Monday, April 30, 2007

Day of Despair

Recently, my department had a meeting during which we discussed assessment, specifically, the porfolio type assessment, and more specifically, we talked about student writing. The assessment report, iffy in some ways, may show that (on average) students improve their writing skills at the university, but not as much as we'd like. Shocking, startling, I know, because unless they come out writing brilliantly, all of them, we'd like them to write better.

I could say the same for my own writing, which has improved dramatically over the years, thanks to help from my friends.

We discussed the information. We asserted, as we do all the time, that writing isn't the purview of the English department, nor something that can really be mastered at the university level in one writing class. Instead, as everyone knows, students should work on writing in many classes, and have feedback about their writing, guidance, and instruction. If you've been in any English department in the land, or any liberal artsy sort of place, you've heard the same sorts of discussions.

But, of course, we argue that faculty in other departments don't work on writing enough. And we argue that we might not be perfect, either.

By way of demonstrating this, one of my colleagues said that he asked a senior level class what sorts of writing instruction they'd had (other than in the first year college writing course). And all of them said they hadn't had any. None. Zip.

Today, one of my classes is doing peer editing work on a major project. So we brainstormed first about the requirements of the project. During this section, I asked them if we'd talked about paragraph organization yet. They all said, nope, never heard of it. So I started talking about Christensen and paragraph organization.

And about five minutes in, one of them said, "we did this already."

And indeed, they started digging through their notes, and we had talked about paragraph organization. They can't remember from what we did in preparation for the first paper. (Okay, I didn't remember, either, but I work paragraph organization into paper writing at some point in almost every course at some point in the semester. I only make it REALLY formal in my first year writing class; other than that, I talk about it when we're working on a paper. And this time, I wanted to make sure I'd talked about it even now, rather than never.)

I told them about the meeting, and about my colleague, and I asked them what they'd tell him if he asked them about writing instruction.

And you know, if they're asked in two or three years about what writing instruction they've had since first year composition, they're going to give that big blank look and ask, writing instruction? Not us. Nope, not a bit. Never heard of it. No one has ever talked about writing, thesis statements, paragraph or essay organization, citation, nope, not a bit.

I despair.

ps. I'm trying to figure out how to upload from flickr so that I can show off my work on a poem. But I keep getting the red X of nothingness. Any suggestions?


  1. I'm with you. And don't you love it when someone from another department complains that "the English department never teaches _____" (fill in the blank: citation, spelling, semicolon use, thesis statements, or Professor Poophead's Pet Peeve).

  2. I wish I had advice on the Flickr debacle, but I don't; I can only say that I'm curious to see the poem when the technology finally works!

  3. Re: Flickr.

    You probably have your images set to "private" rather than "public," which will affect what they do when you try to link to them here.

  4. A class I was in last year acted like the Prof was the worst person on earth because he said "No three part cookie cutter essays."

  5. One of the problems we face is that, while English classes are generally small, those other classes that are supposed to at least assist in writing instruction, are pretty large. For example, at my CC -- my Ethics and Intro to Philosophy sections are 50 students each while English sections requiring writing aren't nearly that large. So -- in order to instruct writing, I'm supposed to do multiple drafts with up to 250 students per semester?? It just isn't going to happen... Sure, I still assign papers and evaluate them in terms of both content and form, but really instructing them on writing is impossible.

    It seems as if the best thing every English department can do is to lend their expertise at writing to helping willing departments convert some of their courses to writing intensive courses and their pretty considerable political capital to supporting course revisions that include smaller class sizes for writing intensive courses.

  6. bev, Indeed.

    Jane Dark and Teri, I think I figured it out! My Flickr account is still sort of on hold so that someone from Flickr can check it or something. Teri's suggestion to look at the privacy setting got me to look and I accidently saw the on hold message. Thanks Teri!

    History Geek, I'm sure my students sometimes say worse. Alas.

    Inside, You are absolutely correct both about class size and about English faculty working with other folks across the campus. Smaller class sizes and working on teaching other faculty to use the writing process well is key. I can't help with the first at your school, but I may be able to help for doing writing process work, if you want to talk via email or such.