Why We Can't Farm Out the Teaching of Writing

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

April 30, 2012

An assistant professor recently wrote to me with an interesting request: "I would like you to suggest a software package or other applications that could more critically assess formal writing than the grammar kernel in Microsoft Office. I am disappointed in my students' writing yet don't really have the time to fully evaluate writing assignments."

Well, then.

I found the question to be strange, and his tone more than a little demanding, but I did a bit of checking. Microsoft's spell checker is a great tool against typos, but, as we all know, it often makes nonsense out of students' prose by suggesting correct spellings of completely different and inappropriate words, which they accept without thinking. Its grammar function drives me nuts, but I suppose for some it can provide a prompt to look more closely at sentences.

When I tried Apple's Pages, I was delighted to find that the program points out clichés and wordy phrases. It also reflects the aesthetic of its developers. When I start a sentence with "but" it tells me that phrasing is informal, and that "it is preferable to avoid beginning a sentence with 'But.'" It says the same thing about "And." If you use words like "conceptualizing," it complains about complexity and suggests using a simpler term like "thinking." I can imagine whole academic papers underlined with little green Mac dots.

There are probably programs that do exactly what my correspondent wanted but his message raised an underlying question: Isn't it a faculty member's responsibility to critically assess students' writing? Sure, some kind of program might be useful in pointing out tics and bad habits, but the very quest for such a thing is symptomatic of a larger problem.

At a party last summer I met a political scientist who told me that he never comments on his students' writing; it's simply not part of his grading process. He assesses their ideas, he says, not the prose.

I asked how he could separate the ideas from their expression. We volleyed this around for a while, and eventually he said that he didn't feel that he had the expertise to comment on their writing. He wouldn't know, he said, what good writing looked like. I asked if he thought he was a good writer, and he said yes—because he's been published.

This guy has an Ivy League pedigree and teaches at a good liberal-arts college. He seemed smart and reflective, and it was clear that he had thought hard about his responsibilities as a teacher, but he had concluded they didn't include instruction in writing. I encounter that attitude quite a bit in academe. I think it's wrong.

Increasingly, especially at small liberal-arts colleges, faculty members at all levels are being asked to teach writing-intensive courses. That's partly because small colleges don't have a cheap graduate-student work force to handle composition classes. But it's also because asking professors to design a course around a topic about which they are passionate, and using that topic as a platform to teach basic writing skills, is a good idea.

What many people overlook is that teaching first-year writing is a challenging task. When universities farm responsibility for that course out to graduate students—who have no real training in writing and have not had the benefit of being published (and edited), are overwhelmed trying to keep up with their own coursework, and are given only rudimentary instruction in how to teach—well, it's often not a good experience for anyone.

And since there's little room in most graduate curricula to focus on writing, many future faculty members simply never learn. The truth is, everyone thinks whoever went before him or her was responsible for the job of teaching writing: College instructors believe students learned the mechanics in high school; graduate advisers assume their students learned as undergraduates what they needed to know about style and argumentation.

By the time people become professors, they have no one to turn to for help with their writing. Some hope or pray that editors will save them; sometimes that happens. But most acquisitions editors don't have the time or energy to do line-editing, and they assume that the copy editors will clean up the prose. Copy-editing, however, is different from line-editing, and often fixes only obvious mistakes. It doesn't make bad writing better, it just makes it correct. And so, bad prose gets published and bad models proliferate.

We all have our pet peeves about writing—the trivial mistakes that drive us mad—and we point them out whenever we see them. For example, I can't stand to see commas and periods outside of quotation marks. I have friends who go ballistic over the confused misuse of "fewer" and "less than." I know a young English professor who forbids his students to use contractions in their essays. Those are the things we notice and point out in our students' writing, but doing so doesn't do much to raise the quality of their writing.

It makes sense for high-school teachers to "correct" their students' papers. But in college, we're more likely to "grade" them. That means providing a holistic evaluation of the thinking and the writing. After all, a paper free of mechanical errors isn't necessarily good. Even if the spelling and grammar are correct, the paper may still be repetitious, lackluster, or vague. Good writing requires clear thinking. So while a computer program might be useful for correcting mistakes, it wouldn't get at the bigger weaknesses in students' writing, and we shouldn't be so quick to try to decouple the form and the content.

What, then, to make of the political scientist who didn't think he had the expertise to comment on his students' writing? I believe he's shirking an important aspect of his job.

If professors don't tell students that the writing matters, who will? If professors don't know what good writing looks like, who does? Our jobs are, for the most part, about reading and writing. Even in data-driven disciplines, if you can't write well enough to explain why your work is important, you will have a much harder time getting grants to support the collection and interpretation of that data.

When I was an editor, and later as part of my social circle, I met many graduate advisers who made sure students cared about their sentences, who worked to teach them how to write better, who pointed out the flaws and bad habits of mind that all of us have and none can shake until someone shows them to us. I've known a handful of people in different disciplines who spend time in their undergraduate classes talking about writing.

So there are, in fact, plenty of people who appreciate the importance of making sure students pay attention to their prose.

But because good writing, like good music or good food, can seem a matter of taste, many faculty members feel uncomfortable in claiming to be experts. It's easy to point out small flaws—a note hit off-key, too much salt in a dish—but articulating what makes something good is hard work. You often have to take it apart, parse the ingredients, and assess each one. And that means being able to identify them.

As an editor, I knew that some manuscripts moved better than others, or were more fun to read. But it wasn't until I started teaching creative writing that I thought about why and how they did that, and started looking for the tools and tricks that good writers used. Now it's all I can see. Teaching writing has, in some ways, ruined for me the experience of reading.

And that's what more academics need: to see the writing as a thing worthy of examination, to see their jobs not just as teaching content and argumentation, not just introducing graduate students to the ways of the profession, but also teaching the elements of good prose.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane.