The other day, I received an e-mail from a colleague who teaches part-time at my university. She read an earlier piece  I had written for Inside Higher Ed on why I thought students wrote poorly in college, and she wanted to talk to me about strategies for improving the quality of her students’ writing. She had just completed grading their final papers for the term, and she was frustrated with the number of grammar and citation errors.
During the week after grades were due, we met in my office, and she asked if I encountered the same kinds of mistakes. She also wondered what students were actually learning in our two-semester sequence of required writing courses. Were her expectations unreasonable? Should she assume students should be able to write correctly and cite secondary sources? As a member of the English and foreign languages department and past director of the writing program, I assured her that her expectations were not unreasonable and that students who had taken research writing at our school had received a general introduction to managing sources.
Then she shared with me her syllabus, which contained a one paragraph description of one of her writing assignments. My experience tells me that one of the main problems students have with successfully completing writing projects is the design of the assignments. I’ve found assignments left in the copier by colleagues, and I’ve cringed at the unnecessary complexity of the tasks described or the insufficient explanations of what must be accomplished by the student.
Many assignments, like the one contained in her one paragraph, jumble what we want students to do and what we want students to present. In other words, many assignments I’ve seen fail to clearly delineate between the kind of thinking students need to perform and the kind of communication students need to present. So instead of adequately providing students the information they need to succeed, faculty often distribute a sloppily designed task that is cognitively difficult, if not impossible, for students to sort out. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Describe your agreement or disagreement to the statement below. I would also expect you to include at least 3 references from the course readings. Your response should be in the form of a clearly written and logically organized paper of no fewer than 1500 words. No works cited page is necessary for this assignment, but use MLA format for citations. If you wish to show me an early draft, send it to me by e-mail no later than 2 days before paper due date. Also use no smaller than 12 point font and be sure to proof for grammar and spellcheck. As I explained in class, underline your thesis statement in your introductory paragraph, and try to come up with an original title for this paper as well.
Garbage In, Garbage Out. And then come the many complaints that students don’t know how to write.
I don’t mean to place all of the blame on faculty -- though some serious reflection on our culpability in these matters would certainly help. However, I did say to my colleague that students often fail to understand the complexity and time-consuming nature of writing, and instead of just demanding writing projects and assume students come to us as primed and ready to fire away, we need to help them manage their writing projects by providing carefully constructed assignments and a few opportunities to practice writing as a process over the course of the term.
Helping students practice writing as a process has long been taught as a solution to poorly composed papers, yet I don’t think it’s promoted much across the disciplines. But I also told her that there are cultural dimensions to this problem as well. I believe most students equate writing with transcription because the texts they most often encounter are the perfectly polished written products found in books, newspapers, and magazines. Since the hard work of composing those texts is hidden from readers, they believe that good writers think up what they want to say and then copy down their fully-formed thoughts onto the page. Thus, many students think they can’t begin to write until they have decided what they want to say. This, of course, is no news to composition theorists and teachers of rhetoric. But an alternative approach is rarely presented to students.
I did pitch my colleague some strategies for designing assignments and for providing models of what she expected, and I wish her the very best as she rethinks how to best support her students’ writing. Still, we have a cultural battle to fight. So here is another pitch: a new reality TV series called “The American Writer.”
Since contest shows on television have always generated enormous fascination and appeal in our culture, I would like to pitch a basic cable series (A&E, are you listening? PBS? Bravo? Hey, Oprah!) that follows a select group of college students, faculty, and authors as they meet together for a month at a writers’ retreat. The students will have been selected by a jury of college professors and professional writers based upon three writing samples: a short poem, a personal narrative essay, and an opinion piece. The faculty members will be selected from a variety of academic disciplines, and the authors will be selected based upon their abilities to write in more than one genre. At the end of the program, students will be judged on the quality of three new pieces of writing composed at the retreat, and the winner will receive a very generous cash prize.
The series will provide background about each of the students, faculty members, and authors, emphasizing their writing histories, as well as their favorite kinds of reading. The series will also follow these participants as they come to the retreat, reflect upon their selection to participate in the contest, share meals, attend workshops and tutorials, and describe their perceptions of the other participants. But the primary focus of the program will be on the participants’ descriptions of how they go about the act of writing. We will see them planning, drafting, revising, and editing works in progress. And we will sit in on writing workshops and individual tutoring sessions.
This is the basic pitch. Interested agents and producers should contact me for a more developed treatment. (Then there are the spin-offs: “The American Artist” and “The American Actor.”) But more to the point, my proposal is intended to introduce into our most popular cultural medium powerful knowledge all college students should have: an inside view of what really happens when writers struggle with the inescapable difficulties of communicating their ideas and emotions and stories and values through words on the page.
Maybe professors will learn a thing or two along the way as well.
Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English and foreign languages at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.