A Writing Summit

Our Provost has announced a writing summit to discuss the status of writing on campus. It’s great news when administrator’s place this kind of emphasis on writing. I’m making a concerted effort to not speak with my usual stylistic cynicism. After all, I want good things to happen.

I’m not sure what this summit will be like, but I would make three points if I had the opportunity, probably familiar to folks reading this, even if they may not agree.

  1. The whole notion that "students can’t write," goes back 26 centuries. You can search the historical record, but you’ll never find a period when the general sentiment was "students write well." This is not a "problem" that can be fixed by changing pedagogy. It has nothing to do with specific teachers or students or institutions. The perception could be altered but only by altering the institutional role of students and writing in a dramatic way.
  2. That said, students–like all of us–can improve their writing, and we can offer better writing instruction. How? Well, let me ask this question: if you wanted to improve students understanding of chemistry, how would you do it? Obviously, you would require them to take more chemistry classes and hire chemists to teach them. You wouldn’t expect faculty in English or Psychology or Communications or Education or wherever to teach chemistry. We might know something about chemistry, but we’ll never have a disciplianry understanding of it. If you want students to become better writers then obviously you hire faculty with training in rhetoric/composition/professional writing.
  3. The "nature" (by which I mean the technology) of writing is changing. Higher education is general is lagging behind other cultural and professional spaces in adapting, but sooner or later (sooner rather than later) something will have to happen. The built-in intellectual conservatism of the tenure system is a severe challenge here. These challenges can be overcome, as I discuss here often, but doing so will require a great deal of adminstrative support.

Anyway, I’m sure others will have things to say. I’m really more interested in how this summit will play out than getting a chance to speak my mind.

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