Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IS THE PEN NO LONGER MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD?....Old farts are forever complaining that kids aren't as well educated today as they used to be. I think Plato felt that way about Aristotle, and it's been all downhill since then.

In other words, it's best to take this complaint with a grain of salt. Still, I have to say that an awful lot of people I trust have been telling me this lately, and in no uncertain terms. Yesterday, for example, both Mark Kleiman and my brother were pretty adamant about the almost complete lack of writing skills displayed by contemporary college students. The kids are as smart as they used to be, and their math skills are OK, but they can't write worth a damn. They can't write papers, they can't write paragraphs, they can't even write coherent sentences.

Is this true? Or just a case of old-fartism? I realize this isn't exactly a scientific survey or anything, but I'm curious to know what teachers at various levels think of this. I know plenty of them read the blog, so comment away. Is writing really a lost art?

NOTE: One (1) person will be allowed, on a first-come-first-serve basis, to write a semi-literate comment allegedly from a college student. After that, the joke is done. OK?

Kevin Drum 7:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (156)

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Comments

me no rite better good. hah.

not on the test, who cares?

Posted by: irvin wainright jr on June 4, 2007 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

Selection bias. University professors always use themselves as the archetypal "college student" to whom other college students are compared. This fails to take into account the fact that college students who go on to become college professors are, by definition, exceptional. Thus: college professors perpetually complaining about the incompetence of their students.

-- ACS

Posted by: ACS on June 4, 2007 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds Like Old Fartism. Didn't you have a post a month ago about how much more accomplished today's Ivy League students are than in your day?

I think these people aren't reading enough writing by their contemporaries for comparison, most of which is also pretty appalling. This would include many academic papers written by tenured Professors.

Posted by: AJ on June 4, 2007 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK

Well, my 84-year-old aunt taught college freshman composition at a state college in Middle America for, jeez, I dunno, twenty years or something, and her opinion was decidedly that the writing abilities of her students declined markedly from her early teaching days to her later ones.

And not to toot my own horn, but there's no question that one of the skills for which I've been rewarded, at increasingly high levels, for many years of a professional career has been the ability to write coherently, and that would not have been the case if it were a common skill among the American professional class today.

Posted by: bleh on June 4, 2007 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK

ACS:

That can't be right. Professors use their past students as a comparison when they claim that kids can't write, nowadays. There may still be selection bias, but not of the type you are proposing.

Kevin:

I'm pretty sure Plato did not think that Aristotle was poorly-educated, so much as he thought that Plato was asking the wrong sort of questions (and too damned many of them). Ditto for Xunzi and Han Feizi, for that matter. The problem was that their ambitious young students were smart but misguided...

Posted by: keith on June 4, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

It varies wildly. I taught first-year writing at a fancy-schmancy Ivy League college for a couple of years. All of the students were very bright; some of them were excellent writers, and some of them were disgracefully bad. Most of them needed to go through what my department sometimes called "writing boot camp" before they could hope to turn out college-level work.

Since it was an expensive Ivy League school, the kids got their boot camp. At most universities, the intensive attention to freshman comp would be too expensive: the classes have to be small, and the teachers have to be paid well enough (if barely!) to remain sane, smart, and kind.

Posted by: Jackmormon on June 4, 2007 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

The false premise of this post is that college educated old farts can write.

A quick review of the wingnutosphere will shatter that myth.

Posted by: Roger Ailes on June 4, 2007 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

Definetely - they're loosing it. Can't say my opinion is based on anything which even resembles science, but as an old fart - at 39 - of a Danish journalist ... the first-in-their-20ies newones we get as apprentices these days: As a general rule they don't write as good as one might expect.

Goofed up grammar, sloppy punctuation, lackluster flow in the sentences; no rythm in their writing.

Not that they're going to become bad journalists as such - they do the TeeVee thing quite well given their lack of real experience - they just don't write that good.

Perhaps good writers simply are becoming an extinct species ... it takes way too much time, and we really gotta move on, right?

Regards.

Posted by: Ole on June 4, 2007 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

Our kids are being taught by idiots. Education must be done away with as a major, and teacher pay tripled. In a few years, there will be few, if any idiot teachers left - a 180-degree turnaround.

Ex stupid stupido fit.

Posted by: sherifffruitfly on June 4, 2007 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

The selection bias ACS mentions is definitely one part of it. (I find I fall into that way of thinking myself, as a gradute stuident teaching freshman how to write.) Another thing, though, is that as post-secondary educations expands, more kids from poorer, crappier school districts end up in college. Those kids' writing was *always* bad; it's just that however many decades ago, they didn't go to college.

Posted by: Scott E. on June 4, 2007 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

I think it might be a lack of preparation at a level well below college. I have 2 younger brothers, both about to finish the 6th grade. Their English teacher assigned almost no grammar and vocab homework throughout the year, and I think they had one book report. I'm not sure what exactly they learned, but it sure wasn't the fundamentals of the language that you'd expect kids to be learning at that level. So that may contribute to it.

Posted by: Eugene on June 4, 2007 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

Here's the proof.

Posted by: Roger Ailes on June 4, 2007 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

For various reasons, from time to time, I engage some casual outside help for my work...and I am startled by the lack of writing ability in younger people today.

They can't spell at all, not even with spell check, punctuation and paragraphs are well beyond their abilities.

Interestingly, they can copy verbatim with no difficulties...and this is were a standard typing test, (type this for me kind of thing), doesn't tell you anything at all.

I tend to think this is because they are brought up on Text`ing....but damned if I know.

Until you try to hire someone out of High School you just don't know how bad they can be.

And I'm a tolerant sort of person.

Hummmmm....but this is an unhappy development.

Best Wishes, Traveller

Posted by: Traveller on June 4, 2007 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

When I taught high school English we worked hard to develop basic writing skills, and we had a good deal of success. The same was true in my work teaching freshman comp. During the nineties there was a huge move to work with kids on developing their skills at the process of writing, and they were willing to learn. Many found, however, that they had little to say.
Today, our language is being changed by the media we have available to us. The languages of e-mail, instant messaging, and blogging employed in cyberspace are having a revolutionary effect on the language we use. I suspect that the mavens of English usage, grammar, and spelling are horrified. They forget that Chaucer and Shakespeare each changed the language, and others have changed it since. In the nineteenth century English teachers and grammarians tried to freeze. It they didn't succeed, thank god, but we really don't know yet how things will turn out. Stay tuned.

Posted by: Ted Lehmann on June 4, 2007 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

I went to an Ivy League school and took a writing seminar. During peer reviews and such, I was pretty appalled at how bad the writing of my peers was. People wrote sentences that didn't flow, that weren't grammatical, they made pathetic arguments.

I mean, writing is hard. Especially when you're writing about something complicated (there's a big step up between high school essays and college essays in my experience). I had to spend ridiculous amounts of time (or thought I did) in order to submit polished pieces of work.

Posted by: anon on June 4, 2007 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

I vote with Mark and your brother. I've always taught at top-ranked universities; from when I went into the business to now I observe a significant decline in writing (with lots of variance). Some students have been taught to write badly, especially in a formal, stuffy, affected style; others have never picked up an instinct for English grammar, and commit howlers; few seem to be self-conscious of writing as something that could be done in different ways on purpose. The most common deficiency I see is wordiness, the next is diction and syntax errors, and close to that is loss of control over the progress of an argument.

This semester I did a survey of the students in a class of 80 to see what they thought; about twice as many as I thought had produced rhetorically competent midterm drafts thought they were good writers and had received enough training in how to write.

I used to get about 15% of term papers that were really well written: simple, precise, direct, witty. Now it's less than half that. I get a fair number whose point or argument I simply have to guess at before I can even offer advice or edits; this used to be quite rare. I spend a lot more time than I used to teaching basic writing skills.
Basic.

Posted by: Michael O'Hare on June 4, 2007 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

Ole, my writing is pretty good although I don't write very well.

Posted by: Digital Amish on June 4, 2007 at 8:11 PM | PERMALINK

I teach at what might be called an elite school here in California, of which I also happen to be an undergraduate alum. It's true that matching students against my own performance 20 years ago as an undergrad is a little unfair, although I wouldn't call myself an exceptional academic writer by any means. I have noticed a decline in certain writing skills, though not as precipitous as some claim. What it seems to be is not a lack of vocabulary or technical skill as much as an absence of literary imagination, which I suspect comes from the fact that high school students read much less than they used to, both in school as well as in their free time. You can't be taught to write -- you have to come to it through reading good writing and learning to love words and the language. AP English classes -- which virtually every single one of my students has taken -- assign a lot of reading, but stress interpreting the content of poems and novels in mechanical, formulaic essays designed to receive a certain score. So what I get by the time they enter college are competent, formulaic essays that completely lack any feel for style or the ability to make a creative argument.

Posted by: jte on June 4, 2007 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

Definetely - they're loosing it.

But, how does their spellilng compare?

Posted by: ex-liberal on June 4, 2007 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a professor. My experience is that students do not take the time to write (rewrite) and are not held accountable. I recently conducted a small experiment. I eliminated exams in a class and added rewrites to class papers. I told students that by eliminating exams I was giving them more time to write. I also held them accountable in the grading. Sometimes I gave them their paper marked as "Unacceptable." The writing improved dramatically. I was even surprised by a few students who I thought could not write that produced acceptable (though not sterling) papers.

In a related matter, I'm overworked and underpaid so this sort of reviewing/grading intensive effort on my part is not sustainable.

Posted by: none on June 4, 2007 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

Here's the proof. Posted by: Roger Ailes on June 4, 2007 at 7:59 PM

That, actually, is proof of much publishing has declined. Once upon a time, a hack like the Grinch would have had to go to a vanity press to get something like that done.

Posted by: JeffII on June 4, 2007 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

I teach, among other things, Freshman Comp at what is decidedly NOT an elite University. Actually, I've taught at a couple. I can't say my students' skills have declined over the 10 years or so I've been doing this. I also teach a range—from basic incoming freshmen to Honors students. The Honors students are better overall, and their writing skills (and ability to understand college level writing tasks) are definitely greater than your average student.

That said, almost all admit they have done very little writing in preparation for college, which is probably the biggest problem. And the only way to get better at writing is to do it (IMHO).

Posted by: Paulk on June 4, 2007 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

As a current college student, I can say that many of my fellow peers wouldn't know what a comma was if it hit them upside the head. There are some students who papers handed into be graded using text messaging shorthand. There is an overwhelming dependence on the Microsoft Word thesaurus that becomes blatantly obvious when a word is used with no contextual backing. The sad thing is that many of these students graduated high school near the top of their class and now attend a school that regards itself as a public ivy school. They're predominantly very affluent, suburbanite students who attended some of the countries best high schools at that. Because my major requires a large number of group projects and lab reports, I find myself having to take the time to edit, and at times re-write entire sections of other students work. It troubles me that in the end we will all end up with the same degree.

Posted by: sathersc on June 4, 2007 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

I think it might be a lack of preparation at a level well below college. . . Posted by: Eugene

I concur. I'm not sure if this is a universal experience, but by the time I was in elementary school in the mid- to late-1960s, they'd quit teaching sentence diagramming. Meaning we essentially stop learning the parts of speech.

The foundation of good writing is a command of grammar. If you don't know it, you can't fake it.

Posted by: JeffII on June 4, 2007 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

1. As a matter of fact Plato didn't think Aristotle was up to snuff. He passed him over to be his successor as head of the Academy, and this prompted him to go found his own school, which he named "Athens Tech and Vocational." Aristotle's problem was mainly with spelling and paragraph formation. He was briefly married to Jackie Onassis.

2. No generation is any worse or better at writing than any other generation from the same historical era. The problem is that the observers - the teachers - are comparing their memories of how well students could write ten or thirty-years ago with their current experience with students. And of course students SEEM much worse. The true cause of the change, however, lies not in the students, but in the teacher, who has an extra ten or thirty-years of practice at reading and writing under their belt. Thus the observer is overlooking his or her own intellectual and analytical growth, and interpreting it as his students' intellectual and analytical dimunition.

Posted by: lampwick on June 4, 2007 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

I'll go against the general grain to say that the web and e-mail have improved the quality of written communication.

I don't really believe that my generation (I'm 44 and went to "good" schools) did more reading than kids today do. What we did not do is communicate in writing very often. Sure, IM's are nothing more than passed notes, but people are expected to express themselves clearly in e-mails almost every day now.

In the old days, you just made a phone call, or just as often, let something slide. I have noticed a vast improvement in the quality of writing on the web since I first started "surfing" in '96 or so.

Posted by: Happy Dog on June 4, 2007 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

It's not old fartism. A lot of kids that I've read from college can't write very well. I've read professors that I thought couldn't write very well, but that's another discussion. My generation can still write, but there's a lot of kids who come across as bad writers but only need to sit down and actually spend the time to do three or four drafts of their paper before they turn them in. Other kids, they're just lost. By the way, I only graduated last year.

Posted by: Ace on June 4, 2007 at 8:31 PM | PERMALINK

Do contemporary college students write less well than those of twenty years ago?

Can't say. I wasn't teaching then, and don't know how well my fellow students wrote.

Are contemporary college students bad writers?

Yeah. Very many of them write very, very badly.

Their inability to write well seems to be tied up with their inability to reason. (And, incidentally, the causal arrows there seem to go both ways.) They're fairly good at memorizing lists of bullet points out of textbooks or off of Power Point slides...but very many of them can't go beyond that. E.g. they have a hard time explaining how the points fit together and a hard time evaluating the claims for plausibility.

What aggrivates this problem is that many of them won't accept that they don't do these things well. Many seem to think that 'A's are their birth right, no matter how bad their work.

Now, these things vary from school to school, and I think my own university (James Madison University in Virginia) has a particularly spoiled demographic. Students at the University of North Carolina and William and Mary are (or at least were a few years ago) very much better--in particular with regard to their attitudes.

In short: some of the problem is a lack of skill, but some of the problem is an unwillingness to learn based on a refusal to accept that their work is not already excellent.

What's to blame for this?

Some say it's years of being pumped up on groundless self-esteem training.

I say that at least part of it is the fault of professors. Lots of profs out there are giving 'A's for 'C' work, and requiring nothing but memorization (if that) in class. No writing, no thinking.

Also: administrators for promoting the view that college is primarily a place for drinking, working out, and just generally having FUN!

The problem is worse than most people outside of academia realize.

Posted by: Winston Smith on June 4, 2007 at 8:31 PM | PERMALINK

I teach philosophy at a community college in Texas. I give essay exams, and quality of the writing is awful from many of my students. About a fourth of my students would do well in almost any school, but most of the rest do not have the writing skills one would expect of high school graduates. For example, many sentences are incomplete. subject-verb agreement is haphazard, essays are not divided into paragraphs, sentences are just plain incoherent. Grading these papers is a nightmare. When I ask if they ever had to write term papers or essay exams in high school, most respond that they never wrote a term paper in high school and that all their exams were multiple choice.

So the fault really isn't the students'. The failure, as far as I can tell, is that they haven't been challenged in high school with relevant writing assignments. Not even in English classes! It's no wonder they can't write well.

Writing skills usually improve with practice, and that has been the case for many of the students who stick out my classes. But why don't they get this practice in high school anymore?

Perhaps AP students are required to write more. But not demanding written work from non-AP students does a great disservice to them since many of them do try college and find themselves woefully unprepared.

Generally, returning students (those already in the work force and returning to school to pick up new job-related skills) write better than the recent high school graduates. That's no surprise because they tend to be more motivated and may have picked up those skills at a school where they had to write or they learned writing on the job.

I do believe my students are bright enough to write well. They simply haven't had the practice.

Posted by: Franz on June 4, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

As a current college student, I can say that many of my fellow peers . . . Posted by: sathersc

This would be as opposed to someone else's peers or were you speaking of hereditary versus life peerage in a round about fashion?

Thanks. You've pretty much nailed this thread by proving Kevin's point.

Posted by: JeffII on June 4, 2007 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

JackMormon wrote:

"It varies wildly. I taught first-year writing at a fancy-schmancy Ivy League college for a couple of years. All of the students were very bright; some of them were excellent writers, and some of them were disgracefully bad. Most of them needed to go through what my department sometimes called "writing boot camp" before they could hope to turn out college-level work.

Since it was an expensive Ivy League school, the kids got their boot camp. At most universities, the intensive attention to freshman comp would be too expensive: the classes have to be small, and the teachers have to be paid well enough (if barely!) to remain sane, smart, and kind."

I probably graduated from the "fancy-schmancy Ivy League college " JackMormon referred to, and was a grateful recipient of "boot camp" training. Actually, my trainer was the teaching assistant in the introductory Greek History class, H. Hack (don't think he would mind me using his name). He read one of my papers and said "You will not survive at Y... with that writing", and proceeded to teach me the basics of writing. I had been a straight A student in English and creative writing in my high school so it was a real shock to realize that I couldn't write at all! I had another sort of 'boot camp' 5 years later working as a Public Affairs Specialist in an oil company, Steve, my co-worker and mentor, taught me how to write succinctly, logically, and persuasively.

As someone pointed out above, writing is hard, and not something that comes naturally to most people. I will make one complaint concerning the younger generation though: they don't read the right books! I once taught a mid-level business class to mainly U.S. students who were studying in Japan for one year. In one class I made a reference to the Iliad and the Odyssey: silence! I then mentioned the Aneid: same reaction. These kids have never heard of these classics, and they came from good private schools!

James M.

Posted by: James M on June 4, 2007 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

The foundation of good writing is a command of grammar. If you don't know it, you can't fake it.

The foundation of good writing is reading. I couldn't diagram a sentence of more than three words to save my life, yet I write clearly and competently.

Posted by: tavella on June 4, 2007 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

I'm an aging (41) grad student & TA at a state school in the Midwest & I have to say that more than a fair amount of the papers we get in the intro humanities class I've worked on several times are pretty bad. On the level of content there's a lot of regurgitation of cliches, which i imagine was always the case. What's surprising to me is that they routinely make errors they wouldn't make speaking, mixing up prepositions, getting verb tenses wrong, etc. or simple format errors: writing paragraphs that are two pages long, etc. They also seem to have little grasp of appropriate tone, either littering the essay with contractions and slang, or getting themselves caught up in pseudo-formal doublespeak that wanders into incoherence. And don't even try to talk about parallel clause structure.

Most of these kids come from either the suburbs of a nearby Midwestern metropolis or from in-state, where we spend a good amount on our schools. But they don't seem to spend much time reading anything that's not ad copy or hype. Now i'm obviously generalizing and pointing to the bad examples, but out of 46 kids i had in two classes, I'd say that 5 of them wrote like they had read books for fun and absorbed the kind of sturctures that good writers used. Another 5-10 were error prone but teachable, but most of them weren't interested & fully 15-20 of them were complete disasters in the realm of the written word.

Which isn't to say they weren't smart, or that they weren't well educated in other areas. I'm certain that more of them know more about the computer I'm working on, or how to pimp out their myspace page so it looks cool, than i do. And while that sounds flippant, there are skills and talents there. But they (the bad to middle majority don't spend (as far as I can tell) any time on their own reading for fun & that makes a difference.

Posted by: URK on June 4, 2007 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

"and their math skills are OK"

False.

Posted by: carnot5 on June 4, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

I have been teaching English for almost thirty years, and much of that time I have taught eighth graders. It happens that my students this year are the strongest writers I have ever seen, and I suspect that the top half of the class would put most college freshmen to shame. Over my career in teaching there have been several other classes like this; there have also been years when students have been much weaker writers. However, I have yet to see students whose writing did not improve (and often improve hugely) if they were asked to write frequently in a variety of genres, given very specific feedback and opportunities to rewrite. I teach in an independent school and average about 17 students a class. This makes it possible to assign a lot of writing, but even so, giving specific feedback and opportunities for revision is an extremely time-consuming job, and most English teachers have too many students and too little time to teach writing in this way. But in my opinion it is the only way to improve student writing. I wouldn't even say that it is a teaching method -- it is practice, pure and simple, exercising the writing muscles under the guidance of someone who knows what they are and how to make them work efficiently.

Posted by: icestar on June 4, 2007 at 8:42 PM | PERMALINK

Me fail English?

That's unpossible.

Posted by: Ralph Wiggum on June 4, 2007 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK
n other words, it's best to take this complaint with a grain of salt. Still, I have to say that an awful lot of people I trust have been telling me this lately, and in no uncertain terms. Yesterday, for example, both Mark Kleiman and my brother were pretty adamant about the almost complete lack of writing skills displayed by contemporary college students. The kids are as smart as they used to be, and their math skills are OK, but they can't write worth a damn. They can't write papers, they can't write paragraphs, they can't even write coherent sentences.

Is this true?

I don't know about college students, but I do know that the level of literacy in formal writing by people who should care about how they appear—including things like campaign mailers—is astonishingly low. I'm not talking about artfully breaking the rules for effect, I'm talking about sloppy grammar, lack of verb agreement, etc.

Not to mention things like using typewriter-specific workarounds like doubled hyphens in place of em- or en-dashes in computer-printed work in proportional fonts, but that's probably just a pet peeve of mine, more than real problem.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 4, 2007 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a professor in TN, who was also a teaching assistant during my grad years and I can say unequivocally that the writing has gotten worse, NOT because students themselves are any less bright but because they no longer read. We 30- and 40-somethings belong to the last generation that could be called literary; this one, by contrast, apprehends and communicates almost exclusively by visual and audial media.

Text messaging? Give me a break. It's Newspeak to me.

Posted by: chuck on June 4, 2007 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

There's no one on the planet who writes well but does not read, and this generation simply doesn't read all that much. So how is its writing supposed to improve?

Posted by: chuck on June 4, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that outside of a few honors or AP classes (which tend to be offered disproportionately at upscale, white, suburban schools), very little reading or writing goes on in high school. Classes are overcrowded with apathetic students and the teachers are just overwhelmed. As a result, they're more and more likely just to throw in a video tape if it will keep the kids quiet until the end of the period. On the other hand, in the nineteenth century educators were aghast at the poor Latin and Greek composition skills of entering college freshman. We don't really sweat that today, so perhaps in a hundred years when the English language has been reduced to a far more economical system of text-messaging symbols, this discussion, too, will seem like the Grampa Simpson-like ravings of a bunch of ol' farts.

Posted by: jte on June 4, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

Echoing the general theme: student writing today is generally bad. There are some excellent writers, but even some of the brightest students do not have a basic command of English grammar. They were never taught it. It is hard to tell, however, how much of the bad writing is due to laziness. Class sizes are bigger than ever, and students who write their papers at the last minute are not often held accountable.

Two other bits to add to the mix: (1) I get a large number of Asian students whose English (as a second language) is appalling. It is hard to know what to do in these cases precisely because of the ESL issue. (2) The plagiarism rates are at an all time high, facilitated by the internet. I have had students plagiarize from Amazon book reviews, on line encyclopedias, and less obvious online sources.

Posted by: lisainvan on June 4, 2007 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

Alex, I've got to ask you about The Penis Mightier.

Posted by: Brian on June 4, 2007 at 8:54 PM | PERMALINK

Chuck: FWIW, Mark's theory is that poor contemporary writing skills are due to a decline in recreational reading, which has been replaced by videogames.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on June 4, 2007 at 8:56 PM | PERMALINK

1. It's worth keeping in mind that the incentive structure of academia rewards... well... people who use words like "incentive structure" without flinching. Academics love good writing when they get it, but they don't assign it -- the best you can usually hope for is that your readings will be dull instead of flat-out awful -- and you suffer no appreciable disadvantage in your academic career by writing badly.

2. People's exposure to good writing in the course of their daily lives continues to diminish. You can't write good prose unless you read it, and I don't mean in English class. The literary diet of the average college student, if it were actual food, would be fried styrofoam. (The cure for this, by the way, is not the one you usually hear about from bow-tie-wearing snobs, which is to beat people about the head with what they deem "great books"; it's to increase the quality of the quotidian prose they encounter.)

3. More people are going to college. Inevitably, people who, when quality of writing counted for more, might not have made the cut, or might not have gone at all, are going to go to college and write badly. I don't actually think the number of students who can write really well has gone down; their presence is just being diluted.

Posted by: schwa on June 4, 2007 at 8:59 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with Happy Dog. Blog comments have improved markedly in the last few years. I have seen improvement across the entire spectrum of the blogosphere. If you read the computer repair comments made by some of the more frequent commentators ten years ago with the comments they made an hour ago the improvement is dramatic. The same with the hunting and fishing blogs I sometimes frequent. Writing is like any other skill. Every writer improves with repetition.

Alas you don't see much improvement among the people who read the right wing blogs. They don't allow comments. Those poor souls have very little opportunity to practice.

Personally, I am not a very good writer, but I am a lot better than I was 10 years ago. So are most of the other comment writers.

Posted by: Ron Byers on June 4, 2007 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

I can't make any real comparisons as I haven't been a TA or teacher for any serious length of time. However, I wouldn't doubt our kids' decline in this area based on my experience: my teachers in grade school and high school were awful, and the lessons of the day were generally very difficult for me and my peers to translate into true improvements in writing. I will admit that this has got to be a difficult task... writing is somewhat loose and subjective, and as opposed to other subjects I would think you would almost have to sit down with each student individually (a non-starter in a public setting and in most private ones as well). However, I think there is one area that would yield marked improvements if it was stressed, and it wouldn't require as much individual attention: grammar. The old-school rules of grammar are pretty cut and dried (if somewhat bizarre at times) and could led to huge advances in the coherence of our kids' writing. I'm not going to hold my breath though... from what I understand, the standardized tests don't provide much reward in this area.

Posted by: UNCMedStud on June 4, 2007 at 9:04 PM | PERMALINK

There are a couple things at work. First, as for poor grammar, a big reason modern papers are so poorly written is that students crank out first drafts on the word processor and don't bother to proofread. They depend on the spellcheck and, sometimes, the grammar check to do the work for them. Then they turn something in with the title misspelled, but missed by spellcheck because it resembled another word. I've had numerous students even admit this to me. They were in "a rush" they said.

My generation (graduated college in 1995) was one of the first to write papers this way, without ever writing long hand and transcribing the "draft" to the word processor. The simple process of transcribing the draft gives the writer an opportunity to catch mistakes. Students are just as lazy as before, and they procrastinate just as bad as their parents did. But modern tools make procrastination that much easier, and the quality of the work suffers.

As for style, I think the problem is that colleges have done away with required composition courses. Instructors in other fields are supposed to lead "writing intensive" courses that ostensibly train students in the finer points of writing. As a professor of American history I can tell you that I received a grand total of zero hours of training in graduate school teaching students how to write. The same goes for professors in every other discpline but English; none of us know how to teach writing style. So what do we do? We wing it, focus on the presence of an argument and the usage of evidence (which brings its own challenges in the age of Wikipedia) and we generally overlook the shoddy prose. And I'm speaking of teaching at high-quality small liberal-arts colleges. I imagine that at large universities the problem is much worse.

These are my two cents. I've seen this problem first hand and have complained about it ad nauseum. I'm 33 so it isn't old-fartism (at least I hope). I also know better than to expect tenure-level prose. Sometimes bad writing is just bad writing. We college professors need to do some real soul searching because it is our responsibility to fix this.

Posted by: Elrod on June 4, 2007 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

I do think effective writing has fallen by the wayside. Why? Well primary, secondary and high schools are "teaching to the test" with creative writing classes a vanishing luxury IMO. Then in college we push kids to a narrow field -- in the Sunday Washington Post Linda Hirshman berates women for "choosing the wrong major" i.e. not going into business, accounting or engineering. I've seen plenty of narrowly educated folks of those majors who lack a well-roundedness, staring at you blankly as you sprinkle ten dollar words randomly in your conversation with the. Why wasn't Ms. Hirshman instead berating those who devalue a good humanities degree -- my B.A. in History figures prominently in my ability to communicate effectively at work and be the productive efficient problem solver at work.

Posted by: HokieAnnie on June 4, 2007 at 9:13 PM | PERMALINK

I taught freshman English as a TA thirty-five years ago, and my classes were filled with nincompoops back THEN. Fortunately, a good number could be salvaged.

If you can't write, you can't think.

Posted by: Punditbot on June 4, 2007 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sure the best of the best are as good or better than in olden days. icestar (8:42 PM) sums it up from a point of view of latent ability and student access to real teaching and learning, but that's obviously for the priviliged or lucky few.

There's been grade inflation, for starters. There are more students going to college, sure, but there's a rising proportion of students that need remedial tuition to attain college-level writing and math skills. You can't tell me that kids generally read as much now, with all the distractions of computer gaming, cell phones, etc. There have now been cases of students using text abbreviations in essays, IYKWIM. Every parent I know seems to believe their school-age kids are doing a lot less writing than they did. Hell, my daughter writes shorter papers at university than I wrote at high school.

Lack of use, lack of practice, lack of critical appraisal and correction. You can't tell me kids are better today . . . as a rule.

But you can't blame them.

Who is brung them up!

Posted by: notthere on June 4, 2007 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

The issue of writing doesn't concern me much. What bugs me is the appallingly low level to which public speaking has fallen in this country. People always said Clinton was a brilliant speaker; I thought he was awful, just wretched, especially in terms of style and organization (he can't write more than serviceably, either). It always struck me that folks were confusing charisma with eloquence. Reagan had one-tenth the brainpower of Clinton, but he was always well-spoken. Before him the only white orator of note in American politics was of course JFK.

The African-American tradition of public and political speech presents an interesting contrast. On the one hand, an African-American of note will often be praised as 'articulate'. This has two meanings, often, one negative and one positive. It can mean that the speaker avoids the dialectical features of Ebonics - as if a proper and well-developed American dialect was somehow just muddled English. That's the negative frame. The positive frame is that all the truly 'articulate' American politicians of the past 50 years have been black - MLK, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and now Obama. The word 'articulate' is faint praise; 'eloquent' would be much more accurate. The source of this unexpected efflorescence of eloquence in one of the most downtrodden of American minorities is of course the African-American church, that highly conservative institution which has preserved the grand classical tradition of public oratory while the rest of the country moved on to a colder, wonkier, technocratese. Would that all the white politicians of this country had learned eloquence from the mouths of the preachers....

Posted by: lampwick on June 4, 2007 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

"The kids are as smart as they used to be, and their math skills are OK..."

You obviously have not heard mathematics professors rant. Mathematics skills today are horrible. Your average college Calculus student can hardly do basic algebra. And most universities have had to implement "bridge courses" to the higher levels, because so few students know how to do a proof these days.

Posted by: Walker on June 4, 2007 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

I don't see why it is such a bad thing that kids can't write.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, writing is a skill that most people don't need after they graduate from college.

Next thing you know Kevin will be complaining that most college graduate don't know Rolle's theorem from freshman calculus.

Posted by: gregor on June 4, 2007 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

I have always been struck by the clarity of my father's thinking and his ability to write clearly and speak authoritatively with nothing more than a high school diploma from a working class town outside Boston, Mass in the Fifties to back it up. He's a smart guy, but the quality of the teachers must have been high. I'm sure there are other factors at work, too. It was a stable environment. Fairly homogenous ethnically section by section. Families were very ambitious. Now, it's a very different place.

Posted by: Peter Himmelstein on June 4, 2007 at 9:22 PM | PERMALINK

Dude,

I think MY is the sloppiest writer in all of left blogostan. So...yeah. That one example proves something along the lines of this post. He's young, he's priviliged, and he writes like someone who's too good for writer's workshop 101. He's a smart guy and all, but it's obvious he posts rough drafts.

Also, my writing sucked for a long, long time - until I met a teacher who stopped humoring me and told me to get it together. I have no fond memories of that teacher, but at least I'm able to coherently convey an idea, provided it's in 500 words or less. After 500 words comes a lot of filler and tangents and non-sequitors.

Posted by: A different Matt on June 4, 2007 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

"From a purely pragmatic point of view, writing is a skill that most people don't need after they graduate from college."

Understanding basic rhetoric (a major component of writing) is crucial for informed voters in a functioning democracy.

Posted by: Walker on June 4, 2007 at 9:25 PM | PERMALINK

DISCLAIMER: I"m not a teacher and I'm not the best writer. So please don't critique this post.

COMMENT: I graduated from HS in 1981 and remember loads of writing assignments, 'writing boot camp', and a cool teacher in High School named "Veggin' Ted" who began each semester with the "everyone has an A+" program with the small catch that "in order to keep it, you have to complete the reading and writing assignment every week." He was a mellow teacher who wore tie-die and made no exceptions. His mission was to teach and every student who completed a semester with 'Veggin Ted' learned to write.

Children today are not required to read and then write. There seems to be almost no required education focussed on the development of critical thinking skills.

It would seem that without the ability to acquire knowledge, synthesize, analyze, compare, and then communicate your own thoughts ... without the ability to think for one's self ... then there is very little to write.

Sadly, I'd venture to say that most of what is written at college level is a mere regurgitation of concepts and common (agreed upon) thoughts submitted in order to get the common A and move up the food chain.

I see very little personal integrity or passion in writing today.

Besides, when you can find grammatical errors and typos in almost every major newspaper in the United States on any given day, what's their inspiration/aspiration? Journalminimalizm with propaganda-boy Lou Dobbs?

Posted by: PalmGrovePark on June 4, 2007 at 9:25 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah yeah yeah. So it's 3.22 AM around these parts of the world and English is not my best.

Luckily written English/Danish/Whatever has a high degree of redundancy.

AND I'll bet that none of You, except for Kevins mom, can write Danish even half as well as my English ... :-)

Nevertheless - they still can't write, the youngones. And their writing probably sucks too ... so there.

Posted by: Ole on June 4, 2007 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks report in their paper 'The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data' that 4 year college students study much less now that in the recent past:

We find dramatic declines in academic time investment over this period. Full-time college students in 1961 appeared to allocate about 40 hours per week to class and studying, whereas full-time students in 2004 appear to have invested about 23 to 26 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based and are not easily accounted for by changes in the composition of students or schools: Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within race, gender, ability, and family background, overall and within major, for students who worked in college and for those who did not, and the declines occurred at 4-year colleges of every type, size, degree structure, and level of selectivity.

Babcock and Marks speculate about what is going on:

In Hersch and Merrow(2005), David L. Kirp argues that market pressures have caused colleges to cater to students' desires for leisure. In the same volume, Murray Sperber emphasizes changing faculty incentives and research requirements: �A non-aggression pact exists between many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual non-aggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other. There is some perception, it would seem, that colleges face a growing incentive to cater to the leisure preferences of students. There remains the question of why students' demand for leisure would have risen over time. One potential explanation is that leisure is a normal good and incomes have increased. There exist data on parental income in the HERI 2003-2005 sample. A comprehensive treatment of the hypothesis is beyond the scope of this paper, but a first pass yields no evidence that higher incomes lead to lower study times: In cross-section, higher parental income is associated with higher study times.

See
http://walldorf.typepad.com/politics_economics_and_ot/2007/04/college_student.html
for more.

Posted by: Stefan on June 4, 2007 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

Since there is more communication between people, epsecially young people, now than ever, it is difficult to believe the skills necessary for all of that communicating are lacking. What is lacking is a literacy tradition that began its decline with the popularising of TV. The caretakers of the literacy tradition, college professors, have been well trained in writing in a certain style that was created at the height of print media's dominance. Like the flags that fly and the cathedrals that still attract tourists, literacy will not become extinct, but it will become archaic and it will not prevent communication's continous expansion and improvement.

Posted by: Brojo on June 4, 2007 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

Understanding basic rhetoric (a major component of writing) is crucial for informed voters in a functioning democracy.

Understanding basic rhetoric is different from writing.

But of course you are right in a particular sense. Inasmuch as our democracy chose the most incompetent and immoral though a self professed religious person to lead us in the last two elections, the electorate cannot distinguish lies and exaggerations from the truth.

I think that kids whould be taught logic in the kindergarten. I bemoan the lack of understanding of logic and the scientific method among our citizens, young and old, much more than their inability to write well.

Posted by: gregor on June 4, 2007 at 9:38 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think is a new problem at all. In a professional job in IT, I see writing at all levels on a daily basis, from properly worded emails to those with multiple winkipoos. The folks in question represent a large age range.

The worst example I ever saw was from a marketing manager I worked with for a few months. I was temping as a receptionist for a small company. Part of my responsibilities included typing memos and letters for the managerial staff. Rick frequently gave me letters to type that could not even be understood at the most basic level. Not only did I have to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, I oftentimes had to go back to Rick and ask him what he was trying to say since I could not make heads or tails of the key point. I would then have to rewrite the document from scratch.

Even scarier, his degree was in Communications. This was 15 years ago, and the gentleman in question would be 45 or so by now.

Posted by: Trish on June 4, 2007 at 9:39 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a lawyer in an IP firm who sees the work product of quite a few new lawyers. Many documents I get simply don't follow the simplest concepts of paragraph structure. Instead, they tend toward a stream of unconnected thoughts arranged in a seemingly random order. I think it's probably due to a lot of things the other commenters mention, e.g., the rise of email and other ad hoc means of communication, over-reliance on computer spelling and grammar checkers, and lack of emphasis on writing in schools (even in law schools). The thing that's troublesome is that the lazy writing seems to beget lazy thinking. A lot of the documents I get to review lack analytical depth in addition to poor grammar and syntax. They frequently gloss over subtle, but significant, distinctions and often fail to fully consider issues. I think this may be somewhat tied to lack in discipline in writing skills, as discipline writing does tend to reinforce disciplined thinking.

Posted by: Anon on June 4, 2007 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

We have identical twins in two different "gifted" programs. One had teachers who taught writing, the other didn't. The lack of teaching showed when she got a teacher that expected good writing skills from the class and didn't get work that met those expectations.

It's something that needs to be taught, and we suspect it's increasingly being glossed over in favor of teaching to tests.

Let's put it down to old farts not teaching the young ones the skills they need.

Posted by: Tim on June 4, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

We have identical twins in two different "gifted" programs. One had teachers who taught writing, the other didn't. The lack of teaching showed when she got a teacher that expected good writing skills from the class and didn't get work that met those expectations.

It's something that needs to be taught, and we suspect it's increasingly being glossed over in favor of teaching to tests.

Let's put it down to old farts not teaching the young ones the skills they need.

Posted by: Tim on June 4, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

We have identical twins in two different "gifted" programs. One had teachers who taught writing, the other didn't. The lack of teaching showed when she got a teacher that expected good writing skills from the class and didn't get work that met those expectations.

It's something that needs to be taught, and we suspect it's increasingly being glossed over in favor of teaching to tests.

Let's put it down to old farts not teaching the young ones the skills they need.

Posted by: Tim Broderick on June 4, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

There was a related article today on how college grads' resumes are laughable due to poor editing with examples such as "I have become inept at communication skills." or, "Speak English and Spinach" Accomplishments: "Dum major with my high school band." Education: "Moron University"
"High IQ. Member of Menza"

Ha ha

Posted by: consider wisely on June 4, 2007 at 9:46 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a college student, and although most of us are good or decent writers, there are some of my colleagues who shouldn't have been allowed to get into universities the way they write.

Posted by: Steve W. on June 4, 2007 at 9:48 PM | PERMALINK

A few years ago I was having dinner with an electrical engineer who raved about the new grads he was working with. They knew how to create excellent power point presentations. Good communication no longer relies upon the kind of sequential logic that writing provides.

Posted by: Brojo on June 4, 2007 at 9:54 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't waded through all the comments to see what experiences others have had, but allow me to add my two cents' worth. I've taught American history at an open-enrollment community college in suburban New Jersey for thirteen years, and I require a great deal of short argumentative and summary-style writing in all of my classes. The writing skills of my students varies tremendously, but overall I find it to be much higher than the notion that "high school kids can't school" chorus would have us believe. Yes, a few can't write a coherent sentence, and many have trouble writing a clear paragraph, and a 500-word essay is like rocket science to some. And do I wish they were all better writers? You bet. But . . .

I'm consistently impressed with their writing ability _as a group_. Most need only a little specific guidance in putting together a solid expository essay (and some require none), and more than a couple write better than I did at their age (I entered a nationally ranked liberal arts college in 1979). I find myself often defending "kids these days" from the old farts.

As an aside, my biggest beef with my students' academic ability is that they don't _read_ often enough or well enough. They're amazingly ill-informed about current events, and they don't evince the kind of curiosity about the world that I feel like my generation had. So maybe I'm an old fart after all. . . .

Larry

Posted by: Larry on June 4, 2007 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

Er, "The writing skills of my students VARY tremendously. . . ." Old fart, indeed!

Larry

Posted by: Larry on June 4, 2007 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

In college I worked with fellow students who exhibited poor writing skills. I would prepare a nice long list of prepositional phrases such as "additionally, or accordingly, as such, in conjunction with, however; as a point of fact, etc, etc.--long lists of them, and show them how to work them into their papers, while emphasizing spell check usage. I made decent writers out of all of them.

Posted by: consider wisely on June 4, 2007 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

"my biggest beef with my students' academic ability is that they don't _read_ often enough or well enough."

I believe this is the main reason that their writing is so poor.

Posted by: Red*cted on June 4, 2007 at 10:20 PM | PERMALINK

"Here's the proof."

Newt writes "Incredulous as it may seem..."

Incredulous as it may seem, Newt couldn't seem to affectively control his etch for the sweet bourbon of writer's accolytes.

Maybe it's just Republican writing skills effecting the masses?

Posted by: affectively effected on June 4, 2007 at 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

red*cted--

True enough--reading is clearly related to writing. I guess I'd respond that given how little they read, my students' writing is surprisingly good.

Larry

Posted by: Larry on June 4, 2007 at 10:29 PM | PERMALINK

Clash of Civilizations a Dangerious Idea


Headline of a blog by a Professor of 'Theology' on Washington Post 'On Faith' blog.

Posted by: gregor on June 4, 2007 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

Bla bla bla. Yet more ivy league elitism on brazen display on Kevin Drum's blog for all the world to see.

Currently, the market does not place a premium on word-smith skills, because we have computers now that do it for us. Its called progress Kevin. Something alien to your socialist dreamworld.

Not evreyone needs to be a liberal snob poet. They only need to know what they need to know to survive in the world.

Posted by: egbert on June 4, 2007 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

URK, Interesting. I'm about to offer the opposite. My 12 year-old writes beautifully-- large vocabulary, stimulating subjects, punchy sentences, beginning, middle, and end. But, I can't stand to listen to her tell a story. She speaks a modern version of Valley Girl. Drives me nuts. I agree with others here, it's the reading that makes a fundamental difference. She's a good reader, but culturally-inspired stupidness comes out during speech.

Posted by: dennisS on June 4, 2007 at 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

I teach writing at one of the UCs, though I only have a couple years experience (i.e, nothing to compare to.)

In addition to not reading, I find my students are totally uncreative--the result being that while their mechanical level stuff is generally fine (when they work at it), they have a lot of trouble with the idea that they need to string together bodies of research to argue something. A lot of my students seem to come to me with the idea that I'll tell them what to say, they'll show that they can say it, I'll be happy that they repeated my thoughts, they'll get an A, and that'll be it. They can't put together a clear argument, in a lot of cases, and what looks like bad mechanics is, really, a failure to think. (Not all of them, thankfully, but many more than I'd like.)

Someone up above brilliantly compared reading academic writing to a diet of styrofoam, and I just want to second that idea. Academic writing is terrible, jargon filled blather, and I think far too many students pick up on the $10 vocab words and emulate the academics... When I was an undergrad, I used to blame myself when I couldn't understand academic texts--if only I could understand and write phrases like "This (re)orients our orientalist notions of intersubjectivity, as described by Said (1978)." I saw it as my failing, and that, coupled with the high school push to memorize SAT words, drove me to think that people who could write in big words were inherently smart. I have to spend a lot of time telling my students that using big words doesn't make you sound smart, and that misusing big words makes you sound enormously dumb.

Posted by: brad on June 4, 2007 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

PalmGrovePark got it the most. But the comment Winston about the PowerPoint education was ALMOST right on, if he kept down that track.

From beginning to end, School is pain. That's the lesson that our kids our taught. The goal in school, as Palm mentioned, is to regurgitate the talking points of conventional wisdom, get the high grades so you can get the money.

Because learning is pain, things linked to that, like reading and writing, are seen as pain as well. So you don't want to do things that hurt for fun. (Unless you're into that).

If you want to change this, it needs to be a ground up alteration in the entire concept of an education. Not so much when you hit university, (but if you plant the right seeds, the flowers will be a whole lot nicer, so to speak), but really from grades 4-12.

The focus, doesn't need to be on "self-esteem". But it DOES have to be on nurturing a love of learning. That needs to be the goal.

Kids now memorize for the tests in short-term memory, and the information goes bye bye away. The information is nothing more than an obstacle in the way, not something to be relished and enjoyed.

That's the problem. Everything stems from that.

Posted by: Karmakin on June 4, 2007 at 10:58 PM | PERMALINK

Gregor -- the Washington Post 'On Faith' blog -- Sally Quinn's navel gazing vanity project? Not suprised. It's a useless waste of the precious real estate on Washingtonpost.com and from the woman stupid enough to whine about Barak Obama, "But I don't know his people!" Give me a break.

Posted by: HokieAnnie on June 4, 2007 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK
A few years ago I was having dinner with an electrical engineer who raved about the new grads he was working with. They knew how to create excellent power point presentations. Good communication no longer relies upon the kind of sequential logic that writing provides.

If they actually knew how to create excellent PowerPoint presentations, that requires pretty much he same set of sequential logic skills that writing requires. Other skills involved in writing may not be required, and additional skills may be required, but the sequential logic and organization skills are largely the same in a good presentation and a good written document presenting the same material to the same audience.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 4, 2007 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

I propose this experiment: sift through the recorded speeches of ordinary Americans to ordinary Americans going back as far as you want - one hundred years, two hundred, whatever toots your horn. Since college students nearly all graduate at some point we can use the communication skills of young professionals as a metric for the college students of their recent past.

Assuming that the survey skips highly-prepared addresses like a political address and speeches written by and for highly specialized individuals I predict that it will provide an valuable insight into how our ability to organize our communications has changed over time. Adding my purely subjective observations to the mix, I would expect it to show a dramatic loss of complexity and formal structure over time, coupled with an increased tolerance for colloquialism, logical incoherence and simple errors.

These results can all be quantified. In fact a chart maven like yourself could milk a sufficiently thorough report for a weeks' worth of blog posts. In fact the results seem so interesting that somebody has probably already compiled them. Maybe the Modern Language Association would be a good place to start? I can only help so much, I'm a biologist.

Posted by: Tim F on June 4, 2007 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I don't know about the relative writing ability of our young, but I am encouraged by the quality and passion of the commenters from the educational field reflected here.

Posted by: bmaz on June 4, 2007 at 11:03 PM | PERMALINK

It's old fartism. I teach kids who regularly write far better than the college students I once taught at an open-enrollment school in the midwest. I graded freshman final exams today. All of them wrote essays, most of them thoughtful and all of them coherent. We're talking 4-5 pages in a bluebook.

But I teach at prep school and we don't have a grade inflation problem. Can't say what's going on in the public schools, though I'd bet that standardized testing isn't helping.

Posted by: Stact on June 4, 2007 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

The decline in American literacy started when liberals abolished teaching Latin in high schools. Now most kids have no feel for grammar or vocabulary. They don't even know the difference between i.e. and e.g.

Posted by: Al on June 4, 2007 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

A well written document and a well made presentation may have qualities about them that are similar, but they are different media, and, I think, derived from different ways of thinking. A good presentation may involve sequential logic or it may not, but a well written document almost always will. That is one reason why it is considered to be well written. Modern students are much more into patterns, networks and environments, which the old literacy cannot adequately communicate with just the printed word and is why it has lost its primacy as the dominate media.

Posted by: Brojo on June 4, 2007 at 11:24 PM | PERMALINK

This must be some kind of joke. Almost everybody who complained about the writing of other people made major mistakes.

Ole: "Definetely"
sherifffruitfly: "180-degree"
Traveller: "and this is were a standard typing test"
anon: "People wrote sentences that didn't flow, that weren't grammatical, they made pathetic arguments."
satherc: "There are some students who papers handed into be graded using text messaging shorthand."
JeffII: "Meaning we essentially stop learning the parts of speech."
Ace: "My generation can still write, but there's a lot of kids who come across as bad writers but only need to sit down and actually spend the time to do three or four drafts of their paper before they turn them in. Other kids, they're just lost."
Winston Smith: "aggrivates"
Franz: "For example, many sentences are incomplete. subject-verb agreement is haphazard, essays are not divided into paragraphs, sentences are just plain incoherent."
URK: "sturctures"
HokieAnnie: "Well primary, secondary and high schools"
Anon: "Many documents I get simply don't follow the simplest concepts of paragraph structure." (as part of a 10-line rambling paragraph)

Reading this thread has cemented my opinion that kids today write as well as kids from the past.

Posted by: reino on June 4, 2007 at 11:31 PM | PERMALINK

Old Fartism. I teach SAT for nationally known test prep company, so I read their SAT practice essays. Guess what! Some young people can write, some young people are useless at it, most young people are somewhere in the middle but have many fine qualities anyway. Almost by definition, these young people are 17, and I think there's not so much a tendency to judge them by one's peers when one was 17, but rather to judge them by the standard of one's current adult peers, and that's a tough comparison. Teaching SAT has forcefully reminded me that some people are good at math, some people are good at English, some people are good at both, and some people are good at neither.

Posted by: Martin on June 4, 2007 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

Kids that don't read have a harder time learning to write.
Most kids spend much much more time watching TV than they do reading; many kids never ever read for pleasure.
These trends have been going on since the 50's.

McLuhan saw it coming. TV produces passivity. Images are good for provoking emotion, but do not inculcate linear chaining of thought, deduction, and reasoning. To read, the mind must do the work.

There are also damned few role models of literate, eloquent people that kids in particular can relate to: many of today's youth culture heroes are verbally crippled, and even the adults around them are not likely to be articulate. I see the biggest change in TV news -- with rare exceptions, today's announcers are verbally unskilled compared with Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, or especially Eric Sevareid.

Damn I miss Eric Sevareid.

Posted by: joel hanes on June 4, 2007 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

Children are not expected to write very much before college. My daughter just graduated from a highly-ranked suburban high school, and I have been continually disappointed in how little writing she’s been assigned. Teachers, especially at the middle school level, seem to have an acute aversion to term papers. Term projects consist largely of videos, songs, board games, posters, and the dreaded PowerPoint presentations. I have nothing against assigning this kind of project as a change of pace, but now it is the pace. Poorer writers are the natural result.

Posted by: Dr. Drang on June 4, 2007 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

I have a 7th grade reader in mint condition from California. It is harder and with much more diversity than American Lit at the local community college.

I read the Devil and Daniel Webster in the fifth grade as did my parents and my grandparents. None of my children or my grandchildren have even heard of it and would consider its thesis quaint I am sure.

I tutor English comp at Pepperdine. Texting will be a major factor I am sure. It truly may change everything. Next is the lack of reading for pleasure; it is also a quaint concept.

Finally, everything that is respected is presented in bullet points. I think that is why we are in Iraq. All these bullet points do not consider background, context, and questioning the presentation in any form other than speed, color, and charisma of the presenter.

Posted by: yoduuuh on June 4, 2007 at 11:37 PM | PERMALINK

I have noticed that several of you teach writing and some of you lament the inability of many students to write coherently.

Do any of you use blogs in your courses? If you posted a daily topic and solicited comments, it would probably be an eye opener for many of your students to see the thought processes of their classmates.

Also, if they had to defend their comments, it would sharpen their skills of using logic and supporting details.

Finally, assigning a daily reading of Kevin Drum’s writing, would provide them a great model of clear and cogent writing.

Posted by: emmarose on June 4, 2007 at 11:43 PM | PERMALINK

Hey reino, you're right I was being sloppy, but that's because it's not formal writing. I was actually going to put a caveat to that effect in the first comment, but it seemed like overkill...

As people have said, the conversational tone of blogs/comment boards probably has something to do with the difficulties in writing precisely.

On the other hand, I remember reading an article that said everyone was getting better at writing because of all the emailing and IMing. So, go figure.

Posted by: anon on June 4, 2007 at 11:50 PM | PERMALINK

Emmarose -

"Finally, assigning a daily reading of Kevin Drum’s writing, would provide them a great model of clear and cogent writing."

Not to mention cat photography.

Posted by: lampwick on June 4, 2007 at 11:51 PM | PERMALINK

First bullet point: I once had a girlfriend who firmly believed that class size didn't matter. She changed her opinion 180 degrees after seeing me take 20-30 minutes grading each essay from a high-school IR class. 30 mins x 30 essays x 5 classes = ?
Second bullet point: Al is, for once, on to something (as opposed to just on something)! This liberal has taught Latin to both inner-city public and elite prep school students, and believes that there is no doubt as to its beneficial effects on vocabulary and grammar.
Third bullet point: For the best essay ever written about the issues surrounding "correct" writing, see David Foster Wallace "Consider the Lobster".
Fourth bullet point: I completely agree with the earlier commentators who pointed out that writing in bullet points is a one-way ticket to the hell of sloppy logic, inadequately thought out ideas, and paradoxes of self-referentiality.

Posted by: TheSophist on June 5, 2007 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

I think the real issue is analytical writing, which requires that one have the ability to critically read and then craft a coherent summary of the salient points.

These skills are rooted in childhood and by the time one is an adult, they are either there or not. I routinely read work from colleagues in their 40s and 50s who struggle with analytical writing, so this is not necessarily a generational issue. However, I would say that good writing skills are inherently tied to good reading skills, and my own observations suggest that teens and 20 somethings don't spend a lot of free time reading.

Posted by: Rick92X on June 5, 2007 at 12:06 AM | PERMALINK

So who is producing the reams of writing in today's professional culture? Studies, reports, white papers, legal briefs, editorials, etc.

Will American civilization crash in about ten or fifteen years when this cohort of students attains middle-management levels?

Of course, at the highest levels of management, you probably don't need to write at all. Maybe this is why the students hold writing in contempt. They fantasize that they will become rich and famous; writing is done by serfs. The richer (if not yet famous) among the students already farm out their papers.

A reductio ad absurdum presents itself. In the mid-twenty-first century, all writing in the USA is being done by one person, a 103-year-old hidden in an undisclosed location because his existence is so vital.

Posted by: sara on June 5, 2007 at 12:14 AM | PERMALINK

Damning and blasting the education of the young is a consolation of the middle-aged, who conveniently forget that their own teachers considered them hopeless.

In 1958, my profs at Columbia made it clear they thought the class of '62 was a mob of illiterates. Maybe so, but we've done a lot of pretty good writing since then.

Since 1967, I've been teaching writing to Canadian college students in Vancouver. They couldn't write then, and their kids can't write now.

But sometimes someone comes along who writes like the proverbial angel. At least thirty published novels came out of the students in one of my courses, and quite a few journalists got their start in another course.

So the kids can't spell or punctuate, and paragraphing is like quantum physics. But eventually they figure out what to say, and they say it well.

Posted by: Crawford Kilian on June 5, 2007 at 12:31 AM | PERMALINK

reino-I made a spelling mistake while writing a blog post that was interrupted because my daughter woke up. If you think that invalidates everything that I wrote, (not to mention everything written by everyone you listed) then you're an uptight asshole, as well as having too much time on your hands. Smartass jerk.

DennisS- I have run into older versions of your daughter in my classes too. When I see their writing after listening to them talk in class it always reminds me to leave my snap judgments outside the classroom. Anyway, it sounds like she has a good start.

Certainly it isn't the fault of thse kids-there are alot of cards stacked against their learning to express themselves eloquently (or even competently)with words: teaching to tests, a macho, anti-literate culture (where even the "nerds" have non-reading activities to define themselves with)...the decline in reading for pleasure, the growth of 24 hour "interactive" media portals, Microsoft word grammar/spell check and thesaurus...I don't know how many times i've reminded them that just because it's a correctly spelled word doesn't mean it's the right word. etc.

I'm not sure if the conversational tone of blogs is a good or bad thing. Both I think. If they do learn to express the substance of what they mean casually, that can usually be harnessed into more formal writing by internalizing some simple rules. Aesthetically I'd rather read that than the knots they can tie themselves in trying to write too formally, Or making a rule out of not saying "I". What i try to get across to them in the limited time/space i have in the course is that tone matters because it lends you authority and makes your argument more convincing. Sometimes part of what makes it hard for them to get is that they have a whole different set of "tonal" responses already: they have to learn to feel the authority in a more formal tone in order to have any motivation to write that way. Most blogs certainly wouldn't reinforce the importance of understanding more formal discourse.

for my own part, when I went back to school at 35 I had been an avid reader for years. But i didn't know how to critique anything besides rock records, so I started reading the NY Times book review. I still recommend newspapers.

the keys are, as others have said here, examples and practice. Part of my problem is that the course isn't a writing course per se (it's an intro American Studies course). They have 1 5-7 page paper in the middle & little critique of their writing before that. If it were my class to run, I'd do it much differently, but it's not.

I do like the idea of using blogs for reading/writing practice. If they participate in comments in a way that focuses on substantive expression (as opposed to say harping on the occasional misspelled word-you're still an asshole reino)then it would help them make the reading-writing-critical thinking connection that they could really learn from. From a purely qualitative standpoint, Kevin would be a good blogger for them to read. The problem is that it's a political blog, so I'd either have to find a similarly smart right-center blog (and thus reinforce the "false-equivalence" paradigm that TV talking heads do, or just weather the inevitable charges of "liberal bias." Even as an object of criticism, one that i fostered disagreements with, (which would be it's best role) just the presence of the blog on the syllabus would invite that kind of bullshit complaint.

Anyway, this has been an interesting thread & kind of inspiring since one of my summer projects has been to think about how to make the class better when i get back to it next fall.

Posted by: URK on June 5, 2007 at 12:57 AM | PERMALINK

I should correct that: it's not an "intro" American studies course, it's the 200-300 student "American Studies for non-majors who need a humanities credit" course.

Posted by: URK on June 5, 2007 at 1:06 AM | PERMALINK

When I was going to high school back in the late cretaceous, we did a lot of reading and a lot of writing, but the writing instruction was poor. Teachers would tell us that a paragraph should have a beginning, a middle, and an end; this is about the worst advice possible. Much later I found Richard Marius' A Writer's Companion, which explained paragraph construction in a comprehensible manner. Marius also shows how sentences work in relation to their contexts.

Perhaps others pick up the writing sense spontaneously: I notice that this discussion shows a lot of reasonably crafted arguments written in complete sentences. Apparently we are not quite so bad as we would like to think.

One question: I am not clued in to how high school is taught nowadays, so perhaps somebody can help: When I was in school, we spent a lot of time on spelling and grammar up through the ninth grade; in total, it probably amounted to three full years of technical grammar and lists of spelling words. Do American schools still do this? At the very least, this kind of training prepares you to construct a proper sentence and to avoid the worst mistakes.

One other comment: A lot of blog posts seem not to be proofread by their authors before submission. Try it some time.

Posted by: Bob G on June 5, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

Enmarose--I use a lot of popular writing, Malcolm Gladwell and the like, but I wouldn't use a blog to teach college writing. It's a bit too informal, slapdash, etc. We also have to try to steer students away from thinking that research begins with google and ends with wikipedia, so at least for my purposes, it wouldn't work. Not bad in theory, though, and I certainly favor replacing academic texts with intelligent popular writing as much as possible.

Crawford--I'm plenty young (26) but then again, it's the end of the quarter and I've gotten a ton of obnoxious emails about grading in the past few days which may be why my last post was a bit bitchy. I can imagine that, on another night, I might have written about how excellent my students have been.

You're talking about the best students, which is obviously very different from the average. At some level, I wonder if the perception that writing has gotten worse has to do with the way that the typewriter, almost by default, forced revision. The average student had to go to the library ahead of time, take notes, arrange note cards, hand write drafts and retype them. They could slack, but they had to do all that.

My students bristle when I say things like, "read your draft out loud to yourself." I can't imagine that any of them have ever hand written a draft and then typed it, or typed and retyped a draft, an exercise that, while obnoxious, would certainly help people fix their writing. (And I've never done that, to be fair, except maybe once on a short story.) In the past, students had to pull all-nighters just to type everything up. The all-nighter now is an I-put-this-off-until-the-last-minute affair that involves flinging information onto a page. And it's not hard to find the information, but the students don't necessarily process it.

In that sense, I could imagine that my average student is at least as capable, if not more capable, than in the past, but much, much lazier. And I would guess that people much older than me would have been equally lazy, had they the opportunity. But I imagine--and I suppose the older commenters here could verify or deride this--that it was a lot harder to turn in sloppy junk in the pre-computer days than it is now.

Posted by: brad on June 5, 2007 at 2:05 AM | PERMALINK

I teach AP English Literature and also 10th grade English; I have been teaching since 1994.

There are so many comments I find accurate on this particular topic (even Egbert's to a degree) that I cannot offer much that has not already been written.

In general, students use more shortcuts than ever before, and they never proofread or revise. In fact, if they would just have someone read their writing back to them aloud, they would often hear most of the problems they have created. But reading and writing isn't cool, so they can't be bothered to take the time to do it. Thus, at the beginning of each school year I have to play "evil mean guy" and return to the basics. The students of course hate this, but hey, it builds character.

Among the AP students, plagiarism is rampant. Moreover, basic grammar skills are entirely foreign to these people. If my seniors can correctly identify the simple subject and simple predicate in a simple sentence, I am shocked.

Some of the AP students like to read and write, but most of them are just in the class to gain the extra grade point. The worst is when the occasional asshole scoffs and dismisses my work as meaningless because all I am is a high-school teacher, and his dad/mom makes X doing Y, and they didn't even go to college. Yep, that pretty much sucks, but we all have the shitty parts of our jobs, right? On the whole though, even my AP students will learn if I make things interesting and show them the value of thinking and writing.

My sophomores are low-end. They are classified as basic and far below basic. I get them twice a day, once for instruction and once for strategic support. While they are more challenging to my classroom managment ability, reaching them is more rewarding. These poor bastards are in for a tough life; their English pretty much sucks, and most of them will end up in service industry jobs, but a few of them - two Mexican males, one Indian girl, and a Russian male - are going to make something of themselves because they work hard and want something out of life; eventually for them, the language will come. Hopefully we can deport their asses out of here so when they finally do learn the language, they don't sieze the opportunities of my more entitled, lazy, better assimilated AP kids because, you know, those AP kids are like, you know, more deserving.




Posted by: edgite on June 5, 2007 at 2:12 AM | PERMALINK

Ted writes:

They forget that Chaucer and Shakespeare each changed the language, and others have changed it since. In the nineteenth century English teachers and grammarians tried to freeze.

Comparing what kids are doing today to English to what Shakespeare did is ridiculous. some things I can accept, like not capitalizing the beginning of sentences, or using cute words like prolly, but there are times when misspelling has caused real confusion at my work (like using 'break' instead of 'brake'). The worst is when people use 'your' interchangeably, as in "you said your going".. I said I'm going what???

Posted by: Andy on June 5, 2007 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

oh one other thing that's irritating is when people write without punctuation you have to read the sentence many times to figure out the context and where the punctuation should go i've gotten many emails from 20 somethings like that which is quite annoying

Posted by: Andy on June 5, 2007 at 2:18 AM | PERMALINK

Oops, I meant, I said *my* going what?

Posted by: Andy on June 5, 2007 at 2:21 AM | PERMALINK

brad-that's interesting stuff & i think on target. As someone who quit school in the typewriter age and returned in the word processor age I've often been surprised that fewer academics are conscious of the kinds of changes that this technology makes-especially given the kinds of riffs that they can spin about other kinds of communications and duplicable sound/image technologies folding time and space (I'm thinking of something i read by Mark Poster several years ago here...). We would do well to ask how these things affect what we do and how we do it before taking stock of other practices i think.

You're right that word processing makes it easier to not learn to be a good writer. On the other hand, once you've got both the writerly IQ apparatus and the technology, the ability to save,move and shuffle fragments of texts changes what we can do as well as how fast we can do it. And I mean changes it in a practical and material way, not some postmodern hoodoo about fragmented consciousness or whichever.

Posted by: URK on June 5, 2007 at 2:36 AM | PERMALINK

My Dad was a teacher for 40 years at a Jr. College.

He saw a steady decline in students.... way fewer of the smart ones, and teaching became less interesting. He also saw more cheating.

I don't think you have to be a teacher to notice the decline in reading/writing/speaking/spelling. And to notice the decline in math skills, how many times have you gotten the wrong change by someone who simply cannot add or subtract? They expect the computer to do it for them, and cannot check the results.

I guess this is why India and other countries are taking the lead.... an educated populace.

Here, education is more concerned with "self esteem," making money any way you can (not any interest in learning).

Posted by: Clem on June 5, 2007 at 3:48 AM | PERMALINK

My Dad was a teacher for 40 years at a Jr. College.

He saw a steady decline in students.... way fewer of the smart ones, and teaching became less interesting. He also saw more cheating.

I don't think you have to be a teacher to notice the decline in reading/writing/speaking/spelling. And to notice the decline in math skills, how many times have you gotten the wrong change by someone who simply cannot add or subtract? They expect the computer to do it for them, and cannot check the results.

I guess this is why India and other countries are taking the lead.... an educated populace.

Here, education is more concerned with "self esteem," making money any way you can (not any interest in learning).

Posted by: Clem on June 5, 2007 at 3:48 AM | PERMALINK

URK: A lot is two words.

If laughing at people who make writing errors while criticizing the writing skills of other people makes me a smartass jerk, then I'm a smartass jerk.

Maybe I'm just bitter because I've taught for 16 years, and the most famous thing ever written by any of my students is:
"Them calls me the funkdafied, funkalistic, vocalistic
With the real shit, we got the shit you cant funk wit"

Posted by: reino on June 5, 2007 at 7:11 AM | PERMALINK

I'm an old fart. I don't teach, except an occasional adjunct gig, but I do interact with law students in a summer intern program. I have seen almost two decades of their fledgling legal memos. I can't say that I have seen much change. But then again, selection bias: fancy law schools, and very young people who take their first real(?) job very very seriously.

Posted by: Joe S. on June 5, 2007 at 7:13 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, this is totally old fartism, or old fartisme, whichever you prefer. As a professional writer person myself, I would suggest that most people who graduated from college back in the day can't write well. Writing is simply much less important for success than reading. Most people in the "real world" of business communicate orally. I work with Ph.D.s, many of whom cannot write well, because they are interested in numbers. They hire editors to "edit" what they have written.

The college population today includes hordes of kids who would not have gone to college even 20 years ago. The kids in the elite schools, which attract a disproportionate amount of attention (of course) are better than ever, because 1) the U.S. population has grown as a whole, 2) the percentage going to college has grown, 3) colleges are admitting women on an equal basis with men, which they didn't do in the past, and 4) competition is fiercer than ever.

Posted by: Alan Vanneman on June 5, 2007 at 7:17 AM | PERMALINK

I've been a software engineer for over 20 years now, and I know that my colleagues couldn't write then and can't write now. Engineers in general appear to be some of the most abysmal writers on the planet, largely unable to construct two coherent sentences, much less string them together. Take a look at a typical C header file (which passes for documentation these days under most development environments, since the corporate powers have sacked most of their technical writers) and weep.

From a physical standpoint, kids can't write either: i.e., they don't seem to be able to use a stylus. At least, my own teenager complained the other day that he has a hard time during exams because he can't write fast enough, and his hand gets tired. He allowed as how if he could only bring his laptop in and use that, he'd do much better.

I suggested that if he actually bothered taking notes all year long on real paper with a real pencil, he'd've built up those hand muscles and improved his writing speed.

I figure I'm of the last generation that will have that little callous on one finger where the pencil used to rest. Ah, the world's going to hell....

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2007 at 7:49 AM | PERMALINK

I have to agree with the above post, but I believe the problem described with Software Engineers and writing skills actually applies to all engineering fields and probably to all math/science related professions. I acquired my engineering degrees as an adult student while finishing up a military career. The single biggest hurdle for many of my classmates was the senior year writing exam that was a graduation requirement. It consisted of a blank yellow pad, a pencil, and an hour to write a coherent essay. I feel that I cheated because I had already experienced a career of writing evaluations, memos, and operating instructions, under style guidelines that changed everytime I got a new boss. Technical folks in the military are forced to write as part of their duties in a way that I have not experienced as a civilian worker. I believe that the problem is inexperience and not inability. I believe that this also applies to the crop of students working their way through college now. If they are not forced to write coherently before they get to college, and then work on a degree in a math/science field, they are probably not going to improve their skills on their way to that all important degree.

Posted by: Marshall on June 5, 2007 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

College twits are too used to NOT writing, but rather, "texting" or IRCing. Hence, they spew "How R U?" and "want 2 go?" and other spurts of intellectual felch.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on June 5, 2007 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

I'll put in my pitch for that old warhorse: sentence diagramming.

The nuns whacked those sentence diagrams into me for eight years - a sometimes painful experience, but it has served me in good stead during a long career in which I found I could write better than most of my colleagues.

My kids, on the other hand, have never really developed a feel for the parts of speech and the structure of a sentence. It shows. I tried to teach them the diagramming myself, but the resistence was so fierce that I gave up.

Posted by: Virginia Dutch on June 5, 2007 at 8:45 AM | PERMALINK

It's different!

My children are both still in elementary school. The focus has been on reading and math. They barely teach science and social studies because those subjects aren't part of the end-of-grade tests. And, they definitely do NOT teach writing.

I went to this same school when I was a child. ALL subjects were given equal time in the classroom. I may not have had the math proficiency my children possess, but I enjoyed a much more comprehensive education.

To compensate for this void, I home schooled my daughter (5th grade) for a 12-week period and my son (1st grade) for a 6-week period during the school year. This enabled them to enjoy the social benefits of school, yet still learn something.

During our home school time, my daughter wrote an essay every day. Her first one was crap. I gave her a thesaurus and told her she couldn't repeat adjectives. Her final essay, before returning back to school, was beautifully written.

Furthermore, she fell in love with creative writing as a means of self expression. She continued to write stories after she returned to school (and after all of her assigned homework). She craved that release because it offered her immense satisfaction.

Her classmates haven't experienced that. I'm told they write in the 6th grade (because it's part of the end-of-grade tests). In our school, the students ONLY learn what will be tested at the end of the year. But, it's a small K-12, rural school.

As an aside, my children don't text message yet. That world of writing in acronyms and slang (and slang upon slang) bastardizes language so much that I would assume it would be difficult to write properly after lengthy text message use.

Posted by: QuirkySmile on June 5, 2007 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

I'd like to echo Mike's comment above. As one of the few surviving technical writers, I can testify to the abysmal quality of writing, not only of engineers and developers, but of all levels of management up to and including the CEO. It's not so much an age thing; 65 year old senior vice presidents write just as poorly as the newest summer intern. Rather, it's a de-emphasis on literacy in general in our culture and especially in the business world.

I've had managers who are certifiable geniuses, with 8 programming languages, an MBA, and a PMP under their belt, who can juggle a complex global documentation system project from start to finish but couldn't write a coherent compound sentence to save their lives. Ask them what they have read lately for pleasure and it's invariably something on C# programming or Six Sigma management. They see no value in the written word, and if someone has to read their sentences 3 times to understand the meaning, so be it.

Word processing, especially spell check and templates, hasn't helped. Plug the specific project terms into the boilerplate of the template, run it through spell check, and you're done. Productivity, not profundity (or even cogency), is what's valued.

So much of schooling is aimed at getting graduates into this business culture, it's no wonder that good writing isn't taught. After all, it's not valued, so why bother?

Posted by: Dano on June 5, 2007 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

I had an outstanding AP writing teacher in high school, Donna Fisher, Lakeside High, Atlanta suburbs. She had the highest standards in both grammar and content. Three things formed the basis of her approach to good writing: read great writing to learn from it; discuss issues and ideas vigorously; understand your mistakes in grammar and thinking so you won't make them again.

Ten years ago, when I was in seminary at age 39, my professors regularly told me how much they enjoyed reading my papers, and how much better my writing was than that of most of my classmates. Almost all of my classmates were, like me, starting a second career in ministry. We had all worked in other fields before returning to graduate school. Our classes sometimes required us to do peer review of each others' writing. I was appalled by the quality I saw, sometimes from people who, like me, already had one graduate degree, and all of whom had an undergraduate degree.

As it became known that I was a good writer, classmates would sometimes come to me for help. I took Mrs. Fisher's method and adapted it to my friends. I read their papers, pointing out errors, and asked them if they understood their mistakes. I discussed the ideas and issues with them. And I gave them a reading assignment, nearly always an acclaimed work of fiction. In almost every case, their writing improved.

I remain grateful to Donna Fisher. She inspired me to aspire to be a good writer. Being a good writer has never failed me. Perhaps not everyone shares the same aspiration, as worthy as it is.

Posted by: Jim Peck on June 5, 2007 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

Several people have made comments about the lack of writing fundamentals, such as learning to diagram sentences. Another noted that "their inability to write well seems to be tied up with their inability to reason."

I think both themes are correct. My wife teaches high school science in a rural school. She requires three research papers per semester, and requires her students to first produce outlines from five source documents, then combine them into a "super outline" from which their paper is produced. The only problem is that she has to teach them how to outline because they have not been taught this fundamental skill.

I understand that outlining was generally dropped from the english curriculum some years ago because it was too constraining, too inhibiting of the student's creativity. The result is kids who can't tell the difference between essential content and filler, who can't take notes to save their lives, who don't see structure on the printed page. Who can't really either read or write. I agree with the post who siad that he can't diagram to save his life, but he can write well because he reads a lot. However you get there, understanding how words fit together on the page is key.

And yes its worse than in the past. I rarely find a young person who is either an able or confident writer.

And as for math being ok, gimme a break. A friend of mine recently retired at president of an engineering/technical college. He noted that even the arithmetic skills of applicants were poor, much less their math skills.

I see some hope on the horizon, from no less than NCLB of all things. One of our local schools "failed the test" and has instituted, with federal financial aid, an intensive reading program in the first few grades for all students. As these kids filter into the higher grades, teachers are telling me that the results are very noticeable and impressive. Where before students would not want or offer to write, now they do. Fingers crossed.

Posted by: wvng on June 5, 2007 at 9:47 AM | PERMALINK

You just have to be able to speak their language ...

"THE LADY DOTH PROTAST 2 MUCH METHINKS!111111! OMG WTF LOL HAMLET (III, iii, 239)

QUEN G3RTRUD3 SPEAKS THASE FMOS WORDS 2 HER SON PRINCE HMLAT WHIEL WATCHNG A PLAY AT COURT!11!!!1 OMG G3RTRUDE DOAS NOT REALIEZ TAHT HMLAT HAS STAEGD THES PLAY 2 TRAP HER AND HER NU HUSBAND KNG CLAUDIUS WHOM HMLET SUSP3CTS OF HAVNG MURD3RED HIS FATH3R!1!!!! WTF SHE ALSO DO3S NOT REALIEZ TAHT DA LADY WHO DOTH PROT3ST 2 MUCH SI ACTUALY HERS3LF AS TEH PLAEYR KNG AND QUEN REPRES3NT KNG HML3T AND QUEN GERTRUDA!11!!! WTF LOL DA FORMER WIL B POISONAD (IN THES PLAY WITHIN TEH PLAY) BY DA KNGS BROTH3R AS IN R3ALITY (HML3T SUSPECTS) CLAUDIUS KIL3D KNG HMLET!1!111!1! WTF GERTRUDAS STAETM3NT SI IN R3SPONSA 2 DA PLAY-QUENS RAPATITIEV STAETM3NTS OF LOYALTY 2 AND LUV OF H3R FIRST HUSBAND
!1!!!! OMG

Posted by: ManOutOfTime on June 5, 2007 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

Broadly speaking, the younger people have far fewer writing skills. I see it in business communications on a regular basis.

It's because they don't read. People who don't like to read seldom become effective writers. And reading has not been stressed in school for a long time, and that's how we become familiar with writing well.

If we want 'em to write well, take the time and spend the money on reading skills, don't focus solely on writing.

Posted by: zak822 on June 5, 2007 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

I've been a software engineer for over 20 years now, and I know that my colleagues couldn't write then and can't write now. Engineers in general appear to be some of the most abysmal writers on the planet, largely unable to construct two coherent sentences, much less string them together.

I was a software engineer, and I will have to agree with you about them. But now, being a victim of outsourcing, I have returned to school to get a masters degree in a real engineering discipline (civil). My undergraduate degree was in chemistry and I also have a law degree.

Contrary to popular belief, I think the writing skills of people in the hard sciences and engineering are quite good, and overall are probably better than those in the humanities or business. My experience in law school was certainly that some of those people (even those very near the top of the class) couldn't write worth a damn and were dumb as a box of rocks.

After all the bad things I have heard about the current crop of our idiot children I have been amazed by the competence and ability of the engineering students I go to school with. Since I do not have an undergraduate degree in engineering, I am required to take some core engineering courses, some of which require group projects (which include twenty to thirty page papers as part of the project). The students I have worked with on these projects with (and I am certainly not going to what is considered a top tier school) have certainly been able to write coherent and professional papers. I have also been asked to read and comment on papers students have prepared for courses outside of engineering (e.g., English classes) and have been impressed by their work.

All is not lost.

Posted by: Freder Frederson on June 5, 2007 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

Verily, my liege.

Posted by: Craig Johnson on June 5, 2007 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

With technology, kids write more in their personal lives now. They look at their writing and at other writing, too, both of which help learning all sorts of things about communication. You did not get that before the Internet. The world is more competitive than ever, it's a knowledge economy, soft skills are key, etc., etc. So the context for any young person's writing is much richer than that of the past. They are lucky indeed.

They are still young, though. Maybe some of you are confusing youth with writing.

Posted by: Bob M on June 5, 2007 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

I’ve taught English composition at universities off and on for thirty years, first as a graduate student and then mostly as an adjunct lecturer. There have always been terrible writers and lazy students, as well as good writers and good students. Most college level comp classes are taught by graduate students and adjunct lecturers. They are typically paid $2500 to $3000 to teach a one-semester course with 25 students that meets three hours a week. One two-page paper assignment generates 50 pages of student writing to read and mark. How many papers can a sane person work on each week in addition to preparing for classes?

Graduate students who don't land a tenure track job are usually shocked to find they are paid less to teach a comp class once they earn their M.A. or M.F.A. or Ph.D. and have some experience. Teaching a writing class is difficult and labor intensive. Different students have different backgrounds and needs. Better pay, smaller classes, and meaningful coordination of an institution’s writing curriculum would go far to improve writing instruction. Don’t hold your breath.

Posted by: Tom on June 5, 2007 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

I fully agree with Freder Frederson regarding the lack of reading as the basis for the loss of writing skills. Moreover, the suggestion that we should teach sentence diagramming skills in school could only have been voiced by an old English teacher, and would, in my opinion, do nothing to improve writing.

I have had two children recently graduate from a High School in a rural/suburban district in Texas, and believe that they both came out of school writing better than I did when I graduated in the 70's. Certainly their math and science course work was more advanced than what I studied.

Where they do suffer, however, is from a lack of interest in reading which results in a weaker vocabulary. Turning off the TV and getting kids to read more will help their writing skills far more than sentence construction busy work.

Posted by: BobPM on June 5, 2007 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

By state law, California college students are required to pass a writing exam that consists of an essay on some assigned topic. The state colleges also have mandatory remediation in math and language skills for those not passing a placement test (or testing out via SAT scores). I agree with others who have said that the biggest obstacle to improving their writing after that is the lack of time of their professors. With steadily increasing class sizes, there is less incentive to assign papers and give essay exams and we do not have teaching assistants as the UC's do. If you want students at any level to be better writers, you need to support educators so that they can provide the practice and especially the feedback that improves writing.

There is an odd notion among school administrators that the way to increase productivity is to cram more kids into a classroom. I get tired of people who want to criticize schools and childrens performance while refusing to support appropriate school funding.

In the good old days when everyone could write, there were no good career options for highly educated and literate women, so they became teachers. Now, the best students go into other fields leaving those who are less well-educated to become teachers. If the schools are to compete for better teachers, they need the money to attract better students into the field. Teachers teach for satisfaction and other intangible rewards, not solely money, but when the quality of the working conditions decline and the job becomes overwhelming, those satisfactions decrease and there is little left to keep the good teachers on the job.

Posted by: Perry on June 5, 2007 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK
ith technology, kids write more in their personal lives now. They look at their writing and at other writing, too, both of which help learning all sorts of things about communication.

U R t3h funny. LOLZ!

"Communicate in text" is not always the same thing as "writing" in the sense that is being used in this discussion. In fact, the kind of text communication that people (and not just "young" people) do more of today may combine with the lesser demands on actual writing to really drive down writing skills.


Posted by: cmdicely on June 5, 2007 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

reino

I had to google (a word that formerly wasn't a verb & isn't in some contexts) those lyrics, so I don't know if Da Brat is a brilliant MC or not, but certainly you recognize that what's correct in the classroom doesn't make for a great rap, and vice versa. Anyway, I do hope that you're proud to some degree that she was one of your students, even if she's working in a linguistic medium you sneer at.

I think that context counts, and while your overall point (don't make elementary writing errors while criticizing other people's writing) is good, trying to invalidate arguments in a blog post by dismissing anything not spelled correctly is hopelessly priggish. Most of the writing I do has to be rigorously structured and requires close attention to grammar and spelling. Given the little time I have to participate in this forum, and the nature of the forum, I'm not going to pay as close attention to those things here.

I'd certainly correct "alot" in a paper, and I don't use it in my work. But then you probably capitalize the first letter of your name in more formal contexts, don't you? Were I writing an essay about this problem I'd certainly adhere to essay grammar and spelling tropes. But given the context i was working in, I didn't bother to go back and change it. Anyway, thanks so much for your valuable and substantive contribution to this conversation.

Posted by: URK on June 5, 2007 at 10:48 AM | PERMALINK

Lampwick wrote:

"2. No generation is any worse or better at writing than any other generation from the same historical era. The problem is that the observers - the teachers - are comparing their memories of how well students could write ten or thirty-years ago with their current experience with students.

What lampwick said. My writing, post-college, *sucked*, despite being a voracious reader. Now I'm considered a very good writer by my work peers. But that was after a decade of writing, during most of which my product couldn't see the light of day without getting through editor, two of whom were Drama Queen Grammar Nazis.

Reducing the humiliation of getting my copy back with more red on it than black was a strong incentive to buck up.

Similarly, it shouldn't be surprising if students are continually given multiple-choice tests, that they haven't developed writing skills.

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on June 5, 2007 at 10:48 AM | PERMALINK

Came back to add another $0.02 (making a total of $0.04 for me in this thread) but karmakin beat me to it:

The source of many of these problems:

Most (of my, anyway) students are not in college to satisfy their curiosity. To put almost the same point in a slightly different way: most college students don't love to learn. They don't love books, they don't read for fun, they don't seek knowledge for its own sake. They aren't driven by what traditionally drove university students.

They're there because if you go to 13th-16th grades, you get to drink and get laid a lot, and then you make more money when you get out and can have a better tv and bigger SUV.

Now, take two groups of people, one such that they are curious and love learning and one such that they are motivated just by the desire for more money. First of all, the former group will contain more really notable intellects. But ignore that. Hold IQ fixed. The former group will produce better scholarly work than the latter, and it's fairly obvious why that is so.

Anyhoo, that's a big part of the problem.

Now, another layer:

There are two responses to the fact that most students don't care about learning:

1. We could address this problem, try to light a fire in their minds, and at least hold them up to high standards even if they don't really care.

or

2. We could lower the standards and modify the curriculum so that even bored, apathetic, uninspired students can make 'A's and graduate.

We've done way too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Part of this is because of things like student evaluations of teaching that put the students partially in the driver's seat as far as hiring, tenure and promotion decisions go.

And that's part of the corporatization of the academy in general. (The customer is always right, etc., etc....)

And that brings us to...the Downfall of Western Civilization...

Posted by: Winston Smith on June 5, 2007 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

"I was a software engineer, and I will have to agree with you about them. But now, being a victim of outsourcing, I have returned to school to get a masters degree in a real engineering discipline (civil). My undergraduate degree was in chemistry and I also have a law degree. "

Pardon me for asking, but why civil? My impression was that civil was very heavily affected by the business cycle, and a lot of the design work is also outsourced.

Why not Chem E, given your first degree in chemistry, Mech E (where your software skills would still be an advantage), where you or becoming a patent lawyer (given your law degree)?

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on June 5, 2007 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

"If you read the computer repair comments made by some of the more frequent commentators ten years ago with the comments they made an hour ago the improvement is dramatic. The same with the hunting and fishing blogs I sometimes frequent. Writing is like any other skill. Every writer improves with repetition."

Yeah, but unfortunately the improvement of English in Usenet/the blogosphere means that's its waaayyyy harder to win an argument. Back in the mid-1990s on Usenet, all it took to win an argument was the ability to write a sentence or two and use Altavista (to get facts) and Dejanews (to find embarrassing posts by your opponent).

Now, I don't know what it would take to beat a poster like cmdicely, but I suspect it'd take a small research team of two ghost writers, an editor and four professors as experts on retainer.

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on June 5, 2007 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

I've been teaching freshman English for five years, they can't write.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on June 5, 2007 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

"...Most (of my, anyway) students are not in college to satisfy their curiosity. To put almost the same point in a slightly different way: most college students don't love to learn. They don't love books, they don't read for fun, they don't seek knowledge for its own sake. They aren't driven by what traditionally drove university students..."
Posted by: Winston Smith on June 5, 2007 at 10:52 AM

Winston, you make some good points. I think there are some economic factors that are contributing greatly to this particular problem that have been overlooked. The sharp cuts in Pell Grants starting with Reagan in the '80's, accompanied by the sharp rise in tuition, have created a mortgage debt situation for many students when they graduate. This tends to obsess them with careerism. The high rate of employment turnover (churning) in the labor market contributes to this as well. Employers are focused on very precise skills, degrees, and certifications, rather than broad-brushed critical thinkers where you might likely find most of the curious students you speak of.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 5, 2007 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

Essays and term papers aren't the only measure of how well someone can write. Someone who writes completely ridiculous essays may be a fabulous poet. When they do teach writing in school, it's formulaic, one size fits all. That's not true. There are as many different ways to write as there are people. Why don't we give everyone a chance to show their true talents.

Posted by: willshakespeare on June 5, 2007 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK
….had to take dumb bell English because they couldn't write essays and failed the English test admitees took… mhr at 12:29 PM
dumbbell admittees QED Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

The best and probably only way to become a good writer is to read a great deal of good writng, so that one knows how it sounds. But reading has declined overall since the advent of TV and more recently video games. So because fewer young people read the requisite amount, few learn how to write well. In addition, the vocabulary heard on most TV is very limited, and this limits vocabulary, another necessary ingredient of good writing--at least nuanced writing.

Posted by: Mimikatz on June 5, 2007 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

One more thing: Old time writers don't write the way modern grammarists tell us we are supposed to write so reading noted authors (i.e. Dickens, Twain) actually screwed me up in terms of sentence construction though I've always been pretty fucking loquacious even if a poor speller.

Still, technical writing and academic writing aren't changing you still need to properly communicate your data and analysis. So other than that, what does it matter if we don't write as well?

Besides everyone knows literature is dying--it's only a matter of time before it's replaced by YouTube. ;)

Posted by: MNPundit on June 5, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

I just wanted to expand on my previous suggestion of using a blog in a writing class.

I taught high school English classes over 30 years ago and I envy the technology available to teachers and students today. Computers, word processors, spell-checking, even photo copy machines would have been unimaginable luxuries for me.

When I first started teaching in the 1960s, I marked up student papers in red ink with enthusiasm. Instead of improvement, however, I noticed that students started writing papers with shorter sentences and simpler words. Instead of taking chances, they were “hiding” from my red pen. (I later decided that by pointing out all of their errors, I was like someone who was plucking off the feathers of a bird, until it couldn’t fly.)

After taking a graduate course in teaching methods, I discovered that what many students lack is “voice” in their writing. They worry so much about what they think their teachers want to hear, that they are unable to express their own opinions. When they don’t believe in what they say, it is difficult for them to organize their thoughts and explain them with details and examples.

Taking the suggestion of my teacher, I started having my students write journals. I set rules (like no gossip, no description of illegal activities, etc.) Otherwise, I only gave ten points each week, if they wrote three pages. If they didn’t write in a journal every week, the top grade they could earn in the course was a C. Now, I used my red pen to write comments and ask for explanations of ideas that were not clear.

But this method really took off when I was able to provide printed, anonymous, excerpts from the journals for all of them to read. (If a student put a line down the margin next to something he didn’t want copied, I respected that. Otherwise, I lifted sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes long passages from their journals. I always picked something I liked for various reasons.)

The results were explosive. So many students said that they were surprised by the thoughts of their classmates. Even when they read journal excerpts from past years, they said that they felt like they knew the writers. (I think that the “voices” of the writers were coming through loud and clear.) Also, I noticed that students became more interested in spelling and used the dictionaries I placed around the room. It was almost like having “an audience” made them care more about things like spelling, grammar, etc. One student only wrote on the right page on his spiral notebook—one long sentence with no punctuation. Near the end of the semester he ran out of pages and started at the beginning writing on the left pages. Side by side, I could see a noticeable improvement. He had started writing in sentences and paragraphs and used punctuation—without a word from me.

For me, putting the excerpts together was really labor intensive. I had to type on ditto masters and try not to make any typing errors. Then I ran the seven or eight pages off on a messy ditto machine. If I had had the technology available today, I could have done this more than once a semester.

Some of the students who resisted this the most were some of the “A” students. They were used to getting an automatic A for regurgitating back what they thought I wanted to hear. (I tried to grade on improvement in the class, not pitting students against each other.) I thought of them as “pencil pushers,” writers who had no original thoughts or convictions--just neat handwriting.

Some of the best writers were the “outsiders.” They were often poor or non-conformists, who could “see” situations in unique ways and use details that brought images to life. They definitely had “voice.” I learned so much from them and was often in awe of their abilities.

One of the “dangers” of this method, however, is that soon students will use their journals to tell you off and criticize your classes. It takes a strong ego to handle this. But, it can be instructive, too.

When I read that students today plagiarize, I feel sad. Why would they not grab the opportunity to say what they think and get feedback from someone? They will probably never get an opportunity like that for the rest of their lives (unless they comment on blogs like this one.)

This is why I suggested that some writing teachers today might like to try using a blog in their classes. As one person pointed out, it is a tremendous burden to read papers from large classes. This would be an easy solution. Writing an entry every day would be required for passing the class, but each entry would not have to be “graded.” I would assign a written short paper in class on the first day and compare it with a paper written on the last day to see if any progress had been made—especially in clarity of thought and exposition of ideas. Of course, there could be other graded writing assignments, as specific topics are covered in class.

But, by writing on a blog every day the students could see ideas of classmates and how they are organized and supported with details. Also, as someone else said, you can only improve your writing by doing lots of writing. (You could send the students comments or questions by e-mail.)

Google’s www.blogger.com allows you to set up your own blog. You can restrict it so only people you “invite” (your students) can write comments. If they get their own Gmail address, they can use an anonymous name known only to you.

You could link to a newspaper article and ask for responses. For example, my local newspaper has a feature article today about a powerful lobbyist in our state, who gets over hundreds of thousands of dollars from cigarette companies to thwart state legislation that would benefit sick children without insurance. If something like this wouldn’t elicit heated responses from various points of view, I don’t know what would. As students disagreed with each other, they would force writers to defend their ideas, read the article closely, support their statements with quotes from the article, maybe even do a little research on the topic, etc.

As the administrator of the blog, you could delete defamatory comments. But, most important, you could close comments at the end of the course and start another blog for the next semester. Then your next class could read the entire "retired" blog as an example of how it works and how individual commentators grew and developed over a semester in their writing skills.


Posted by: emmarose on June 5, 2007 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Both my wife and I read. I do so voraciously, always have. Son doesn't read much...at the age when larvae can get hooked on reading, I made the mistake of buying a Playstation, which I regarded as harmless. I tried it for a while and found it less interesting than a musical instrument (my choice, the concertina), gave up the PS. My son, alas, gave up books as the foil of choice for his engagement/imagination. He is smart, but his mental lumber needs variety, quality and quantity. His arguments contain inappropriate/misused words and, too often, the phrase "I can't explain it".
He is, however, starting to take some responsibility for the quality of his work, and I have hope that he will yet self-make himself to catch up on what he is missing. /I/ think the single most important thing he could do would be to read, read and read.

Posted by: Stewart Dean on June 5, 2007 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

Your average college Calculus student can hardly do basic algebra.

Oh, it's worse than that. I had a few calculus students this semester at supposedly-prestigious-state-school in the Midwest who couldn't add fractions without a calculator.

Posted by: Anarch on June 5, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

My daughter, a college sophomore, made an interesting comment the other day: she does not use the “short-hand” common to computer chat rooms (U cn rd ths f U try 2). She feels that the abbreviated English used there harms her ability to proofread her papers. Her ability to type 60 words per minute permit her to use complete sentences “in chat.”

Posted by: NJ Osprey on June 5, 2007 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

As a 24-year-old who majored in English in college and is now a reporter at a newspaper, what I learned in some creative writing classes in my junior and senior years seems most relevant to this. I remember several classmates whose ability with character and narrative and stuff (often good) seemed completely unrelated to their ability with spelling and punctuation (often not). Then again, maybe it says something about me that I noticed the latter so much.

Also, it's interesting how good writing is situational. My sister, a junior in college, often asks me to proofread papers, and I keep on having to remind myself that going for about a page between paragraph breaks is accepted if not encouraged in high school and most parts of college unlike at the newspaper where I work now, where 60 words is pushing it and it's longer than it looks anyway because it's double-spaced.

And, commentary on what others have said:

Reading this thread has cemented my opinion that kids today write as well as kids from the past.

Posted by: reino

Heh, yeah, I got a little perverse pleasure out of noticing all the mistakes too. This is just a blog, of course, and I realize I may make some mistakes of my own, but it was still funny.

Second bullet point: Al is, for once, on to something (as opposed to just on something)! This liberal has taught Latin to both inner-city public and elite prep school students, and believes that there is no doubt as to its beneficial effects on vocabulary and grammar.
...
Posted by: TheSophist

I got the same thing out of several years of French class. The obvious explanation is that French and Latin have similar relations to English, but I think studying any language at all from an alien, nuts-and-bolts, grammar-heavy perspective would have a helpful effect in training people how to think about language.

Posted by: Cyrus on June 5, 2007 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

Let's for a moment look at writing from the reader's side.

I read nonfiction books and articles and blogposts because I hope to learn something of value from them. But when I find a piece riddled with writing errors of various kinds, I think, "If this writer can't be bothered to get the small stuff right, how can I believe that he has exercised any care in assembling the information that forms his subject and draws my interest?"

Errors erode trust and make effective communication harder than it already is. When errors abound, a reader will eventually turn away in disgust. If we want readers, we have an obligation to them to remove the stumbling blocks before we publish.

Posted by: tamiasmin on June 5, 2007 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

I would point out that one possible cause may be the fact that teaching students to write well is a very time-intensive process. If you're a high school English teacher with 160 students (pretty average in a public high school), it takes you approximately TWENTY-SEVEN HOURS to review one set of papers, and that's spending only ten minutes on each paper. To really give a students useful feedback probably requires double that amount of time, above and beyond all your other teaching responsibilities.

Posted by: mfw13 on June 5, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Kids these days ain't no dumber than kids was when I was a kid. Ain't no less articulate, neither. Listened to the President lately?

Posted by: Cap'n Chucky on June 5, 2007 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

I blame the lack of interest most young people how in READING. You learn best how to write well by reading ceaselessly.

Posted by: Sbohs on June 5, 2007 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with the "kids need to read more" school. You can't compose good music if you don't listen to good music, you can't speak a foreign language well if you don't listen to native speakers, and you can't write clearly and engagingly unless you read clear and engaging texts. If nothing else, you absorb traits from what you read. Read Kurt Vonnegut for a couple of hours, and see if your own sentences don't become shorter and punchier.

Of course, kids also need to write more. Of course you have to listen to music (or a foreign language) if you want to compose well or speak a foreign language well, but it's obvious that you have to then compose (or speak) on your own. And you have to make mistakes and produce bad products, and you have to correct those mistakes and make better products, before you achieve proficiency. Why should writing be any different?

Posted by: keith on June 5, 2007 at 8:21 PM | PERMALINK

(cont'd)
JeffII is probably not entirely wrong in pointing to the demise of sentence diagramming, but that only helps with the mechanics of writing; sometimes it doesn't even help that. Learning a foreign language (and not necessarily a Romance language) is helpful, because learning another set of rules for grammar and syntax can help you understand the rules for your own language.

Brad is correct that a lot of academic texts are atrociously written, and the ability to discern that is a mark of your maturity as a reader. The same holds true for reading a foreign language: if you reach the point where you can say with confidence that the reason you don't understand a passage because the writing is bad, and not because your language skills are poor, then you probably have a decent command of whatever language you're using. If you cannot tell the difference between "difficult" academic writing and bad writing, you definitely should not be emulating that writing... but while I know of students who copy badly written academic texts, I don't know of any who emulate them!

Writing well is not an easy skill to acquire. Some people pick it up quickly, some people do so only with great difficulty. If your peers think that reading and writing is a good way to spend your time, and if your school encourages you to do these things, you'll probably develop decent skills; if your peers place no value on reading and writing, and if your school fails to reward these things, you're much less likely to develop decent skills.

Finally, I'll point out that the mechanisms in place to "help" people with their writing can be counterproductive. Spellcheck and grammarcheck are not supposed to replace reading and editing, but in practice, that's just what they do for many students. (and adults!) The size of computer screens also discourages people who compose at the keyboard from writing anything more than 17 (?) lines long.

Finally, some institutions have offices to "fix" work that people at those institutions submit for publication; I know this is the case at my brother's research lab. Unfortunately, this provides no encouragement for the authors to improve their own writing, and the "fixes" are often not very good; every paper my brother has submitted -- every single one -- has been rewritten into the passive tense. Current conventions for academic writing in the sciences notwithstanding, that just ain't good writin'

Posted by: keith on June 5, 2007 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

Plato's prose style _was_ a lot better than Aristotle's.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 5, 2007 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think can learn writing composition from reading any more than you learn music composition from listening.

Learning to write well requires proper instruction and practice.

Reading is just watching somebody else do it.

Expecting people to get better at writing by watching how the pros do it is like expecting kids to get better at baseball by watching the major leagues on TV. God help the kid who tries to learn to hit from watching Ichiro.

In high school, I read novels by Dickens and wrote too-wordy papers about them. In college, I was instructed at long last to omit needless words, and my papers got covered in red ink until I did. That's when my writing became comprehensible.

You might be able to learn something about writing from reading, but only after you already have some idea of what you're doing.

Posted by: social democrat on June 6, 2007 at 3:27 AM | PERMALINK

There is a general decline not just in writing, but in all the liberal arts. I blame exorbitant, rock star CEO salaries for distorting the labor and education markets.

Every slacker and their little sister wants a business degree, so every two-bit community college and online "university" offers one. Who wants to take difficult AP English classes when you can stay home and get a business degree online in your spare time?

Posted by: Jalmari on June 6, 2007 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

Nevermind.

As I read more comments about the topic of student writing, I realized why my suggestion of using an OPEN blog in class would not work. Like some of the adult commentators on this blog, some of the students might not be able to resist attacking the spelling and grammar errors of others. The whole point of providing student writers a “grade-free” and safe place to express themselves would be undermined. (Anonymous sniping from fellow students would be more damaging than any teacher’s red pen.)

It is has been decades since I last taught. I read news articles today about “cyber bullies” using text messaging and MySpace to harass others and I cringe when I realize how misuse of a class blog might make my suggestion impossible.

I thought of a way to get around this, if anyone is still interested in trying. Goggle will allow you to set up as many blogs as you want (www.blogger.com). You could set up one for every student in your class and “invite” them to join the blog you have assigned to them as “a team member.” As the administrator, you could set the controls and make sure that no one else could read, post, or comment on it, except you and the student. All the student would have to do is get a GMail account and let you know what it was.

You could also set up a Main blog that everyone could read, where you discussed topics you want covered, or provided links to articles you wanted the students to read and comment on. They would write their comments as posts on their individual blogs.

As the administrator, you can set the controls so that you are notified by email, when anyone posts to any of the blogs. In fact, you can change the settings on your own GMail account, so that all notices sent to that account are forwarded to your personal e-mail account. In other words, you are notified of all activity and you would only have to log on to a student’s blog, when you knew something had been posted on it.

Next, you could create a second central blog where you could copy samples of good student writing and paste them for all to read. (When I typed excerpts from my students’ journals years ago, I always cleaned up their spelling and grammar. I wanted the class to read writing that had “voice,” interesting ideas, and good details. I was not trying to embarrass anyone by making an example out of them.)

When you edit your personal profile as the administrator on each student blog, you can list the two central blogs as ones that the student can access directly from his individual blog. So, the student only has to log on to his own blog.

Finally, all of the blogs can be set as “private,” so that no one using the Google blog search feature can find them.

It might be time-consuming to set up the first time, but it would be easy to administrate. Also, I think that the students would like them. Teenagers can be a moody group, but when I returned their journals every Monday, after reading them on the weekends, they all looked to see what comments I had written. And, when I passed out excerpts from the class journals, everyone read them and kept them. (The school newspaper didn’t fare as well. Most copies were tossed into the wastepaper basket.)

Posted by: emmarose on June 6, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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