When you teach writing, as I do, you tend to receive a lot of unsolicited advice from all over campus about how to do your job. I imagine that this is at least in part because all of us, in one capacity or another, are required to write for our jobs, regardless of our discipline or exact role within the university. I don’t imagine that physicists are often harangued about how to run their experiments and how to teach physics to their students, because most of us know jack squat about physics.
Most of us do, though, know a bit about writing. Because we all write, everyone has an opinion when it comes to writing and the teaching of writing. And for some reason or another, few are shy about expressing those opinions. But, as I frequently remind my students, while everyone is entitled to an opinion, not all opinions are equally valid or credible.
Often the opinions on student writing and writing instruction that I hear take the form of criticism of both student writers and of university writing instruction/instructors. To be fair, there is plenty to criticize, beginning with the current culture of high-stakes testing in high schools that either eliminates writing instruction altogether or frequently reduces writing to rote formulas. Many students arrive on campus underprepared to do any sort of writing, let alone collegiate-level academic writing.
Because the teaching of writing is labor-intensive and demands relatively small class sizes — commenting meaningfully on long student papers is incredibly time-consuming — writing instruction has been farmed out to adjuncts far more than has instruction in most disciplines. Some of these part-time or insecurely employed instructors are saints and do incredible instructional work, while others have "qualified" for their jobs on the basis of a single course in the teaching of writing that they took while earning an M.A.
In both cases, these term instructors who carry out the bulk of writing instruction, along with graduate students, are overworked. Whereas the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that writing courses be limited to 20 students per class (or 15 in the case of “remedial” classes) and 60 students per instructor per semester, adjuncts and term faculty frequently teach as many as 100 students per semester. Under those circumstances instructional quality will fall even when a course is taught by highly qualified, highly committed instructors. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, these writing instructors are often the lowest-paid instructional staff on a university’s campus, showing that we literally do not value writing or writing instruction at the very same moment when faculty across our campuses are complaining that students "can’t write," and at the same time when employers are stressing that writing and communication skills are lacking in many job applicants.
Additionally, many universities exempt students from first-year writing courses on the basis of marginal Advanced Placement or SAT scores simply to save on instructional costs and classroom space, doing a disservice to both students and people they will one day serve.
I could keep going, but you get the picture. The current situation when it comes to writing instruction isn’t great on many of our campuses, because we often don’t support writing instruction at the institutional level. Part of the problem, though, is the idea that only writing instructors do or should teach writing. Writing is necessary to every sort of work that our universities prepare students for, and so writing instruction is ultimately the responsibility of all instructors in all disciplines.
My purpose here is not only to defend those who take on the difficult, unrewarded, thankless, and constantly critiqued work of teaching writing. I’d like to offer some ideas, derived both from current research on the teaching of writing and my own experience, for how all faculty members can help students to improve their writing skills. Here are some ideas for how to support and improve student writing on your own campus, starting in your own classroom:
- Require writing in your courses. Imagine that you teach a kid how to play baseball. You teach hitting, fielding, and the rules of the game. Then, you say to yourself and the kid, "Ah, now you know how to play baseball. Go be a ballplayer. We don’t need to practice ever again.” Crazy, right? But this is exactly what happens with writing instruction at many universities. Students take a semester or two of composition, learn some of the fundamentals of academic writing, and then are not required to write in their classes again, or not required to write again for several semesters or even years. Not only will such a student fail to progress as a writer, but their writing minds and muscles will atrophy. They will regress as writers. If you acknowledge that writing is an important skill in your discipline or in the careers that your discipline sends student into, then it is your responsibility to require meaningful writing assignments in your courses. When a fellow faculty member complains to me about the state of student writing, the first question I ask is how much writing that faculty member requires in his or her own courses.
- Design meaningful assignments. If an assignment feels routine, hollow, or boring to you as an instructor, it will be doubly so for students. If you dread reading what students will write for an assignment, then they’ll likely dread writing it. Writing assignments should have inherent content-oriented purposes and values, and should accomplish a purpose other than simply forcing students to engage in the act of writing. Design assignments that directly engage your curriculum, and that ask students to produce, rather than to recite, knowledge. Require them to think, rather than to simply report. Such assignments have the added advantage of discouraging attempts at plagiarism. Make your expectations for the assignment as explicit as possible.
- Give meaningful feedback, and distinguish forests from trees. When graduate writing instructors begin teaching it’s common to see them go nuts over small technical and grammatical errors, because such errors are relatively easily identified and dealt with. Unfortunately, these technical issues are often the least important features of writing, and the ideas, concepts, and logical consistency of writing are far more important features to focus our attention upon. I’m not saying that grammar and technical correctness are unimportant. Far from it. They matter tremendously in terms of making sure that we and our writing are perceived as credible. But I am saying that grammar and technical issues are secondary to ideas. A polished, technically perfect presentation of a lousy, poorly researched, ill-considered idea is still a lousy, poorly researched, ill-considered idea. Failing to give prompt, meaningful, conceptually oriented feedback sends the message that writing doesn’t matter, and undercuts an attempt to incorporate writing assignments into a curriculum. When providing feedback on writing, feedback on technical issues should be provided, but such feedback is secondary in importance to feedback on the ideas and conceptual work that a piece of writing undertakes. Make sure that your priorities in providing feedback match the expectations you set in your assignment.
- Address writing in all of its locations. The formal research paper isn’t the only place writing lives for students, just as formal research papers aren’t, by a long shot, the only writing that we academic types produce. Consider all of the locations in which you might instruct students on how to improve their writing, to include formal research papers, but also routine correspondence, preliminary research notes or lab reports, applications, presentations, scripts, interviews, and any other activity where writing is created or leads to the creation of another product.
- Expand your definition of "writing." When we thinking of “writing” in the context of university instruction, most of us think of the formal research paper or essay. Unfortunately, this is an inherently empty or dead genre of writing, within which we ask students to parrot the gestures of research and writing, but students and instructors both know that muddling through the course is the only true purpose of the assignment. But many more products in our culture are "written," and they indicate some of the modes in which our students will likely be expected to write later in their careers and lives. Web design and coding are forms of writing, as is composing in digital sound or video formats. These newer forms of writing provide additional opportunities for instruction. Contrary to popular belief, students are writing as much as ever on their own time, but the writing they are engaged in takes new-to-us forms that most of us have yet to constructively yoke to our own curriculums. Experiment with how you allow students to write for your classes.
We need to remember that writing instruction is everyone’s responsibility. While the English department or writing program at your university begins the process, students need to learn the disciplinary conventions and expectations that we hope to see in graduating seniors from you, the disciplinary insiders and experts. Finally, we need to remember that writing is tough, difficult work, and is not often truly mastered. Improving our writing is a lifelong endeavor. If asked to write often in meaningful ways and given constructive feedback on their writing, students will improve.
The elders of every literate culture since the time of Plato have lamented that their young people were about to devolve into an illiterate, bumbling mess. Every one of those cultures has been wrong.