This summer, the university where I teach has seen fit to form a Task Force (caps both necessary and utterly not) on the teaching of writing. Some professors “up the chain” in other departments feel dissatisfied with the quality of writing they get from students who have completed at least one semester of the required first-year writing courses. I couldn’t agree more with their dissatisfaction, yet I couldn’t agree less with their methods of trying to remedy it. The way this has come to pass feels more like shit rolling downhill than any authentic attempt at improvement, an Internal Affairs inquiry when what we need is actual professional collaboration.
The formation of the Task Force represents how much the university cares about writing across the curriculum and in all fields, ostensibly. So let’s take a look at the evidence of that care and reflection, shall we?
The university cares so much about teaching writing that it pays adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty pennies on the tuition dollar to do just that.
The university cares so much about teaching writing that our Writing Center is staffed by 2 faculty members tutoring 24 hours per week in a space the size of a supply closet. Full disclosure–I am one of them.
The university cares so much about teaching writing that the attempt to add “W” or writing tags to courses within the current general ed curriculum failed miserably, even after diluting the amount and type of writing professors in other departments had to read and grade in order to get that tag, to the extent that it became essentially meaningless.
The university cares so much about teaching writing that it will take to task those lazy writing professors with their 4/4 loads and their utter lack of professional status and make sure that they do what is necessary to ensure that no writing instruction will have to occur “up the chain.” Good luck with that!
The university cares so much about teaching writing that it will never even offer a pretense of a professional career path to the people who do it.
This Task Force means to evaluate what is going on in first-year writing classrooms–fine by me, as I do teach my students to write, with as much rigor and thoroughness as I can muster in the space of about 15 weeks. Also fine by me if they should decide to think about how they treat the faculty who teach these courses, many of them adjuncts teaching 4/4 or even 5/5 loads with no benefits, and a smaller but significant number on full-time year-to-year contracts.
And I will agree with one of their observations: the students do not write well. They arrive underprepared, overwhelmed, and primed for plagiarism. They have not assimilated writing knowledge in the same ways that we, the middle-aged and above, remember doing as students ourselves. However, I find that they want to learn. They want to write better, sound smarter, and present themselves well. They want to understand formal English grammar, but they feel like it’s a trap to keep them from scoring well, rather than a means to clear communication. I am terribly sorry about the bad essays and reports that other people have to read. I empathize. Good, professional teachers can meet them where they are and move them forward, but the work absolutely cannot stop there. So, “up your chain,” is what I’m saying.
The Task Force has, at least, five writing faculty representatives on the roster. This brings me some hope. But hope in academia, as we all know, is a dangerous thing to harbor.