Writing ability as important as ever

I haven’t got much writing. I don’t like it much. I always did bad in writing in high school so I avoided classes that made you write papers. Now I am real nervous about how I will do in college because I have classes that I have to write papers for that are required and they are requirements. My friend says they use to have a place you could go every week and work 1 on 1 to help you get better. Now I here its gone. Also they got hardly any comp class you gotta take to graduate. I was psyched rite off cause that means less requirements but now I wonder whether its so good.”
The person who wrote the preceding paragraph is not stupid, but her use of slang and her failure to follow basic conventions make you take her less seriously, don’t they? Her comments are similar to those I heard from students during my seven years of teaching at the University. On the first day of every class, I ask students to describe their previous experiences with writing. Most tell me that they hate writing, and that they are not confident about their abilities as writers. Far too many students don’t know how to construct a sentence. I still remember one student — he was a young white student from the suburbs of Minneapolis — who did not know that he had written several “sentences” that lacked verbs. After 10 weeks of working with me, he always wrote in complete sentences. It can be done, but it does take some one-on-one work.
Most of the students who have serious writing problems believe writing skills are something people are born with. They believe it’s impossible to teach writing. This is not true. Writing is an unnatural practice that takes time and consistent effort to learn. It is like playing a musical instrument or playing tennis. The only people who are natural writers are voracious readers — but most kids in America today are not.
Instead, most students have to learn this unnatural skill by reading much more and much better writing than they’re accustomed to by taking writing classes and by spending time with writing tutors who can devote attention to their written work over an extended period of time. When we refuse to do these things, we do these people a major disservice. The ability to write clearly is important for democratic participation, for success in college and for one’s own sense of personal power.
Writing is not that hard of a skill to teach, and once it is learned, it is not forgotten. For students with writing problems, the transition from writing papers as if walking through a minefield where mistakes await at every turn, to using writing as a tool, is an exhilarating experience. It gives them both an incredible sense of confidence and a practical skill they need to succeed.
When Dean Rosenstone cut the Student Writing Center’s budget, he made a decision to deny students this powerful tool. Is it because the administration thinks the work of teaching basic literacy is beneath us? Do we think those students who come to us without writing skills, because they have gone to poorly funded schools, just don’t deserve to be here at all? Cuts to programs that help underprepared students are part of our proud new “U2000” initiative, and we should fight them for several reasons.
It’s not just that refusing to teach writing at the college level is elitist. It’s also a form of resignation. That we have given up on teaching writing and now accept the fact that we live in a post-literate world is clear in the failure of most high schools to teach their students to write.
Teachers at all levels don’t have the time, energy or resources to teach writing because they are spending too much time doing other things. In high schools, so much attention is paid to discipline and to entertaining the students that writing skills aren’t the focus. Many teachers are too overworked to grade papers and thus assign mostly multiple choice tests and “matching” exams. The students don’t complain, because they don’t like writing.
A colleague of mine from the English department just told me that one of her freshmen told her that the best English class he had ever taken was good because it involved watching movies instead of reading books and drawing posters instead of writing papers. He was a senior in high school when he took this “English” class.
While teachers make such assignments to engage student interest, these educational shortcuts shortchange the students. How would you feel if you hired a personal trainer at the gym who said, “Instead of working out today, we’re going to sit around and eat cake.” You would recognize that he wasn’t doing his job, right? Why does the principle of “no pain, no gain” only apply to our thighs these days?
In college, many teachers still don’t assign papers because they don’t want to have to do the work to grade them. Even when they do assign papers, they often grade on content alone because they don’t have the resources, knowledge or energy to deal with the writing problems that these papers often contain. In the past, teachers from a variety of departments used to rely on the writing center to make sure that these problems were addressed.
Now the University has cut the Student Writing Center’s budget and cut the upper-division composition requirement at the same time.
We began as a public university. Now we are becoming a resource for corporations. These corporations don’t really care if all of the University’s graduates know how to write. It’s not necessary for you to know how to write if you are going to spend the rest of your life punching data into a computer and writing memos to people who lack basic skills. But kids who go to private schools are still learning how to write, and they are the ones who are going on to jobs that give them real power in our culture. They are the ones that can influence the way things are run, because they have the ability to use language to their advantage.
It’s true that not all the people in power know how to write, or that writing will increase your earning potential, but it gives you a level of personal power that no one can take away from you. Writing can be a joy — or even a weapon. If we recognized how much power there is to be had from writing, Americans would spend as much time improving our writing skills as we do protecting our right to bear arms.
Maybe protesting the loss of something that seems onerous to many of us feels too much like protesting the cutting of spinach from a cafeteria menu, but I hope that the students will protest this attempt by the University administration to deny them a basic learning opportunity. University undergraduates, because they pay tuition, have the power to make the University administration listen to their demands. I sincerely hope they make the demand.
The writing center has begun a petition to demand that the University take the practice of teaching writing seriously. Get your name on it, and do whatever else you can to let the University know that you will fight for your right to write.
Rebecca Hill is a graduate student in American studies. She welcomes comments to [email protected]