I was recently at a gathering of teachers and researchers interested in the state of student writing at universities. We shared the usual concerns about the writing abilities of students, namely, that, on the whole, they are not writing well enough and not improving quickly enough. We shared our experiences of teaching the craft of writing to students and were largely in agreement about what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. There’s always a difference in emphasis, of course, and everyone has their own rhetoric for getting through to the students, but the maintenance of scholarly writing has a long a tradition and most of the machinery is well understood. We are sometimes worried about its state of disrepair, but we’re confident in our abilities to fix things if we were given a chance.

It’s therefore also natural, when a group of writing instructors gets together, that talk will turn to how to persuade administrators and policymakers to devote more resources to teaching writing at university. We need more teaching hours, we say, and, especially, more time to give feedback. We argue for the need for more teaching materials and, these days, also for funding for research into rhetoric and composition. There is a sense that the problem, in so far as it exists, has been caused by a lack of resources and that it can be fixed by allocating some money in the right direction.

I’m sure there is some benefit to be derived from channeling more resources into writing instruction, hiring more teachers into the field, and supporting their development through research (more PhD’s, for example). But I think the bulk of the problem can be solved by different means. And at the gathering I mentioned I felt like a bit of a lone voice (perhaps even a lone wolf) when arguing for it. I’m going to see how it looks here in blog form. Comments are welcome.

One of the presenters was, quite effectively, using Anders Ericcson’s work on “deliberate practice” to inform his pedagogy. One of the things he suggested was that “healthy competition” among the students can be a good way of getting their attention and getting them to practice. So I raised a favorite theme of mine: maybe we should go back to grading on a curve. This was taken largely as hyperbole, even a bit of a joke. What he had intended was a sort of competitive “spirit”, not an actual competition for a predetermined amount of “prizes”, i.e., As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.

One of the reasons I’m not joking when I say this, however, is precisely that we need a way of making good writing “count”. This would make the effort of becoming the best writer you can be worthwhile. (Anyone should be able to improve their grade simply by becoming a significantly better writer.) And this is why I, and some of my colleagues, have been arguing that if there is a crisis of student writing it needs to be fixed, in large part, in the way assignments are designed and graded, not primarily in what we are teaching the students about good writing.

The assumption of the teaching-centered approach is that the students are doing the best they can. The truth, more likely, is that they are doing all that is expected of them. What we have to do is raise our expectations of their written work. And the simplest way to do that, without suddenly failing a bunch of students that would otherwise have passed, is to distribute the grades in a “normal” way, letting a clear and effective presentation of ideas outperform a muddled and tortured one. That is, let good writing give students an advantage in the competition for scarce grades and we’ll see students become better writers in order to win it, i.e., to meet our expectations.

Under this suggestion of mine there’s a deeper point about what is missing in universities today. While I’m all for more resources on the teaching side (and I can promise I would use them to maximum effect), I think the most important resource is not one we need more of but one that is available in abundance but is sadly underutilized: student time and effort. If they felt a real need to improve, specifically, their writing, they would devote the half hour a day that it would take to its deliberate practice.

I hope we can make this part of the conversation at least, before we simply fill up our teaching time going through the qualities of a good sentence and a coherent paragraph and the rules of referencing and giving endless amount of feedback to students who aren’t really paying attention. We should not think the students need more indoctrination into what to believe about their writing. They need instruction in what to do when they are writing. To sharpen this point even more: the students are not the writers they could be, not because we’re not telling them how to write, but because we’re not telling them to write.

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