Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Writer Writes, Right? Part II

This conundrum has come up:

A BYU-Idaho professor from whom I took several classes when I was a young’un is concerned that fewer of the students graduating from the university show proficiency in writing than he’d like to see, with only one-third of the students he’s seeing building an adequate portfolio that would qualify them for internships or make them stand out to potential employers.

I may be interpreting a bit since all of this comes from a brief Facebook posting – but the question he poses is a good one: What can the university do to turn the situation around?

My suggestion: Make them write more. A heck of a lot more. In fact, ten to twenty times what they’re being required to write right now. And it’s got to start with the basic writing course which, ironically, I may have an opportunity to start teaching come mid-April.

The reasons they ought to write more are obvious and legion, but the biggest reasons are:

1. Students need to move beyond writing to satisfy an instructor or a course requirement to writing to show mastery of the topic at hand.
2. Students need to follow the Bradbury Rule: Says science fiction author Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”

What form ought this extra writing take? Anything and everything. Students ought to be able to find a subject that interest them and then write an analysis of that subject fit for posting to a class forum or a blog. Students ought to keep blogs of their own – going beyond the journaling that many teachers already embrace and into a forum where their peers read what they write on a daily basis and comment on it. Students ought to learn how to write collaboratively, either through the old-fashioned methods of meeting together and writing together to contributing to a wiki.

To accomplish this, instructors need to offer students varied strategies on how to write, and recognize that a strategy that works for one student may not work for another. Students who enjoy writing ought to be given dual opportunities to work with like-minded writers as well as mentoring students who don’t quite have the muse.

They need to read a lot more good writing, too, and learn to recognize what makes good writing good.

They ought to be given ample opportunity to practice what they learn in forums outside the classroom – that’s where blogs, student media, and other outlets come in.

And student media – here’s another soapbox – needs to rely less on Internet-only sourced stories to finding real, live people to talk to. That’s what’s going to take the “citizen journalism” phenomenon to the next level.

And preachers of writing, like me, ought to practice what we preach.


carl g said...

Grading essays takes a lot of time and energy. Most faculty will not require serious (if any) writing in their courses unless the university mandates it. And if the university does that, they will have to reduce class sizes, which means hiring more faculty, which is hugely expensive. I agree with you, but it won't happen. Basically, it's cheaper to administer exams than grade essays. I know some faculty members with over 1000 students (seriously), but let's say you have only 250. Have each student write three or four essays a term? Maybe one, or a couple of thought papers, and you'll probably have a student grader do the grading, which is pointless. There is no incentive for writing-based education.

Mister Fweem said...

Here we have the conundrum, and I'm sure you're right -- because certainly at BYU-Idaho the goal is to get students through their coursework as fast as they can, then they wonder why some of their students aren't prepared. The writing courses are certainly set up to expect a bare minimum of work from the students -- and that's something I noticed in my undergrad and some of my grad studies as well.

However -- what to do to get students to be better writers and thinkers? BYU-I tries to get there with graduate portfolios, but that's where the lamentation comes from in the first place-- only 1/3 of the students are doing acceptable portfolios. Setting up a practicum might help some students, but those who need the most help won't get it. It's a pickle.

carl g said...

I typed a long reply that just got lost in the ether. Short answer: This is, first of all, a failing of K-12 and parents. Probably only 1/3 should be admitted into college to begin with. This is also a systemic problem. We need a proper vocational education system. I don't need my mechanic to know Milton or speak French, or even write a spanking good essay, but I do need him (and why always a "him"?) to be able to fix my damn car. Most classes are set up to require a "bare minimum of work from the students," since that's all you can get out of very many. I don't see this as fundamentally a pedagogical problem, but the result of a badly-conceived system.

I bet there is also a gender imbalance in the capable 1/3, more women than men. In the knowledge economy, men are falling behind and will soon be obsolete. Hanna Rosin has it right, I think.

Mister Fweem said...

I'd much prefer to interact with students who know they want to write and know they need help to improve, than with those who are taking a bonehead English course because the university tells them to. We've got altogether too much of that.