The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Let's face it, writing is hell."...  ...William Styron.

Commentary of the Day - June 30, 2004:  Amazing Grace?  Guest commentary by Tina Blue.

In 1984 I was teaching a standard English 101 college composition course.  As I read through my students' first essay, I was getting that same sinking feeling I always get when I face a set of student essays: Where do I begin?

Those of us who teach college English classes are always overwhelmed by the astonishing deficits in our students' ability to get their facts straight, to think clearly and logically, and to express their ideas in language that actually makes sense and that follows the most basic rules of grammar.

Even our best students write incoherent essays and make grammar and usage errors that would have failed a third grader in the 1950s, when I was in grade school.  They get to college with such writing deficits, of course, because no one has ever required them to learn how to write any better, and no one has ever penalized them for making such errors.  And if we try to do so once they have gotten to college, all heck will break loose, since we are not supposed to be giving bad grades to our top students.  (In fact, we are sometimes even chastised for giving bad grades to our worst students -- but that is another issue.)

So there I was with a set of student essays, feeling the way we all feel about them, when suddenly I came across one that was different.  The sentences were smooth and grammatically clean.  The writer was using a flexible, precise vocabulary and a variety of sentence structures, but without the sort of obvious effort that comes from mining a thesaurus for fancy-pants language or from unnaturally striving to get enough variety into her sentences.

Who was this miracle?  Why was her writing so much better than that of her classmates?

I checked for the student's name -- and the answer was immediately clear.  The writer was a woman named Grace, a 50-year-old grandmother who had just started back to school after years as a homemaker.  She had gone to grade school in the 1940s, when attention to such things as logical argumentation and correct grammar and usage was probably even more rigorous than in my own childhood.

I showed her paper to a 48-year-old professor in the English department, expecting him to be as delighted as I was to see such a paper from an English 101 student.  But after reading her paper, he sighed mightily and remarked, "Well, I can't get too worked up over this.  After all, at one time we expected this level of competence as the starting point for all our college students, so we would have found nothing unusual in a paper like this."

He was right, of course, and I knew it, though in my relief at Grace's competence I had forgotten it.

Here is an absolutely true story.

When I was in third grade (1958), our teacher, Mrs. Colona, would come in twice a week and present us with an essay topic.  We had no prior notice of when we would write our essay or what the topic would be.  What we had was 45 minutes to write a 500-word essay on that topic, and we were required to do it right.  Mrs. Colona took off points for everything we did wrong.   We had to follow her formatting instructions to a T, and if we put our names in the wrong place, or didn't leave appropriate margins, if we forgot to number our pages, or if we wrote in pencil rather than ink, we lost points.

We also lost points for errors in grammar and usage, for structural flaws, for logical lapses, and for stylistic weakness (e.g., writing short, choppy, repetitious "Dick and Jane" sentences or using vague or inappropriate words).

Now, Mrs. Colona did not give us "deep" topics to write about.  One I remember was "Write about your favorite holiday memory, and explain what makes that memory so special to you." But you know what?  Almost none of the college students I have taught since 1972 could write a 500-word essay on that topic in 45 minutes without that essay's being marred by numerous errors or infelicities in one or more of the following areas: grammar and usage, diction, style, formatting, structure, and logic.  I know this for a fact, because we often do give such simple topics as the first essay assignment in English 101.

When even our brightest, most "competent" college students cannot write as well or as quickly as most third graders could in my elementary school in 1958, that means something has gone very wrong with their instruction in writing.

Just for a start, I have not found many college students who can follow the most basic formatting instructions when submitting their papers.

I am not talking here about arcane or idiosyncratic requirements imposed by monster teachers -- you know, the ones who require that the staple be a precise ¼ inch from the upper left-hand corner of the paper.  I am talking about the basic requirement that papers be stapled, rather than having their left-hand corners folded and torn as a means of hooking them together; that a college student's essay should not be written on both sides of the page, in purple ink on pink paper torn carelessly out of a spiral notebook; that a paper should have the student's name, course, and assignment label on it.

I have also not found many college students in my three decades of teaching who can write a 500-word essay on any topic, however simple, without violating numerous grammar and usage rules of the most basic sort: subject-verb agreement, sentence completeness, pronoun-antecedent agreement, spelling (even of very simple words), etc.

And if the essay topic requires any complexity of thought, all bets are off.  Even serious, committed students often make bizarre mistakes in their writing, because their education has not trained them to think carefully and analytically, to argue coherently, or to express themselves precisely and correctly.  Language is the tool we think with, and a person whose language is merely a blunt instrument is not going to be able to think at a very high level.

Back in my undergraduate English major days, I also studied French and Spanish.  In the more advanced language classes, I had to write essays on literature.  Even though my approach to literature was complex and sophisticated even then, whenever I had to write about the subject in a foreign language that I had far less skill in than I have in English, I had to dumb down my analysis, simply because I did not have vocabulary or language structures that were adequate to the expression of my more complex ideas. I often see this effect in international students writing about literature in English.  Usually they understand the literature at a very high level, but their English is not up to the task of expressing their ideas, so they have to simplify their analysis to match their command of the language.

But for too many of our American students the problem is far more serious.  They don't have the vocabulary or language structures in their own language for thinking clearly and deeply about a subject, much less for expressing themselves with any sort of sophistication or precision.  Heck, they can't even write competent sentences in their own language!

What we are faced with when we sit down to grade a set of essays is approximately twelve years of miseducation.  That is why we find the task so desperately discouraging.  A half hour per essay, an hour, or even longer will not suffice to address the faults in their writing or in their thinking -- or their astonishing lack of knowledge.

How can we even begin to untangle the mess?

©2004 Tina Blue.
Tina Blue is a lecturer in English at the University of Kansas. She also publishes the "Teacher, Teacher" web site. .

The IP comments: The IP can't remember writing 500-word essays when he was in the third grade; however, by the time he had finished grammar school (remember when it was called grammar school?) he certainly had written his share of 500-word or longer essays.  Most -- but not all -- of the better students who graduated from high school with the IP could write a decent essay.  However, even in those days (the late 1950s) a substantial fraction of students entering the University of California could not pass the "Subject A" exam, and were required to take "bonehead" English.  As Tina notes, the problem is much worse today.  Though we expend an enormous amount of energy at the college level attempting to remedy the problem through remedial English classes and programs such as "writing across the curriculum", the sad truth is that by the time they reach college it is too late for many students to make up for what they missed in K-12.

Note: The IP will be on vacation until July 21, 2004.  Look for our next article during the week of July 25th.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.