Local: Education

Why can't college students write well? Part I

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Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
There are days when I go around humming a variation of Henry Higgins' famous rant from "My Fair Lady":

Why can't the teachers teach their children how to write?

This verbal based distinction, should now be out of sight!

If you wrote as they do, sir, instead of the way you do,

Why you might be flipping burgers too!

My humming is particularly apparent when I have two or three class sets of papers to grade. This week, for instance.

Whether I think about my first English 101 in 1976, or my current advanced composition classes, students are still unsure if they can write using more than five paragraphs, or in the first-person point of view.

I can't believe that some of their teachers, high school and college alike, still tell them how many paragraphs to write and to write in the third person. One gets extremely annoyed when one reads a paper about a student's ideas written in the stiff, unnatural third person!

There are, of course, a whole host of grammatical conventions that need to be attended to. But students have roommates, parents, co-workers and grammar check software to help with those errors. The big mistake many college students make -- the mistake that makes their writing uninteresting and forgettable -- is that they are afraid to develop any personality or voice in their prose. Even when I ask students to "sound like yourselves!" some want to conform to what they consider the Platonic ideal of writing: turgid bureaucratese.

Having taught in high school classrooms for 23 years, I don't want to point a finger at those teachers as culprits, because I know high school students are astonishingly good at ignoring instruction. "We never were told we could use contractions," they would tell me as they wrote their first senior paper.

I knew for a fact that their junior teachers had not banned contractions as long as they were used correctly. (One time two students claimed, "We've never been taught about metaphors!" when they had learned about them in my class the year before. Busted.) Students hang on to writing myths as tenaciously as they earlier clung to Santa Claus. But by college, those myths need revisiting.

Just in time, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project have published a "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing." I will spend the next two columns looking at their recommendations, and the likelihood they will make a difference in the way our children write.

Their suggestions are irreproachable: students need to develop the habits of mind that lead to good writing: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility and flexibility. Their writing also needs to be reflective and analytical.

Mission impossible? I think not! I will discuss the Writing Framework and why it matters in greater detail next week. I will also look at how these recommendations fit into the structure of the College Learning Assessment testing program, endorsed by the Department of Education and many universities, and what college professors can do to change how the average student approaches writing.

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at ejacob1@gmu.edu

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