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 and applying its approach to the way I approach the teaching of sentence level revision.

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 really like teaching, but also faculty dedicated to teaching and learning -- believe students today are not as able as students were when those faculty were students.

Facts that I think contribute to that way of thinking

The fact is that every faculty member teaching today, was once a member of an undergraduate freshmen class.

The second fact is that many of the faculty who taught today's faculty when today's faculty were students, looked at the undergraduate freshmen class's of today's faculty and made the same broad judgments many of today's faculty make now: students today cannot write, read, nor think.

The third fact is that faculty forget that they were once new undergraduates, and cannot remember not knowing how to write academically.

The fourth fact is that there's a good chance that most faculty learned quickly, really came to like academic reading and writing, or were a bit better at than their cohorts. There's a good chance that many faculty teaching now were not required to take a first year writing course.

The fifth fact is that faculty, to become faculty, like, enough to get the required graduate degrees, the kind of reading, writing, and thinking their disciplines foster.

The sixth fact is that those students who grow up to become faculty, which require increasingly a PhD, are a distinct minority of the student population.
  • In 2012, 41% of students who began undergraduate degree programs did not finish. In a writing class of 30 students, that means 10 or so will not graduate. For a freshmen class of 3 million, that means roughly 1.25 will not graduate. 
  • In 2014, the NCES estimates that there will be 21 million students in U.S. colleges.
  • In 2014 - 15 school year, according to the same NCES estimates, "colleges and universities are expected to award 1.0 million associate’s degrees; 1.8 million bachelor's degrees; 821,000 master's degrees; and 177,500 doctor's degrees."
The seventh fact is that faculty, even those who do not publish articles or do conference presentation, largely read and write for a living, with days immersed reading, e-mailing, report drafting, comment writing, lesson writing, test authoring, and more. Faculty breathe words and the terminology and knowledge of their disciplines courses through their intellectual veins. But by the time they are faculty, the words the use and ways of writing them as academics are so much a part of them they forget that those conventions had to be learned.

The eighth fact is that, as Pinker notes in "Why Academics Stink at Writing," as Helen Sword details in  Stylish Academic Writing,  and as Peter Elbow explains in an OUP Blog post, "Maybe academics aren’t so stupid after all," many faculty do not write well or speak clearly because their academic training and academic conventions work against what Joseph Williams called clarity and grace

The ninth fact is that while many faculty express complaints about student writing, most faculty, outside of those trained to teach writing, are not comfortable addressing student writing. Many faculty who care about writing seek help -- they read; attend WAC workshops; talk to colleagues about good writing assignment design and feedback methods. But many more fall back into their frustrations, and use fatal error policies, harsh grading, belittling comments and other counter-productive methods that work against student progress.

Those nine facts get at why I think faculty exhibit impatience with student writing. But there are two more facts to consider that may be of cheer.

The tenth fact is students can learn to write. Writing can be taught, students can come to enjoy writing, and come to know how to write for a particular academic discipline, following its rules for thinking, researching, and communicating.  The proof of that is that students do graduate, do go on to get graduate degrees, and even some do become faculty, who may in fact fall into the habit pace Pinker, Sword, and Elbow of writing poorly because of those conventions.

But all students can learn to write better, not just those who graduate, not just those who will go on to graduate schools.

The eleventh fact is that all students can learn to write better because they can write some. Even the weakest writer placed into the lowest level developmental writing course can write, and comes with some sophisticated language skills. Encouraged and given the chance to write for the purposes of communicating, of having something to say to someone who wants to read and hear what they have to say, all students can write, sometimes in wonderfully inventive and joyous ways.

And so if they can write, they can learn to write better. Each and every one.


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.