure incoming freshman could actually write. Honors students at my Alma Mater were urged to test out of it or take a alternative Honors course that wouldn’t be so painful for them.

    (2) It won’t matter. You can teach kids a lot in a semester, but the rest of their curriculum needs to support it. I was probably a better writer my freshman year than I was my senior year. Why? My junior and senior years were spent writing lab reports and design documentation. Not the same thing as a proper research paper.

  3. Peer review should only be used for two reasons –
    1) To possibly lessen the amount of editing that the teacher will eventually do.
    2) To give students experience editing so that they can better compose their own works.

    Even though I teach science, I probably know more about spelling and grammar than a lot of these freshman comp professors and TAs.

  4. It’s funny how often experts who champion one form of “improvement” or another in the teaching process just accidentally happen to favor the form that also makes it easier for the teacher. Grading all of those essays is just a ton of work and now we find that “peer review” is the superior method.

    I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If there’s a flaw in Young’s argument, it’s the assumption that college composition courses can, by themselves, do anything substantial. Learning to write effectively, like learning to read or learning to argue, is a skill that takes years to develop properly. It’s the sort of skill that does work well unless you’ve practiced it until it’s second nature. No one would think to take an illiterate, give them a 15 (10 on the quarter system) week course in reading, and expect them to read at anywhere near a college level.

    But illiterates and “inscriberates” (if someone knows the actual word for that I’d love to hear it) are precisely what are coming out of many high schools and then showing up in college classrooms. A composition course isn’t going to cut it. To invoke an overused cliche, it’s like putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

    My best guess is that the worst of my students (and I’m supposed to be at a good school) would need about three years of constant, writing-intensive high-school style English classes in order to get up to speed. And that’s JUST to get up to the level where they can start doing college work.

    It’s not the mere hours of class: you can’t always cram a three year program of 1 hour classes into a one year program of three hour classes. Students need the time out of class to practice their writing, to practice editing: months, not days. A return to the boot camp composition class would be a start — and it’s certainly better than the current situation as Young describes it — but many of the problems are, I think, not amenable to such acute solutions.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Or, you know, the students could learn to write in high school.

  7. I teach Freshman Composition. I try to actually teach my students to *write,* especially teaching them to put sentences together into coherent paragraphs, and paragraphs together into a coherent whole. The entire content of my class is how to write.

    Too many of my colleagues believe that a composition class has no content; therefore, they teach their pet theories, and have the writing part of the class inserted as an incidental.

    Saying that a writing class has no content is like saying that a math class has no content: yes, both are skills-based, but that means we have to understand and be prepared to teach the skills.

    And if you read the peer-reviewed professional language and literature journals, you start to suspect that one of the main reasons college kids can’t write is because the professionals teaching them don’t understand the skills well enough to teach them.

  8. Cardinal Fang says:

    Dr. Young confuses two issues. He writes that incoming freshmen can’t usually “grasp the nuances of a sophisticated work of literature or follow the logic of a complex argument. ” But for the average college student, only one of those deficiencies needs to be remediated.

    All college students need to be follow the logic of a complex argument, and moreover need to be able to formulate and express complex arguments. But the vast majority of college students are not English majors, and hence will have no need, either in their college career or in their later life, to grasp literary nuances. Chemistry majors, econ majors, bio majors, engineers, anthropology majors– these students don’t need to learn literary criticism. Instead, they need to analyze facts in their field. Employers are not crying out for essays on the role of faith in “Young Goodman Brown”; rather, they want employees who can write clear memos.

    By all means, students in composition classes should read, and analyze what they have read. But they should be reading non-fiction, not literature or poetry. They don’t need to learn literary criticism. They need to learn to write.

  9. My son is an AP Honors student (two English, two History, two Math, one Gov) who went to UC Santa Cruz having tested out of all of his required courses. However, all students who tested out of remedial courses had to take two quarters of something that clearly was intended to be *real* freshman comp, something very close to what is described in this post–lots of reading, lots of essays. It was intended for students who knew how to read and write at a college level, but had never had any rigorous writing instruction.

    My son’s writing improved dramatically. But notice what Santa Cruz had to do–weed out the kids who couldn’t write at all, then create a fictitious title so that they didn’t look like they were weeding, and then teach real freshman comp.

  10. Cardinal Fang has an excellent point about literature and writing. I personally believe that part of the problem with the teaching or writing is that, most of the time, it is done in the context of literature. This presents two problems. One is that the kind of writing that is expected of students in composition courses is on another planet compared to writing in the real working world. English teachers often expect students to write lengthy essays with long, high-sounding, ‘sophisticated’ words. But the fact is that, in the real world, NOBODY wants to have to read a long essay in order to get an idea. In the real working world, people are strapped for time. They want short, terse writing using the simplest words possible. And this is something that is quite lost among most English instructors.

    In addition, teaching writing in the context of literature does SO many people a disservice. As Cardinal Fang says above, most students simply don’t need to learn literary criticism and analysis. And many students (especially those with scientific and technical interests) find themselves ‘lost in the cracks’ when it comes to trying to learn writing in this way. The way I see it, writing needs to be taught in a more practical, real world manner. Perhaps writing classes geared toward students in different areas of study would be better.

    But what about having students read literature in order to make them more ‘well-rounded people’? You can always have a general education literature class for this purpose. And students will do what they wish with what they learn from the class. However, to try to teach ALL students how to write in just this one way is the problem, not the solution.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lopez’s first comment. Learning to write effectively requires more than a single semester, which is usually all college students get these days. Just like a spoken language, I suspect that writing is a lifelong skill that is best begun when small and continually practiced as growing up. And though some would say that reading and writing aren’t linked, I think that they are. And I can’t help but notice that most often the bookworms can already write quite well while those who find reading boring and would rather watch a movie have issues forming complete, grammatically correct sentences. These students’ writing usually just sounds like speech on a page.

    But obviously we can’t just throw up our hands and say “well, they’ve gotta start reading when they’re young.” I’m still struggling to figure out how to get around this, because I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer yet.

  12. Matt,

    You want to read this essay: http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html

    -Mark Roulo