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Monday, June 04, 2007

College writing

Kevin Drum has a post today on the perennial complaint about the decline in student writing. He wonders if the complaint has any validity:
Is this true? Or just a case of old-fartism? I realize this isn't exactly a scientific survey or anything, but I'm curious to know what teachers at various levels think of this. I know plenty of them read the blog, so comment away. Is writing really a lost art?
I agree with commenter #2, one "ACS":
Selection bias. University professors always use themselves as the archetypal "college student" to whom other college students are compared. This fails to take into account the fact that college students who go on to become college professors are, by definition, exceptional. Thus: college professors perpetually complaining about the incompetence of their students.
Anyway, since we apparently have nothing new to say here these days, I thought I'd remind you (or direct newer readers) to one of our threads on this topic, which begins here (especially in the comment section), and then becomes kind of glorious when it prompts Truewit to post a bit of his first undergraduate Shakespeare essay. Simplicius followed suit, and so did I. I won't mention what the papers were about, because last time we posted it we got a million hits from college students searching for papers to plagiarize on those topics. But I just reread Truewit's post and laughed out loud, so apologies to those who've already heard this one, but I had to recycle it.

It's not impossible that college-level writing has gotten worse, of course, I just don't see any evidence of it. One commenter responds to ACS with:
That can't be right. Professors use their past students as a comparison when they claim that kids can't write, nowadays. There may still be selection bias, but not of the type you are proposing.
Maybe it's a combination of nostalgic rose-tinted glasses (for viewing former students) and the selection bias ACS reports, together with the selection bias that the memorable students are the good ones. But actually, I think most professors are in fact using themselves and their college friends as the comparison, not former students. Who can really remember students' papers from 10 years ago? Maybe the few great students you can recall, but I can barely remember my students from last semester, let alone last decade. But you can remember your own--or at least, as we show in our posts, you are more likely to believe you can remember your own.

  • At 6/05/2007 09:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    for what it's worth, i think student paper titles are getting better. (the trifecta? a title page, in 30 pt font, preferably with exclamation points!!!) but the cynic in me is wondering about those million hits you guys got. I caught three instances of plagiarism for one assignment this year. Frustrated, I gave this big passive-aggressive speech about how, if they turned themselves in, i wouldn't go after their "permanent record." (yes, i used that phrase and yes i felt like the guidance counselor in that keanu reeves film). here's the thing: FOURTEEN students out of thirty did a "drive-by" of my office, just to sort of put out a feeler to see if i had anything on them. so, yeah, i've come to expect a certain je ne sais quoi in student writing. if anything wildly exceeds that mark, i start doing google searches.


  • At 6/05/2007 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I'm now tempted to assign papers on Falstaff, Dayton's Sonnet 61, and Marnie, just to see if any recognizable portions of our papers turn up.

    Would that be considered entrapment?


  • At 6/05/2007 10:49:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Oh, and the comments on Drum's post are a wonderful collection of (erroneous) conventional wisdom.

    But I did like the one comment that pointed out that professors become more skilled at grading--or, less optimistically, come to grade differently--over the years, which creates the illusion that student writing has changed rather than their own grading practices. I think there must be something to this.

    In general, though, absent any substantive empirical evidence, I remain unconvinced that the quality of student writing has declined, or improved for that matter. I'd love to read a bunch of student essays from last century just to see how different they are. [I realize this makes me crazy.]


  • At 6/05/2007 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    The great mock-essay on Egypt at the beginning of Catcher in the Rye shows that Salinger, at least, felt much the same about writing in 1951 as people making this complaint do now. As I recall, that was prep school, not college, but...


  • At 6/05/2007 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    As a graduate TA, bored and poking around our ancient-TA-office-shared-by-20-people, I had the good fortune of stumbling on a filing cabinent of student essays from the 60s. It quickly unconditioned my reflex to grumble that college students today are worse writers than at some point in the past when they actually taught grammar, or Latin, or Greek, or birched children for failing to memorize speeches about Jupiter's filthy lusts.


  • At 6/05/2007 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Pseudo-Pedantius: if only there were a way for you to post a few paragraphs from them. I assume you don't still have access to them, but if you do....


  • At 6/05/2007 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I think I'm already on record as saying that I have a hard time believing that undergraduate writing has declined markedly over the years. I think it's quite possible that student essays from, say, 70 years ago, might have had some superficial differences that would impress a casual reader as making them "better"--greater familiarity with certain texts ("cultural capital," I believe the preferred term is), and maybe fewer errors on the level of the sentence or a slightly more sophisticated vocabulary--but first of all, we're talking about a different student population than the one we see now. And second, I have zero expectation that the actual quality of analysis and argumentation would be any better.

    I mean, students have been writing essays in the 45 minutes before class for centuries.


  • At 6/05/2007 11:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Alas, Simplicius, they are in a different state. I have on more than one occasion regretted not pilfering a stack.


  • At 6/06/2007 05:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…


    Dear Simplicius et al (and any of your readers for that matter...)

    Would any of you be interested in hosting an early modern edition of Carnivalesque sometime between 16 and 24 June? Pseudonymous bloggers are welcome.

    Find out more (if you don't already know what it's all about) at http://carnivalesque.blogsome.com

    And email me: sharon@earlymodernweb.org.uk

    I will be pathetically grateful.


  • At 6/11/2007 06:06:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    By the bye, I've been reading a book about high schools written in the 1980s. In it are the exact same complaints by teachers that we read nowadays: students were so much better twenty years ago, etc. (why is it always twenty years? I'd love for someone to talk about how students were good 41.3 years ago, but it's been all downhill since then).

    Anyway, reading this book has given me another theory about this perennial (and perennially annoying) complaint: teachers get old. I still "get" students now; since I'm still kind of young (or so I tell myself), students aren't mysterious to me and I generally like them. But I imagine there comes a day for many teachers when they look out across a sea of student faces and wonder who those freaks are staring back at them. And at that point they wail and gnash their teeth and carry on about how students just aren't what they used to be, whereas in fact, they are the one who have changed, and indeed declined.

    Speaking of wailing and gnashing of teeth, I'm toying with an idea for a post that will discuss, and elicit, said wailing and gnashing.


  • At 12/18/2009 09:00:00 AM, Blogger Unknown wrote…

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