Tuesday, March 08, 2016

"Students Suck and Are Horrible" - Professors

"Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room -- whether at a grammar school, a high school, or a college -- have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy of twelve years old."  - Adams Hill

Look, I get that it's frustrating to work with students who aren't into what you're teaching. It happens to all of us. And maybe I am naive. I have after all only been teaching at universities for nine years. But I am still sometimes amazed at the negative attitude toward students' writing and linguistic abilities that appears to be the default view of many university faculty.

It isn't that some, or even many, university students aren't "bad at writing," if by "bad at writing" we mean something like "don't meet the expectations of excellent writing by undergraduates in their field." But of course, that's not what people usually mean -- they mean "bad at writing" in the sense of "based on my cobbled-together idiosyncratic understanding of what 'good writing' is," which for most people (including me!) is so maddeningly vague as to be irrelevant.

I have heard more than once since I started at my current institution, from more than one senior academic with presumably years of experience teaching young people, that students "can't write." This is often applied to "international students," but then whoever says this usually follows it up with some version of "it's not just international students -- there are plenty of native speakers who can't write at all!"

Three things come to mind.

First, the assertion that "students can't write" has literally been conventional wisdom since people started caring about "university writing" as a thing. Guess when Adams Hill, who ran entrance exams for Harvard, wrote the quote at the top of this post? In 1879, a hundred and thirty seven years ago, that's when. So: either all students, from the young white dudes at Harvard of the late 19th century to the Canadian immigrants of the early 21st, have been always and forever horrible at writing since the dawn of time, or this is that thing our professors warned us about: a discourse.

Second, and this is something I have trouble understanding maybe because I am a language person and not a "content" person (which doesn't really make sense but whatever), I'm interested in what I perceive as the personal offense or even anger with which faculty seem to talk about this topic. Here are some quotes from the media from professors at my own institution:

"The grammar sucks and the writing is awful...There’s this emphasis on expressing yourself, on this idea that if you get it on the page, it will be fine.... It’s not.” (1
" ...insofar as [ESL] students are academically or linguistically unprepared to enter the broad cultural debates that animate the educational conversation, their presence in the graduate classroom and in some cases, their receipt of Canadian credentials, occurs to the detriment of the Canadian students and institutions." (2)

These are just two (relatively different) examples of how faculty talk about students. There are a lot of other things you'll hear every day on campus. I'm not necessarily taking it upon myself to "combat" those who seem to be unduly dismissive of student writing (though I have been known to use the phrase "this is what we're up against" from time to time with colleagues). I think this attitude itself needs to be studied; people like me should look more into why faculty feel this way, how language ideology works in the university,  and so on.

Third, I have to say, as a teacher of what might elsewhere be called "basic writing": my students, the vast majority of them, can write. They know how to make sentences and paragraphs and even essays. I would estimate that in any given class of eighteen students there are one or maybe two students whose basic grasp of syntax and/or vocabulary feels to me like it has the potential to cause them serious problems throughout their university career if they don't attend to it assiduously*.

This is just how I feel, by the way -- there are empirical questions about students' writing/language ability that can be answered  (and some have been) , vis-a-vis their success in later studies or the workforce or whatever. But why do I think my students can write when some of my colleagues don't? Am I wrong? Or could it be that someone like me, whose career is devoted to studying and teaching English language and writing to university students, is worth listening to on these questions?

[* Incidentally, part of my current work at my institution is with a unit that is charged with helping these students, and that is what we are trying to do. But it's not "students" who "can't write." It's maybe 10% of students.]

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