illiteracy's perfect storm

We are embarking on the revision of our FYC program. Last year, as I wrote about, we did a survey of faculty and, surprise, surprise, faculty believe that students don’t write well! That’s not the cause of the revision, but I suppose it provides us with some campuswide momentum to act.

I suppose the conventional story is that the average senior arrives in her major’s capstone course and is faced with some significant writing project and the result is less than hoped for.

So how do we get to that point?

Writing instruction at Cortland is fairly typical. You start with a two-semester sequence. It’s basically Current-Traditional Rhetoric (analysis, compare/contrast, argumentation), culminating in the research paper. There’s a portfolio gatekeeping devices at the end of each semester that reflects a strict product-orientation. There’s some gesturing toward process; students are asked to revise/correct papers. Plagiarism is a not uncommon strategy for attempting to escape this writing gulag. (If this seems like a criticism of anyone, keep in mind I teach in this program too so I’m pointing the finger at myself as much as anyone. That’s why we’re looking to change this business.)

Also, we have to keep in mind the student body. Our students represent the average NYS college-going high schoolers. They don’t express positive associations with reading and writing. So it’s often an uphill struggle from the outset.

Then students take two writing intensive courses. That means at least 15 pages of graded writing with an opportunity for revision. Usually one of these is in a general education course, maybe literary studies, maybe philosophy, could be a lot of things. There’s a wide variety, but the general rule here is that the courses are focusing on disciplinary content. Yes the students are asked to write. Hopefully they do revise. How much time is spent on these courses discussing writing? It really varies.

In any case, students get that probably in their sophomore year. They still haven’t had any writing in their major. Now some majors have loads of writing intensive courses. Since the first step in writing better is ummm writing at all, this makes a clear difference. On the other hand, the student who shows up for her senior capstone course having done little or no writing in her discipline and not having had a writing intensive course for two years and probably no significant writing instruction since her first year probably is not set up for success. But that’s just a guess.

But this is a story I’m sure most of my readers know all too well. It is, as I have suggested, illiteracy’s perfect storm.

The question is what to do about it. And that’s what we’re on about this year.


2 replies on “illiteracy's perfect storm”

I know a lot of my friends think that they are terrible writers and haven’t had much exposure to it. I remember my senior year of high school my AP English teacher used a memory journal and interesting topics and that is what pulled me into writing. Expression I think is the first step. I feel students need to be able to communicate their feelings and thoughts via writing before they should be asked to academically write. I think when people have a journal or something personal like a blog then their thoughts are streamlined more and makes writing more enjoyable and easier for the academic world. Just an opinion and I really am glad to see the faculty is trying to change the writing standard.
Philip Bolton Jr.


Thanks Philip. I agree completely. To become a better writer, one must first be a writer; that is one must first write on a regular basis and see writing as a part of one’s life. In order to making writing a part of life, one must have a motivation, a reason, for doing so.
Expression is an integral part of this, as you point out. The other element, I believe, is purpose. In discovering a purpose for writing, one begins to gain interest in writing in particular genres, maybe even academic ones. Though I agree that academic writing has been so damaging to students through their school experience, it’s probably the last place to start.
Have fun in London, Philip.


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