Teach writing every semester

Writing is the most important skill students learn — or fail to learn — in college, argues Henry Adams in the Chronicle of Higher Education

 Many students see themselves as customers buying four years of frolicking that will magically morph into a job, so here’s my suggestion for weaving career training into la dolce vita: Instead of having only one first-year course devoted to composition, every general-education curriculum should require students to take a writing class every semester to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Every semester.

Those courses shouldn’t be writing-to-discover-yourself experiences. They should be writing-to-demonstrate-the-other-person-is-wrong courses.

Students will balk, but for their sake, let’s apply the business model to higher education. Let’s tell students that if they learn how to think, analyze, and express, they will outperform all other employees in their workplace. While we’re at it, let’s tell them an inconvenient truth: They won’t go far in their careers unless they apply themselves, but this sequence of courses can prepare them to do that.

Adams adds, “We might also consider using course evaluations that ask students how much they learned, rather than whether they thought the class was fun.”

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON July 14, 2011

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Michael E. Lopez

You might as well just admit it:

Everyone should have to major in Philosophy.

Max Bean

I definitely like the idea of making writing instruction central to college education, but I disagree with some of the details of Mr. Adams’s plan.

First of all, every semester seems excessive. I love writing, took workshops whenever I could fit them into my schedule, and only got through six or seven in the course of eight semesters a college. The argument that students should take a writing class every semester overlooks the very important role that courses in other departments should (and often do not) play in teaching style and composition. Classes devoted exclusively to writing must be part of writing instruction, and I think students should be required to take three or four of them, but good writing begins with having something to say, so integrating writing instruction into other content-area classes makes sense. Quality of written work should be a focus and a percentage of the total grade in all but the most technical hard-science courses.

One of the advantages of this approach is that it will provide practice in a wider array of formats and contexts. Each discipline has its own conventions and uses for writing. Mr. Adams wants “writing-to-demonstrate-the-other-person-is-wrong courses,” but disproof is not the sole purpose of writing, in the workplace or elsewhere (and Mr. Adams’s suggestion risks encouraging the kind of invidiousness that is already too prevalent in our culture). Students should receive instruction in argumentative, informative, and expressive writing, and ideally in narrative and descriptive writing as well. Narrative and description can powerfully support argumentation and exposition, and a personal, expressive interlude or conclusion can provide an effective accent in an otherwise dry persuasive essay. The different purposes for which we use writing are not isolated from one another but are constantly intermixed, and if we teach only argumentation, we are liable to get dull, colorless and ultimately unconvincing writing—just as, if we teach only self-expression, we are liable to get mush.

Max Bean

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