Improving Writing at SUNY Cortland and elsewhere

There has been a recent return on my campus to this ongoing conversation about improving student writing. It is a common mantra among educators, employers, and pundits that "students can’t write well." And people have been saying that for 150 years in the context of American higher education, though a broader context would reveal complaints about literacy dating back to Classical Greece.

So first let’s try this. Saying students can’t write well implies a comparison with someone who does. With whom are we comparing our students? Published, professional writers? Surely not. I mean we can’t really imagine that the average college student can be taught to write as well as professional writers. Are we comparing students to faculty? Maybe, but most scholarly writing is incomprehenisble beyond a narrow community. Scholarly writing is more a reflection of a depth of disciplinary knowledge than it is of writerly ability, or so I would content.

I guess we mean that we want more students to write like students who get A’s on their papers. I guess, though I don’t know if that would satisfy employers, who generally expect a very different kind of writing expertise than the kind one develops writing successful term papers.

In any case, we have a problem defining what "writing well" means. That said, I can still give you two pieces of advice that seem fairly obvious to me.

1. Writing is a practice. Writing well is a lot of practice. Our students take two composition courses and two writing intensive courses. This works out to around 60 pages of revised writing during their 8 semesters. That’s 7.5 pages per semester or half a page a week. I’ll call that 140 words, which leaves us with 20 words or so a day during the semester. What’s that? Two or three sentences? Not much of a regular writing practice, huh? It may actually be worse than this, since the way it really works out is that students take four writing courses, which means that four semesters–half of their college experience–they may do no writing at all.

Now, it’s true that students could get more than this requirement. It’s also true that even courses that aren’t officially "writing intensive" may require writing, and we know students do other kinds of writing (e.g. e-mail, notetaking, etc.). However, I stand by my point that most students don’t do much writing in college. Even in our Professional Writing major, students take 11 writing intensive courses plus their composition requirement. They may end up writing 400 pages of revised writing in a variety of genres.  That’s a half page a day.

Writing instruction is labor intensive and expensive, so that’s a big reason why we don’t do it. I would think that if you really want students to improve their writing, they need to practice a lot. They need to be taking at least one writing intensive course every semester, probably more.

2. And I’m about to make it more expensive too. I think it’s great that faculty across the campus use writing as a tool for learning in their classes and as a means of evaluation. They can offer their students some insight into writing in their discipline. However we should note that faculty are generally experts in scholarly publication in their fields. Many students will not be scholars, nor will they enter professions where expertise in scholarly discourses will be especially applicable. Instead they need to develop their writing more in the context of  workplace and civic discourses.

Well, to accomplish this, I think you need writing instruction offered by faculty who have scholarly foundations in the teaching of writing, faculty who will do ongoing research to remain current in the field, who can regularly develop curriciulum, especially in this time of shifting communication technologies.

Let me spell this out. You need faculty with PhDs in rhet/comp, professional writing, technical writing or something similar.

See? It’s simple. If you want students to improve their writing then you ask them to take more writing courses and hire more faculty who are qualified to teach them.

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