Saying, “My students can’t write,” is a cop out

It’s the job of all professors to help their students’ writing skills progress.

Trent M. Kays

“My students can’t write.” This is a complaint I often hear from teachers, instructors and professors in many fields. Students write essays of varying lengths for their professors, and the students’ work is filled with small sentence-level errors or critical thinking issues. Many professors who lament the poor writing of their students will only do that: lament. They will not offer to assist or provide constructive feedback to help students improve their writing. This creates a serious problem because those professors who only mark off a student’s work instead of helping the student understand the writing process do not empower their students to better themselves.

Writing is often a difficult task because it is ever changing. The writing process is not static, and it is not bound by rules. The product usually becomes bound by rules, but the process is free. I always wonder what goes through the minds of professors when they grow irritated with their students’ writing performance. Is it disgust? Is it angst? Is it frustration? I think it’s a little bit of everything; however, I believe it’s mostly frustration because nonwriting professors don’t believe it’s their job to have to teach students to be better writers. But they’re wrong.

“It’s not my job to teach writing.” This is a well-worn argument many nonwriting teachers throw out when questioned about what they do in their classes to help students with poor writing. I’ve heard this many times from all types of professors and instructors, and it’s frustrating. My question to them would be: What is your job then? It’s hard for professors to suggest helping students improve their writing isn’t part of their job when almost everything in the university relies on the ability to communicate.

The target of these professors’ ire has often been first-year writing courses and teachers. In the case of the University of Minnesota, there is now one first-year writing course. It is 15 weeks long, and then that’s it. There are other writing-intensive courses students must take, but they are not always courses focused primarily on writing and the writing process. So when some professors charge that writing teachers are failing to do their jobs because their students can’t write, I laugh. Can you teach the entirety of Russian History in one 15-week semester? Then, can you ensure students will remember every intricacy of said history two years later? No, absolutely not, and it is the same for writing.

To expect students to be expert writers after only taking one first-year writing course is to ask students to know the entirety of world history from memory. It’s ridiculous, and moreover, it’s counterproductive to the education of students. This becomes exceedingly more frustrating because a real chance to help students improve their writing is being missed. Many professors had to become experts in academic writing to get to their positions, so why wouldn’t they take their expertise and use it to help students who need help with writing?

To expect students to know everything about the writing process, to expect writing teachers to teach everything about the writing process in 15 weeks and to expect students to dazzle with the same command of language Stanley Fish has is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable because it ignores the inherent process of writing. Writing is a process that spins off products. It can always be improved, and it’s unique to each writer.

When some professors make the argument it’s not their job to help students with their writing, it’s a cop out. It’s a sign of not caring. It’s already difficult enough to write about subjects students probably don’t care about. Then, to see students need help with writing and to do nothing other than mark up their work is not education. Instead of helping students, some professors would rather blame writing teachers. Why? Because it must be someone’s fault a student can’t remember where a comma goes two years after taking a first-year writing course.

Writing is a deeply personal act, and it’s easy to see how students would get discouraged when professors simply mark up a work but don’t explain. Since writing is so personal, it feels as if those mark-ups are attacks on the writer and not the writing. This further discourages students.

There are no bad or good writers; there are only inexperienced and experienced writers. These terms are relative to the situation for which writing is needed. Context is everything and instead of thinking about how bad a student is at writing, perhaps professors should think about how they might be inexperienced in writing for a certain context. Grammar and punctuation are certainly important because they are the road signs of writing and help guide the reader, but they most certainly aren’t everything. Indeed, proper grammar and punctuation can improve through experience. So, the more students write, the better writers they will become.

However, students cannot become better writers when they are constantly chastised for misplacing a comma or having a muddled thesis. Students need to be told why something is wrong, how it works within a certain context and how they can improve. So when I hear professors suggest their students can’t write, I know it’s not that their students can’t write, but the writing isn’t the same as theirs and is therefore inferior.

Students can write. They just need a little help to smooth out some of their writing. They need a little help to understand how to write in different contexts and for different audiences. One 15-week course can only be an introduction to the writing process and not the totality of it.