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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why college writing fails

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Political indoctrination is destroying the value of college writing courses, argues Stephen Combs, who teaches composition at Florida’s Valencia College, on the Martin Center site. Students desperately need to be taught how to write — not how to ape their instructors’ views, he argues. At “too many colleges,” politics comes first.

Instead of showing students how to present and defend positions with empirical evidence, many teachers use classroom time to lecture on white privilege, perceived racism, and the alleged bigotry of standard written English. Political activism appears more important than grammar, sentence structure, and thesis development.

Teaching writing isn’t enough, writes Alyssa Crow, a teaching assistant at the University of Utah, in her masters thesis.

I must also teach students about privilege, hierarchies, and ideology in order to help them understand that (standard English) continues to be a tool of oppression because it is still privileged over other ways of speaking and writing when we know full-well that it is in no way better (but) simply different—none is better or worse—none marks deficiency; none is unintelligent; none is wrong.

Patrick Sullivan, who teaches first-year composition at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, is the author of several books on writing. In a 2015 journal article, he advocated teaching activism, including “front-line, in-your-face political work as we seek to create positive change in our communities and on our campuses.”

By contrast, linguist Stanley Fish, a liberal Democrat, argues that teaching politically charged topics gets “in the way of teaching students how to construct sentences, organize them into paragraphs, and stitch paragraphs into purposeful essays,” writes Combs.

“Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth,” Fish wrote in his 2015 book, Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education. “But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.”

College students must learn “to make an argument, write critical analysis, and explain meaning” to pass higher-level courses, writes Combs. Those who can’t write clearly — in standard English — are victims of “a cruel joke.”

Required humanities courses should use tests — not papers — to judge students’ learning, argues Rebecca Schuman in Slate. Students hate writing papers and professors hate grading them. The good students improve with feedback; the bad ones plagiarize.

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