Blame K-12 system for bad college writing

Failing to teach critical thinking and awareness results in poor writers.

Trent M. Kays

As a writing teacher, I often am asked for my opinion regarding the level of writing competency among student writers. Many professors who are not writing teachers often become irritated with their students because they may misplace a comma or use a semicolon improperly. Writing teachers draw the ire of these professors because they believe that when students leave first-year writing, they should be expert writers. Students should know how to use commas, semicolons, etc., and the professors shouldnâÄôt have to go over such things because those things are beneath them.
IâÄôve worked against this ire since I became a writing teacher. But, what many of those professors fail to recognize is that first-year writing is more than just introducing students to the language of the university, the language they will employ in their other classes. A large part of first-year writing is about undoing the misguided and ridiculous notions of writing that often are forced onto students in primary and secondary education.
For example: The five-paragraph essay structure is the one genre of writing that everyone knows and understands. The reason everyone knows and understands this genre is because it is ingrained into us as we move through primary and secondary education. This one genre has forever changed and harmed the creativity of writers by forcing them to think within a closed and uninspiring form. First-year writing teachers spend precious time during their courses teaching students that writing exists outside of such misguided structures.
I participate in a weekly first-year writing chat on Twitter, which is usually identified with a hashtag #FYCChat. Often these chats revolve around what writing teachers are doing in their classes, what they need help with, and how they can improve their courses for their students. A recurring theme in these chats centers on the five-paragraph essay. Most writing teachers will tell you that the five-paragraph essay structure is ridiculous, yet the âÄústandardsâÄù of primary and secondary education still requires and teaches it.
IâÄôve always tried to grant some credence to the five-paragraph essay structure because itâÄôs important for a writer to have access to many different genres in order to write for many different audiences. However, beyond knowing how to write within that structure, I see little value in it.
The writing students do in primary and secondary education often does not prepare them for college-level writing. So, when some professors complain that their students are poor writers, itâÄôs not the fault of the studentsâÄô first-year writing course. ItâÄôs the fault of a system that places more emphasis on grammar and an antiquated essay structure: K-12 education. I donâÄôt blame primary and secondary teachers who try to teach writing. ItâÄôs not their fault that they teach in a system that encourages fine-tuned mediocrity.
Writing is far from a static art. Writing is a process, and even though I am a writing teacher, I will never know everything about writing. I always chuckle a bit when I hear teachers from other disciplines complain about their studentsâÄô writing abilities. The teachers complain as if they know everything about writing, and their students know nothing. Truthfully, those teachers probably know less about writing than their students. They feel assured in their writing knowledge, and when they feel assured, they are not open to improvement.
These teachers target their ire at students and teachers of first-year writing because they see first-year writing as the writing fix-it course. But, first-year writing isnâÄôt a fix-it course; itâÄôs an undoing course. ItâÄôs a course that starts to undo the damage notions of writing in high school did to students, and itâÄôs a course that allows those students to begin to explore different genres of writing and conceptions of language. First-year writing is a course that allows students to develop critical thinking and awareness, but the most important thing students can learn in first-year writing is that writing is a process.
Learning about writing is not a start and stop action. You do not wake up one morning and decide to learn about writing and then the next day decide youâÄôre done learning about it. ThatâÄôs not how it works. Therefore, itâÄôs ridiculous to think that students could learn everything they need to know about college writing in one or two 15-week courses. Can you learn the breadth and depth of the French language in 15 weeks? No. Thus, it is the same for writing.
The American educational system emphasizes the wrong things when it comes to writing. Students are taught to navigate the terrible five-paragraph essay structure in primary and secondary education because some believe that itâÄôs the best way for students to learn, yet first-year writing teachers will have scores of students every semester who lack critical thinking and awareness. There is no point in teaching a structure that doesnâÄôt promote critical thinking and awareness. Students will know how to write to a form rather than write to an idea or passion.
There are no bad writers. There are only inexperienced writers. All writers make mistakes, and all writers struggle with their writing at times. ItâÄôs the nature of the writing process. So, I donâÄôt solely blame writing teachers for their studentsâÄô writing abilities. I blame the American educational system for encouraging modernist and antiquated notions of writing, and I blame those professors whoâÄôd rather mark-up a studentâÄôs paper for grammar issues than help their students become better writers.