Friday, October 03, 2014

Faculty Who Diss Student Writing Under the "Kids Today" Trope Forget They Were Students

An answer that Steven Pinker made in a Q and A with Gareth Cook in Nature about Pinker's latest book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, touches on a view of students many college teachers carry.
It seems that it is pretty standard, in books about writing style, to bemoan the decline of the written word. Yet you don’t. Why? 
Every generation thinks that “the kids today” are ruining the language. They confuse changes in themselves (people pay more attention to language as they get older and consume more text) with changes in the times. Studies of writing quality in student papers have shown that there has been no deterioration over the decades, and no, today’s college students don’t substitute smiley-faces and texting abbreviations for words and phrases.
Pinker's made this point in other places: there was no magical time when students arrived at college as literate and able as faculty imagined students used to be when the faculty were students themselves. If this understanding informs Pinker's style guide, that's wonderful; I look forward to reading it.

As Andrea and Karen Lunsford note, mistakes have always been a fact of life and the number of mistakes students make has held constant for a hundred years. Things are not getting worse. In many ways, since students are writing more in their everyday lives, things are getting better.

But a lot of faculty -- and not just those who do not like teaching, but also faculty dedicated to teaching and learning -- believe students today are not as able as students were when today's faculty were students.

Five facts that contribute to that way of thinking

Fact one: Every faculty member teaching today was once a member of an undergraduate freshmen class.

Fact two: All faculty members teaching today were, when they were new students, taught by faculty inclined to the same broad judgments faculty hold now: students today cannot write, read, nor think as well as students before them.

Fact three: Very likely, most faculty learned academic reading and writing fairly quickly, came to like it because they took to it. There's also a very good chance that most faculty teaching writing now were not required to take a first year writing course.  Because they tested out of the course, they never experienced learning side by side with writers for whom learning academic writing was a struggle.

Fact four: To become faculty, one must like higher education enough to get the required graduate degrees. Faculty career paths centers on he reading, writing, and thinking their disciplines foster. Even those who do not publish, largely read and write for a living.
Fact five:  A lot of non writing faculty who care about helping their students improve their writing attend writing across the curriculum workshops, and take other steps to become more confident teachers of writing. But many, many more, including sadly faculty who regularly teach first year and developmental writing courses, fall back into their frustrations, and instead use fatal error policies, harsh grading, belittling comments and other counter-productive methods that work against student progress. This prevents students from improving as writers by setting them up to take the blame for not withstanding the pedagogical assault of these tactics.

But there is another fact to remember.

The primary fact and truth: All students can learn to write. Writing can be taught, students can come to enjoy writing, and can come to know how to write for a particular academic discipline, following its rules for thinking, researching, and communicating. 

Even the weakest writer placed into the lowest level developmental writing course can write. And because the very weakest writers turn are furthest from the conventions and stylings of academic writing, they turn out sentences and paragraphs that delight in the most wonderfully inventive and joyous ways.

And to be open to that delight, all a teacher has to do is remember that there really was never a time when students today were not as good as the students who came yesterday. How do I know? Because in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years, the students we do have today will be the students from the past who future "students of today" will be compared unfavorably against.

Or put another way, the students you have in this moment are always as good as students get.


StephanieV said...

7I think this post is wonderful and I have thought many of the same things for some time. I discovered a piece of my own writing from my first year of college about ten years after the fact and was shocked at how undeveloped it was. And I was already getting kudos as a writer then. I save that piece just to remind myself that we all start somewhere.

Most people who encounter student writing also aren't writers themselves and have some lofty idea of an ideal text that even they themselves don't often achieve. Students can't win.

Tana Schiewer said...

I, too, get irritated by those who insult student writers (faculty and non-faculty alike). While I was working on a critical history of Paradise Lost, I came across an essay on student writing (while in pursuit of something else). This was written by someone in I think the mid 1700s, and it bemoaned the quality of student writing.

I wish I could remember who it was (I'm fairly certain it was one of the Milton critics). I wish I had kept a copy of prove that this same complaint has existed for literally hundreds of years.

Nick Carbone said...


If I recall right, John Brereton's The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875–1925: A Documentary History,, has evidence of those claims from the earliest years of the field.

I will say that the comments don't irritate me. When I do workshops and talks on campuses, I ask how many faculty have thought, said, or have heard other faculty say students cannot write, and with that phrasing, all hands go up, but not one is called out.

From that we can go to the research (Lunsford and Lunsford), and the fact that faculty have always felt thus. But StephanieV's right, no break for students until teachers learn to give them one. Fortunately that's teachable too.

Lennie said...

Hey Nick,
Thanks for this post/thread. I fairly frequently will get a question from someone outside academia about my opinion about students' writing as a loaded question. They expect me to say, "Oh, kids writing has gone to pot. I remember when they all could write fantastically"... or something like that.

I think your quote from Pinker is so on target and fairly ironic. One of my chief goals in freshman composition is to help students emerge from their own egoism as writers--to write with the reader in mind. Teachers, as Pinker points out, who bemoan students' writing ability because they mistake changes in themselves for changes in the students reveal their own self-sightedness. How ironic.

I still have my essays from freshman composition, and I can see how bad they are. It is a helpful reminder and corrective for me as a teacher.

Your last set of facts sound a lot like Elbow. Here is a quote in the same vein that I used as a theme for the google site the San Antonio Writing Project Summer Institute used this year:

"As teachers we can empower our students. We can help them like to write. We can help them trust themselves, work with others, find voices, and be more forceful and articulate in using writing in their lives. We can help make their school experience liberating rather than deadening or oppressive. Indeed, we can help students be better people and help make a more just society."

--Peter Elbow (Everyone Can Write, xv)

cbd said...

@Tana, this is my favorite, from the preface of John Holmes "The Art of Rhetorick Made Easy," published in 1739:

"[I]n this Day [. . .] School-Boys are expected to be led, sooth’d, and entic’d to their studies by the Easiness and Pleasure of the Practice, rather than by Force or harsh Discipline drove, as in days of Yore. For while some of them are too Copious in Things not so immediately the Concern of Boys at School, most are too Brief in Things really necessary for Youth to be inform’d of, and none at all so happy or methodical as to distinguish between One and T’Other."

Nick Carbone said...


Thanks for sharing the quote from Peter Elbow, and for the compliment of saying I sound a bit like him. Though I know his work, I hadn't realized he'd published a collection of his essays with Oxford University Press ( I need to get a copy.

Not a faculty member, no longer a student said...

I used to know how to write. And talk. And communicate... but most of us do not communicate like we used to. We fail to even see full sentences in what we read today. Most of us do reading on social media. It becomes norm.

Nick Carbone said...

not a faculty member, no longer a student,

You're on to something about what becomes a norm. People fall into habits around the things they do most, whether it's how many hours they sit at a computer, the regular order they place at their favorite restaurant, or the ways they use writing and with what degree of formality.

You still know how to write; your post proves that. What you may not do as often or at all is write more formally. That's o.k.. If you do not need to write that way, and your communications are understood and serve your purpose, write informally.

What's fun about being a writing teacher is getting students and seeing the ways they can write, and then, in a college setting, teaching them something additional -- how to write more formally using standard edited English (SEE), following effectively academic conventions for citing and integrating sources, and coming to understand that all writing is rhetorical and contingent on audience, purpose, context, and increasingly medium.

That's fun stuff, hard fun, but fun none-the-less.