“No more half measures”; or, Breaking Bad…habits

Earlier today I was discussing student writing with a friend of mine. We were lamenting the fact that so many of our students come into our classes with poor writing skills. This, of course, is a common complaint among many who teach at the college level (and particularly those who teach in English departments). It’s become easy to blame No Child Left Behind. Don’t get me wrong; I blame NCLB too. But in reality, NCLB is more than likely a symptom and not the cause.

One of the problems I have noticed in my many years as a teacher is that precious few seem to want to teach writing, and those who do want to are so over-burdened that it’s very, very difficult to do it correctly. One reason I have a problem blaming NCLB is that it takes everyone else off the hook; if teaching writing is someone else’s problem, then it’s not our problem. And many, many people I know – including those who teach courses whose explicit purpose is the teaching of writing – want someone else to teach writing. I know this, in part, because for many years I was one such person. Let’s face it; teaching writing is difficult, detail-oriented work that most students will not thank you for (at least not right away). And while I have a great many thoughts on this subject, I’ll use this post to elaborate on one in particular.

Last week I had a student come to me and tell me something I hear often, though he certainly wins bonus points for hyperbole. I often meet students who want to go to graduate school, either for creative writing or for literary study. Often, these students want to to eventually teach at the college level. These students always want to succeed. This particular student told me he wanted to be “the best.” Not “the best he could be,” but “the best.” Ah, youth. I really do admire it. He mentioned this is the context of a conversation about his first paper, and a grade he was shocked to receive. In the course of the discussion, he revealed that he does not work with multiple drafts (though he does “think about” his work before writing and turning in his first draft) and does not edit his writing once it’s on the page. Then, while explaining his work ethic, noted that he began his paper 3 days before it was due. The way he delivered this information suggested that he wanted to impress me with how early he started work (presumably in contrast to those who waited until the night before).

This anecdote isn’t newsworthy; it is merely the most recent in a long string of such examples I could draw from. However, I have been thinking about this conversation repeatedly since it occurred, mostly because this student wants to be “the best.” And as I pointed out to him in our subsequent conversation, he was not helping himself to achieve that goal. I don’t believe the student is lazy, or that he is insincere. No, I suspect that he has – over the course of his academic career – adopted a number of bad habits, and has only just learned this about himself. And that he has only just learned that these are bad habits.

I know how things are going to play out with this student: he will work with me more closely, improve his writing, and earn grades closer to what he expects. He will recognize that the success he wants comes with changing his habits regarding writing, and ideally, he will see the benefits of this effort elsewhere in his remaining years of study.

Great, but that’s just one student. Improving his work is, truth be told, pretty easy. The formula is simple, and it always works. But it does nothing to address the systemic problem.

In 1992 I graduated from Brockton High School in Brockton, MA. It was a unique place in that it had some of the highest-performing students in the state, sitting in classes with some of the lowest-performing students in the state. My graduating class saw multiple students go on to Ivy-league universities, and even more drop out. I got a great education there, but many of my classmates did not. In particular, BHS was – with a handful of exceptions in the AP programs – one of the worst-performing schools in the state in terms of reading comprehension and writing skills. Years after I graduated, Dr. Szachowicz* turned that around.

One question she asked often of her students – and that she is quoted of asking a colleague in the story above – is “Is this the best we can be?” It’s a question that has stayed with me. I have often asked myself that question while working on some project, often when I find myself wanting to cut corners. And in particular, I find myself asking this question with respect to writing instruction.

I know for a fact that I am not doing the best job I could be doing teaching writing. I rationalize this by reminding myself that I generally teach over 100 students every semester, have general education requirements I must address with those students (and sadly, writing instruction is not one of them), and already spend more than 40 hours a week on my job and would like very much to cut that back. That said, I still find myself wondering what we could do.

And I keep coming back to the BHS solution: make writing instruction part of every class. Even gym.

It worked for BHS. (No, seriously, read the story I linked to.)

I know that there would be serious objections to this, particularly on my campus. What about public speaking? What about math? What about all of the other skills that are incorporated into the general education program?

Well, for starters, I don’t care. I really don’t. That may be very a very unpopular opinion, but I don’t. (OK, maybe a care a little bit. But not today; not while I’m writing this post.) There are plenty of examples online regarding the importance of writing skills, and why even those who do not write for a living should possess them.

Additionally, I hear people complaining about this all the time. These complaints come from my colleagues teaching in English. And from people teaching in other humanities fields. And from people teaching math. And the sciences. And coaching staff. And administrators. And parents. And other students. This is such a common complaint that everyone joins in on the fun.

So if everyone agrees that this is a problem, a serious problem, one that affects a variety of other areas of our students’ work and lives, shouldn’t we do what we can to fix it?

In other words, “is this the best we can be?”

I would like to see writing instruction included throughout the curriculum because many courses assign and grade writing as a means of assessing learning. There are students at my university writing papers for classes in Literature and History, Sociology and Anthropology, Music and Community Health. If these programs are going to routinely assign and grade writing as a means of assessing student learning, they should be teaching it as well. These students all aspire to a variety of careers, many of which will expect their employees to possess strong skills in written communication.** (That is, of course, on of the reasons why many employers insist on hiring applicants with college degrees.)

And truth be told, I bet I’m not alone in this desire. I know many faculty who would gladly include writing instruction in their courses, if they only knew how best to do so. This, of course, is the easy part. Universities have experts in writing instruction; some universities have several such faculty. These faculty members teach writing, direct writing centers, work as professional writers outside the university, etc. Are we – is higher education – using these faculty to their fullest potential? (Note: I am not asking universities to overburden these faculty. No, these faculty should be given the release time needed to train their colleagues, to help incorporate writing instruction with other pedagogical methods and goals. Run workshops. Visit classrooms. Help train faculty in proper instruction and assessment.)

Now just so I’m clear, I’m not asking that that every university course include writing as a means of assessment (though I am, of course, suggesting that as well). I’m asking that every university course – every single one of them – teach students how to write. Much of this instruction can be in the form of teaching students how to write for the various professions these programs train students for.*** There is no reason why students should be getting the same instruction from all their courses. Hell, I’m pretty sure that students would benefit a great deal from learning to write within a variety of discourse communities. In fact, this could only benefit students, many of whom come to college thinking they know how to write because they have mastered the five paragraph essay, the hamburger method, or some other system that they were asked to demonstrate earlier in their education.

So, yeah, let’s teach writing in every course in the curriculum. All of them.

What say you all?

*Full disclosure: I have more respect for “Dr. Szach” than I do for most educators I have met. I was lucky enough to take two classes with her when I attended BHS (before she moved into administration). She was a brilliant teacher, a compassionate person, and the first person I ever met who was in the middle of a PhD program. She shared with us bits of what she was learning at the time, and teased us with the suggestion that there is more out there to study. Although I did not follow her footsteps by studying history, I have never lost the passion for the subject that she shared with us.

**When I was a student at Northeastern University, I attended a lecture given by one of the chief executives at Raytheon (a company that had just entered into a partnership with the university). This executive told the audience – which included a large number of students in engineering and the sciences – that one of the best things they could do while in college is work on their writing. Strong writing, he told them, will absolutely advance their careers. Strong writing skills, he told us, are always appreciated, regardless of the position.

***This approach to writing instruction is one reason why Northeastern University’s writing program is so successful. I remember being a student there when the program was developing its courses in writing for the professions; students, faculty, and local businesses loved this idea. It was incredibly successful.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““No more half measures”; or, Breaking Bad…habits

  1. Matthew Davis

    I love this idea for two reasons: first, because I obviously want students to write better (and basically will work with any of my students who want it one-on-one to overcome their particular issues), and second because right now we want students to write better but the high-stakes testing culture has ed tech companies trying to come up with algorithms that will assess writing. I’m not sure what makes them think they can do that beyond hubris, but it’s coming, and maybe if more people are involved in teaching writing the difficulty of writing well can be made clear. Clear enough that that Silicon Valley disruption bubble will pop before kids learn how to game the software instead of how to write.

    • Thanks. It’s certainly not my idea, but I thought it worth spreading. Though I doubt it would ever catch on, especially as universities encourage departments to engage in turf wars over general education offerings, as everyone tries to live with ever-shrinking pieces of the larger pie.

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