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Rasslin’ over writin’ teachin’

In an article entitled, “Our Students Can’t Write. We Have Ourselves to Blame,” college professor Robert Zaretsky writes:

I, for one, spend my semesters picking through the salads tossed and served up as papers by my students. Consider the opening paragraph from a paper I received this semester. The student, who chose to write on Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, begins: “Bazarov’s story is the tragic existence of a man who could not exist. That statement is not finite. It only applies to Bazarov in the time period he exists and to his maturity because Bazarov’s nihilism is intermingled with passions.”

This particular paper — written by a senior majoring in English and journalism — is a tad less coherent than others. Yet most of the papers are bedeviled by a host of grammatical and analytical problems, as if they were composed from word-salad bars that overflow with diced sentences and sliced syntax, stale phrases and failed analogies, and dressings that cover the full range of opinions (yet not a single serving of textual analysis). As for the staples of paper writing, including the basic punctuation of sentences and the clear organization of ideas, they are almost nowhere to be found.

Of course, this is hardly news. . . .

As Thomas Basbøll reports, some other professors expressed disagreement with the above-linked article. One of these disagreers was Elizabeth Wardle who, in an article entitled “What Critics of Student Writing Get Wrong,” writes:

It’s easy for teachers to take their frustration with a few student writers and extrapolate from it a number of conclusions based solely on their own experiences, histories, and biases. But academics should demand more from such public statements. . . . There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing. . . .

All of us learn to write well the same way we learn to do anything well: by doing it. Students need to write and revise in as many classes, internships, and extracurricular sites as possible, but they won’t produce expert or error-free writing overnight. . . .

All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general. . . .

When opinion columnists opine that “our students can’t write,” they mean that students can’t put together a sentence or paragraph that appeals to their sensibilities or adheres to the norms of writing in their disciplines or professions. . . .

Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

Zaretsky is a professor of culture and literature and Wardle is a professor of written communication, so they are coming from slightly different places professionally, as Basbøll points out. For Zaretsky, writing is a tool that students should be using to express their ideas, and he’s saying that, for better or worse, more effort needs to be taken to teach students how to do this. For Wardle’s students, writing skill is an end in itself.

What struck me, though, was how much agreement there was between Zaretsky and Wardle. Wardle is disagreeing with Zaretsky on a rhetorical level, dismissing his observations of bad student writing as unsystematic and as not being news in any case. But when it comes to the specifics, they both agree on two key points:

1. Writing doesn’t always come naturally. It typically requires lots of practice to learn to write fluidly and well.

2. Writing is context dependent. You don’t just learn to write. You learn to write for specific purposes and specific audiences.

So it bothers me that this seems to be presented as a disagreement, a duel of experts. Why can’t we all just get along?

Just one thing. I do disagree with this statement from Wardle: “When opinion columnists opine that “our students can’t write,” they mean that students can’t put together a sentence or paragraph that appeals to their sensibilities or adheres to the norms of writing in their disciplines or professions.” Go back and look at the student passage from the beginning of Zaretsky’s article. The problem with that passage was not that the student didn’t appeal to Zaretsky’s sensibilities; the problem is that it’s garbled and close to meaningless. It may well be that this garbling is a product of the student attempting to write what he thought was being asked for in the assignment—but, for whatever reason, it’s bad writing. It’s not doing the student any favor to excuse it by saying that it doesn’t “adheres to the norms of writing in their disciplines or professions.” Blame schools if you want for incentivizing students to write this way, or for not giving students enough writing practice, but let’s be open that there’s a problem with this writing.

Anyway, I agree on points 1 and 2 above, and I think these points are not obvious! Indeed, I felt that Steven Pinker, in his writings on writing, did not fully appreciate these points. He seems to think that academics write badly on purpose—he also seems to be amused that academics “drive Priuses” and academics “have a foreign policy,” but that’s another story, also it’s not clear why he thinks it’s funny that other academics “have a foreign policy,” given that he has his own takes on torture—whereas I argued for the simpler (to me) explanation that “most academic writing is bad for the same reason that most writing is bad: because writing is hard. . . . it’s hard to learn and it’s hard to teach, but lots of people use writing to express their ideas. Academics are expected to write well but they’ve never learned how.”

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