Is It the English Department’s Fault?

As I read Robert Zaretsky’s recent post, “What’s at Stake with Grade Inflation,” in which he notes how poorly his history students write, I couldn’t help but recall a confrontation I had several years ago with a business professor at the college where I was teaching at the time.

I was walking across campus one bright, sunny day (this was in Florida, where almost all the days are bright and sunny), when I saw this colleague coming toward me on the hedge-lined concrete walkway. He and I had enjoyed a cordial relationship over the years, occasionally stopping to chat about children and vacations and such when we ran into each other on campus, so I smiled as he approached and prepared to greet him.

Then I noticed he wasn’t smiling.

In fact, he looked downright angry. And as he got closer, I could see that he was indeed livid. Before I could ask what was wrong, he stopped directly in front of me, blocking my path, and launched into an expletive-laced, five-minute tirade on how terribly his students wrote. In his view, that sorry state of affairs was entirely the fault of the English department, of which I was merely unfortunate enough to be the immediate embodiment.

“Aren’t you teaching them anything over there?” he concluded, in spittle-punctuated crescendo.

Not wanting to escalate the situation or make any more of a scene, I assured him quietly that we were doing our best and that I would be sure to bring up his concerns at our next department meeting. I then excused myself, squeezed through the small gap between colleague and hedge, and left him fuming there on the sidewalk.

I’ve thought about that experience often over the years, especially when I’ve heard complaints about student writing from professors in other disciplines. Not that Zaretsky blames the English department, but as I was reading his piece, I could almost hear colleagues across the country wondering the same thing my friend asked me all those years ago: “Aren’t you teaching them anything over there?”

If I could go back and talk to that colleague, knowing what I know now, I’d point out that students don’t always apply what they’ve learned in one class to their other classes—even if it’s the next one in a sequence. My fellow Chronicle columnist James Lang deals with this phenomenon quite thoroughly and cogently in his excellent multipart essay, “Why They Don’t Apply What They’ve Learned.” I’ve experienced it firsthand in my own courses, as I’ve had students in Comp 2 who also took me for Comp 1.

But I’d also like for that colleague, and all my colleagues, to understand what we do and don’t do—or perhaps I should say the limits of what we do—in the English department.

I’ve always believed that my chief job, as a composition teacher, is to show students how to approach writing the way writers approach writing—as a task to be completed rather than as some sort of esoteric activity. Along the way, I also need to help them learn the conventions of academic and professional writing, improve their grasp of standard American English, and begin to think critically.

Of those last three, only the first is primarily the province of the English department—and even it does not belong solely to us. The truth is that all three elements must be reinforced constantly, throughout their education, before students will even begin to internalize them. We’ll do our best in the English department to lay a solid foundation, but they’re never going to build on that foundation unless other professors encourage and expect them to.

To put it very simply, if you want students to use good grammar in your business or history course, then make your expectations clear and penalize them when they fall short. Hey, it works for me.

But if you think they’re going to walk into your classroom with impeccable grammar, just because they’ve already passed English comp, then you’re destined to be bitterly disappointed. Perhaps you’ll even wind up yelling at one of your English-department colleagues on the sidewalk one bright, sunny day.

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