Andrew Johnson: No excuse for poor writing skills

by Eric Murphy

After reading my fellow columnist’s Trent Kays’ “Saying, ‘My student can’t write,’ is a cop out,” I wanted to respectfully and briefly push back.


As has been suggested in the comments section, the inherent problem with students’ poor writing isn’t that their professors aren’t providing them constant and constructive guidance to improve, but is that these students are enrolling in institutions of higher learning without basic and fundamental principles down pat. You’re right when you say that 15 weeks isn’t a sufficient enough span of time; apparently almost 15 years of schooling wasn’t either.


Sure, it’d be great if professors would take the time, energy, and interest to individually address a stylistic error and grammatical shortcomings in each of their students’ essays, but the reality is that they don’t. I won’t hold that against them, though. If students haven’t taken a personal initiative to develop their writing skills before college, why should professors do so when they’re in college?


Professors’ primary responsibility isn’t to handhold a 21 year-old about where to put a comma following a quotation; it’s to teach their area of expertise, such as Russian history. The difference between a course on writing and a specified topic like Russian history is that the information students are learning in the latter is usually confined to just that semester, so I can’t blame someone for not recalling all the important events and figures dating back to Garðaríki. Writing is a skill that students, theoretically, continually work on throughout their time on campus, regardless of what liberal arts classes they’re in. If a student were immersing himself in Russian history every semester, I’d surely expect them to know the difference Ivan the Fair and Ivan the Great, and would be disappointed if he didn’t; I hold that same standard to writing, regardless of whether or not it’s in a Latin or Cyrillic alphabet.


“The writing process is not static, and it is not bound by rules,” is a very accurate assessment – writing is personal, and there is no one correct way to do it, but there are basic fundamentals that students should have a grasp on before setting foot on campus. A tip here and a pointer there would be great whenever professors feel like doing so, but it isn’t obligatory; they have high expectations for us already, as they should. Furthermore, they’re assessing our work, and if they determine our work is sloppy or poor, then they have all the reason to grumble, because it’s disrespectful that we want them to take the time to correct our mistakes rather than looking up the correct way ourselves. We’re on campus to be scholars, embarking on a privileged educational opportunity, and should make sure we’ve taken the time to perfect the tools we’ll need ahead of time. Saying that the university isn’t taking responsibility for students’ writing abilities is a cop out, but for students.   


–Andrew Johnson