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In my opinion

Who cares about writing, anyway?

We all do, of course. But when it comes to teaching effective writing, we talk a better game than we play

BY SUNNY MARCHE | MAR 10 2008

Notwithstanding our video culture and the YouTube generation, the written word continues to matter in profound ways. There are very few vocations, or avocations come to that, where writing is not vital. It matters in literature. It matters in business. It matters in engineering (think of your user manual). It matters in your personal life. The digital life so eagerly embraced by young people demands more effective writing, not less, with e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, and document exchange replacing face-to-face communication. The opportunities for misunderstandings using digital communication are manifold. Better writing is part of the answer.

I don’t expect regular readers of University Affairs to find this thought controversial. But when it comes to teaching effective writing, universities talk a better game than they play.

Let’s begin with a statement of the obvious. Writing is a skill, a behavior that can be taught, practised and improved in order to get better outcomes. Mastering such a “skill” almost always requires detailed teaching and coaching. This necessarily means explaining how language works as a system, how it works psychologically. It means conveying best practices, demonstrating them, and then providing detailed feedback for improved performance.

When I first arrived at Dalhousie University, my colleagues told me that effective writing was so important for student learning that the university had a formal policy on the issue – a principle called “writing throughout the curriculum.” Our university expects all professors to provide students feedback on the quality of their writing in every course. This immediately reminded me of the famous military expression: “Who defends everything, defends nothing.” Permit me to paraphrase for local consumption: “When it’s everybody’s responsibility, nobody takes responsibility.”

Most universities require students to take one “writing” course, by which they typically mean a course where substantial writing is required. This is quite different from requiring students to study the practice of writing. Perhaps this policy worked at a time when universities could assume the incoming freshman class would have a basic grasp of language niceties such as grammar and spelling, or understand writing specifics such as expository writing and genres. Now that we are reaping the tainted harvest of the “whole language” pedagogy of the last 40 years, the empirical evidence is that such assumptions are clearly misplaced. French, Spanish and Italian teachers report having to explain rudimentary language notions (e.g., what a noun, a verb, a verb tense, a modifier is) to students before they can introduce them to another language.

What’s to be done? Perhaps the presence of poorly prepared students is some kind of “teaching opportunity” for our introductory courses. The challenge is that we already have the English 1000 course – where the number denotes students, not the level. For genuine writing skill development, class size is a material limitation to the quality and quantity of coaching we might be able to offer. An obvious alternative is to depend on tutorial assistants to provide the detailed coaching students need in these large classes.

How confident are we that TAs are up to the task of providing the right kind of help on the writing front? And how motivated are they going to be when the topic of the course is physics, statistics, computer science or finance? Are the TAs who act as the teaching agents of the professor in large classes committed to the principle of “writing throughout the curriculum”? How often do we confirm the writing competencies of our TAs? Can we fairly assume that the simple possession of a degree confirms such expertise?

This brings us to the delicate question of how confident we might be that our professors in physics, statistics, computer science or finance are capable and motivated to provide good coaching for effective writing. A significant number of the very best discipline-specific scholars come from an international pool, which is to say that they are faculty members for whom English is a second language. How realistic is it to expect professors whose first language isn’t English to have the skills and capacity to provide effective criticism on the quality of written submissions?

There are more than a few international scholars who have received excellent instruction in English and about English. In my experience, some of them have a better grasp of the language than native speakers subjected to “whole language”-based teaching. But these people are certainly the exception. The point still stands – is it reasonable to expect everyone in the academy to be able to provide the expertise implied by the principle of “writing throughout the curriculum”? Can we fairly assume that the possession of a PhD confirms such expertise?

You might consider conducting your own research on how much feedback students get to improve their writing. My data tell me it depends on the level of study and the discipline involved. It appears that we give the very best and most detailed feedback and coaching on writing to PhD students, in marked contrast to the feedback provided in a first-year university course. In other words, we give the best feedback to the people who ought to need it the least.

Recently, Dalhousie University has done research on professional development needs for graduate students. In asking students and faculty for their views on the matter, we discovered that both sides of the academic divide feel a keen need for more effective and efficient writing skills. When we asked alumni and the people who hire our students, the strength of their response on the need for better writing was even more pronounced.

Marche’s First Law of Marketing is “you should never confuse enthusiasm for commitment.” We are all very enthusiastic about effective writing in the academy; we just aren’t very committed to teaching it.

Dr. Marche is associate dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie University. He wrote this article during WHIPS (Write Here, In Plain Sight), a writing-teaching initiative held this year at both the University of Victoria and Dalhousie, where volunteer writers, including Dr. Marche, demonstrated writing behaviour as it is actually practised. The audience chose this topic for his session, and made a number of useful suggestions for modifying it.

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  1. Linda Aragoni / January 18, 2009 at 10:12

    I agree that educational institutions are not particularly effective at teaching writing. Writing across the curriculum is our best hope of producing good writers, but its success depends on having competent writers to work with. Nobody gets to be a good writer without being a competent writer first.

    I believe that a TA — even one whose first language is not English — can give feedback on the writing of students in engineering or marketing who write well enough that the TA can figure out what they are getting at. Writing well enough that readers can figure out what you are getting at is what I mean by writing competently.

    I don’t see how writing across the curriculum can succeed unless English teachers revamp the way they teach writing. Many English faculty are not knowledgeable about or interested in teaching nonfiction writing.

    The “writing is revising” workshop approach that’s taken over English writing programs since the 1970s ignores efficiency. Highly motivated students who enjoy writing and know (sort of) what they want to say can cope with multiple revisions. For most students (those not English majors), however, the approach is senseless busy-work. It is particularly senseless for students when the writing topics are outside the class curriculum.

    I believe if English class writing programs emphasize pre-composition planning and have students write on class-related topics (not on abortion or the legal drinking age), it is possible for students to learn to write competently.