Shocking undergraduate writing

If I tell you that the writing of today’s college undergraduates is depressingly shoddy and incompetent, I tell you nothing more than I could have said when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Syracuse in the 1970s.* And if I were even older and creakier than I am now, I could probably have told you the same thing about student writing of the 1950s and 1960s.

But the deficiencies are less in the writing, bad as it is, than in the thinking. I’ll get to that after removing some underbrush.

The first thing you will want to clear from your mind is the belief that things are worse now than they have ever been. That doubtful judgment is subjective rather than rigorously demonstrated, and generations of lamentations by English teachers give the lie to it.

The next thing to get rid of is excessive concern about mechanics. True, most undergraduates appear to approach commas in the same way that the waiter offers to grind some fresh pepper on your pasta, sprinkling them promiscuously over the page. And the inability to get plurals and possessives of proper names appears to be universal. But mechanics can be taught—well—mechanically.**

Students could probably also be trained to do a little better in paragraphing than putting heterogeneous sentences in the same paragraph, or spreading several sentences one the same topic over as many paragraphs. Or taught a little about subordination so that they could put secondary information in subordinate clauses instead of stringing together a series of simple sentences.

It is more difficult to get at awkwardness, such as the hackneyed opening sentence that some phenomenon is not “something that you see every day,” which I found cropping up regularly in a batch of undergraduate articles that I recently edited.

Moreover, like the writers of Saturday Night Live, students appear at a loss to bring the work to a satisfactory end. They frequently resort to a concluding sentence of editorializing conclusion or prediction which they have no personal authority to make and for which there is no warrant in the preceding text. “X’s determination to become the first human to build a perpetual-motion machine will surely bring him success,” &c., &c.

A major failure in thinking proclaims itself in the throat-clearing the often begins a student paper, as if the topic cannot be broached without a preliminary discharge of marginally relevant remarks. (The pattern will be familiar to those of you who have received a letter that remarks on your excellent qualifications and impressive experience before informing you that you did not get the job.)

Such throat-clearing is symptomatic of a failure to identify focus, and the failure to establish and stick to a focus is primarily a failure of thinking. If the writer has not identified the single main thing the article is about, and clued the reader to that early on, there is a good chance that the reader will never fathom what the point was supposed to be.

That failure of thought leads to others, particularly in organization. Failure to focus yields the newspaper article that is a notebook dump by the reporter, or the memo that takes you from Troy to Schenectady by way of Chattanooga.

Thinking of a particular kind, analytical thinking, is required for effective prose in these categories:

Focus, as previously mentioned, requires identifying what the main point is, what subordinate elements are included in it, and what material is extraneous to it and can be safely omitted.

Organization of the facts and supporting information to be marshaled in subtopics that proceed from one to another in an orderly and recognizable manner comes next. (Make an outline of your text after you have written a draft. Does it make sense? Can you reorder it more effectively?)

The audience must be identified and considered: what its concerns and interests are likely to be, what background information can be taken for granted and what should be furnished.

The rhetorical strategy that will most effectively make the point to the reader must be identified and followed throughout the text. This will determine the tone as well as the rhetorical figures to be employed.

What I see in the students with whom I am examining the elements of editing is that while they have had some training in expression, they do not appear to have had much in argument or analytical thinking. I can drill them on mechanics, and after a semester they will understand that some people care about distinctions between lie and lay, even if they are mystified by such concerns. But training them to look analytically at texts is hard work for them, because they haven’t been asked to do much of it.

And their own writing shows that.


*During the year I taught freshman composition, the English department inflicted Sheridan Baker’s Practical Stylist on the students. Its deadening formula was fatal to any originality of thought or expression, and the topics the teaching assigned students were almost as stifling as those on which the young John Milton was assigned to write prolusions—“Whether Day or Night Is the More Excellent.”

**It’s not, mind you, that I am unwilling to teach college juniors and seniors elements of grammar and usage that I learned in the seventh and eighth grades, but we would have time to talk about the more intricate delights of editing if the baseline were a little higher.



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