Writing right

Why we need a mandatory foundational writing subject to rescue those students who can't.

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” These are the infamous words of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Many a student has received a marked assignment with stray exclamation marks, aggressively underlined one-word comments such as ‘Clarity!’, or worst of all a lone ‘?’, which often seems scrawled in a moment of desperation. Such comments are of little use to a student – they aren’t constructive and they seemed to be filled more with derision than a desire to help. Indeed, they can often leave a well-intentioned and diligent student swimming in a pool of their own tears. However, students should pay heed to a pet peeve of lecturers: the poor quality of students’ writing. Although students may know their content, their command of the English language often leaves much to be desired.

If students are sometimes eggheads, universities are often like Alice: although they generally give very good advice, they very seldom follow it. Lecturers have a tendency to deride the writing skills of their students and to question how such students gained admission to tertiary education. Of course, one could say that it is the responsibility of schools to ensure that students have a sound grasp of language, but then again, whatever the situation of the students being admitted to tertiary education, isn’t it a basic legitimate expectation that they be able to communicate properly upon graduation? Yet, universities fail to ensure that this expectation is fulfilled.

The real harm for students comes not in university … but rather when they apply for jobs and enter the workforce.

So here we are left as students: we’ve stepped through the looking glass into a world where everyone thinks they speak sense, but very few actually do. The universities dole out commands to students to improve their writing, but very seldom act to change the situation. They pay lip service to the ideals of good writing and have study support units whose sole purpose is to assist students. However, the reality is that their focus is more often on issues such as referencing and plagiarism rather than on basic grammar. Furthermore, even if lecturers advise students to avail of such services, it is not compulsory to use them, and so failure to improve their writing will not impede a student’s academic progress. The Mad Hatter said ‘People who don’t think shouldn’t talk’, but a worse situation arises when someone does think, but lacks the necessary skills to ‘talk’ in an academic setting.

The real harm for students comes not in university, when they can paint their grammatical roses red or white and no real harm will come to them so long as they pass their courses, but rather when they apply for jobs and enter the workforce. A human resources representative will take one look at a poorly written application littered with errors and yell ‘Off with their heads!’ – it gives ‘head-hunter’ a whole new meaning.

Many a lecturer would complain that if they were to mark their students on what they actually wrote, instead of trying to discern what they mean, failure rates would increase. Indeed, it is rare that one sees ‘expression’ or ‘quality of writing’ given any meaningful weighting in marking rubrics. Lecturers must empathise with Alice’s experience with The Jabberwocky, of which she said, ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t know exactly what they are!’   

And herein lies an essential part of the problem: in an environment where student recruitment and the need to ensure progression drive university policies (because these two factors are what universities rely on for income) a high failure rate is more likely to be blamed on some supposed shortcoming of the lecturer rather than the inability of students to write properly.  This has the effect of lecturers ignoring these faults in order to avoid censure –a systematic flaw, rather than one on the part of teaching staff.

The parallel issue to the above is that sometimes a student may have an inner grasp of content, but simply cannot express themselves adequately, leading to an inadvertent loss of marks. Think of Alice’s encounter with the Mad Hatter: his remarks ‘seemed to her to have no sort of meaning …. and yet it was certainly English.’ Who hasn’t received an assignment back with a comment from a lecturer correcting a statement, to which your response was ‘But that’s what I meant!’ There may be latent, correct content in what you’ve written, but we all occasionally fall victim to poor self-expression.

The best solution to this issue would be for universities to have a mandatory foundational subject in writing, which students are required to take irrespective of what discipline they are studying. Students who could write well would sail through, but the point is that such a course would rescue those who can’t. We should note, however, that such a course could still be helpful for students who, although good writers, could always improve: sometimes the siren call of Googling synonyms for an essay is too strong. The Eaglet in Alice in Wonderland once complained ‘I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’ We all sometimes write barbarous things in an attempt to ‘sound smart’ (and this is increasingly the case with the rise of management speak – ‘synergy’ anyone?), with the only result being obfuscating weasel words. A basic writing course could help us all be better writers, regardless of our initial capacity.

The disincentive to any university making such a subject a mandatory requirement is that it would take subject spaces from elsewhere in the degree and that it could lose students to competitors who do not impose such a requirement.  This is illustrative of the universities’ focus on earning income in the short term over enhancing the quality of graduates in the long.  But as a counter to this, one could argue that, a university which boasted of its students’ capacity to write well might actually obtain a market edge because it would gain a positive reputation for its graduates among employers. 

Students who could write well would sail through, but the point is that such a course would rescue those who can’t.

The idea of a mandatory core subject isn’t new. Bond University requires all students enrol in a common core curriculum in their first year, consisting of subjects in writing, cooperative work and ethics. If a private fee-paying university can still recruit students even though it imposes this mandatory requirement, why couldn’t the public ones? If lecturers, like Alice, are to spend their time thinking that it would be so nice if something made sense for a change, they should pressure universities to bring some order to a world where everyone seems mad.

At the end of the day, if universities don’t do this voluntarily, the Commonwealth might step in with a far less palatable solution of making funding contingent on students passing a NAPLAN-style test at the end of their first year to see if they have the necessary level of literacy to communicate what they are learning. Much as one does not like governmental coercion of the university sector, this might be one example where it could do some good.

The March Hare told Alice that she ‘should say what you mean’, to which Alice replied, ‘I do … at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’ Unfortunately, as the Hare points out, this is not always the case. All students mean what they think they’re saying, but not all achieve the simple fact of saying what they mean. It’s unfortunate that so many people can get to university and not have adequate writing skills, but in a world where it’s possible to find oneself falling down a literacy rabbit hole, it would be nice to think our universities will be there to help us read the labels on the very bottles that will help us grow into functioning graduates.

Elizabeth Harris is studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Honours) at the Australian National University.

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