Why Undergrads Aren’t Writing Enough

One of the distressing findings of Academically Adrift is that fully one-half of the seniors in the study stated that the number of courses they had taken that assigned 20 or more pages of writing was but five or fewer. The Chronicle found an even lower rate of 20-plus pages in its survey of education and business majors at institutions in the state of Texas (as reported here).

Typically, David Glenn wrote, undergraduates are “exposed to only a handful of writing-intensive courses—fewer than five out of the 40 or so courses needed for a degree, on average, for business majors, and fewer than eight for education majors.”

The pattern has settled in, we should note, at the same time that “poor writing skills” have become one of the most frequent complaints employers make about recent graduates. A few years back, I sat down with two buddies in the cafeteria of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars just off Pennsylvania Ave and shared a table with Lee Hamilton, former congressman and director of the center. At the time, he might have been preoccupied with his work as vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission, but the moment he asked me what I did and heard me answer “college English teacher,” he blurted, with a rising Midwestern twang, “You wanna tell me why the young kids can’t write any more.”

He meant 23-year-olds fresh out of college, and he wanted to know why my colleagues and I weren’t doing our jobs.

The Adrift findings and the Chronicle story pose the same question. The answer is simple, at least as far as the writing side of the college curriculum is concerned. When it comes to writing-heavy courses, students don’t want to take them and teachers don’t want to teach them. When it comes to writing assignments in non-writing-oriented courses, students don’t like them to run too long and neither do teachers.

Writing is just too much work for both sides. For every upper-division class in the humanities, 25 pages of finished out-of-class writing is a proper minimum. But for most students, that sounds like a daunting total—and an unjust one. For teachers handling three or more classes with 25 or more students, grading all those pages conscientiously (which means giving substantive feedback) keeps them up all night three weeks every semester. For those lucky teachers on a 2-2 load with 25 students or less per course, they feel the publish-or-perish mandate and all those pages of student prose turn into a road block. They can’t put on their annual report, “I graded 900 pages of undergraduate writing this semester.” But they can declare, “I delivered four conference papers and published one article and two reviews.”

Here, in other words, we have yet another divergence in internal incentives and external outcomes. The gap applies to students and teachers both. Who, then, is going to close it?

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