students can’t write and other slow news days

Making the Facebook rounds of late is this article that makes the titular observation that “Poor Writing Skills Are Costing Businesses’ Billions.” Huh. Maybe so. The article, posted a week ago, cites three reports on this situation… from 2004, 2006, and 2011.

Maybe the situation hasn’t improved. Probably not. I doubt anything systematic has been done to address the issue, despite these and many other reports. Besides, “______ can’t write” is a timeless classic. It hardly requires evidence.

Here’s the number from this report that I love. Businesses are spending $3.1B annually to instruct employees in writing. That’s a number from the 2004 report. So I’m not sure what that means, except  you could easily teach a writing course to every college student (~20M people) in America for that money. But here’s really the one thing you’d want to say about this:



Meanwhile, a 2015 Ithaka SR study indicates that 54% of faculty believe students have “poor skills related to locating and evaluating scholarly information.” The same study though indicates that “Approximately two-thirds of faculty members strongly agreed that improving their undergraduate students’ ‘research skills related to locating and evaluating scholarly information’ is an important educational goal for the courses they teach.” So what do we make of that? 2/3 of us (more in the humanities) say teaching these skills are important, but most of us still believe our students are poor at them.

This is a familiar refrain about writing as well, as I’m sure  you know. Yes, we say, it is important that students learn to communicate. Yes, we say (especially in the humanities), teaching students to communicate is an important part of what we do in our classes. No, we say, our students are not good writers/communicators.

Meanwhile, in the corporate world, one spends over $3B trying to help college grads write better… I wonder how that’s working out?

Perhaps one might believe all this leads up to that traditional belief that writing can’t be taught. What does that mean? Obviously people do learn to write. I mean I’m not able to do this because I picked up a magic frog when I was 5. So are we suggesting that writing is the one thing that people cannot learn in a systematic socialized way? Sure we can’t all learn to write like “fill in your favorite author.” Similarly we can learn to play soccer but probably not like Messi. And that might be limitations of intelligence or some in-born talent but it’s also about the shear amount of time we’re willing and able to devote to the task.

So what if we start with a different premise?

Students, college grads, and corporate workers all are able to write and research well. They learn and adapt to the rhetorical-informational practices of the various communities and networks they encounter in reasonable and predictable ways, adopting these practices about as quickly and effectively as they take to other aspects of their community’s culture.

With this premise, we might come to a similar course of action but without finding fault in students. Our problem, I would (probably unsurprisingly) say, is that “we” view writing as an interiorized, rational skill that humans carry around in their brains. No doubt, part of writing happens there. If we viewed writing as a distributed, networked activity that is widely variable from one site to another then we would understand the challenge of helping students and workers link into this new activity differently.

So this kind of stuff drive me a little nuts.

  • Students come to college having never done college research. Imagine that. As it turns out, it takes a couple years to learn how to do that, even at the level we expect of undergraduates. In part because there’s almost no “academic” research that is written for undergraduate audiences, so it takes years to acquire the context to understand the scholarship. I wonder what it would be like if we wrote some research with them in mind? Not just instructional textbooks, but actual research we are doing communicated to an undergraduate audience for the purpose of helping them adjust to this new rhetorical practice.
  • Students also enter your major having never written for your discipline before. Shocking. I wonder what rhetorical roles we offer new undergraduate writers in our discourse communities? What rhetorical work can they do? What purposes can they accomplish? Maybe if there was something that students could write that served a purpose other than demonstrating that they don’t know how to write or do research then maybe we would discover some other attributes about their writing ability.
  • What structures exist to assist students in connecting to the rhetorical-compositional structures of an academic community (or later, workers in a corporate one)? I know we say we teach these things and spend billions on them, but given our misunderstandings of how these things work, I am skeptical of the effectiveness of these efforts.

Of course the other way of looking at this is to say that on the whole, college students manage to graduate, get jobs, and keep them (or at least not lose them because they are poor writers). People figure out what they need to figure out. We can undoubtedly help more students be more successful with a better-informed approach to this pedagogical task, but none of that is likely to change the views of professors and corporate officers about their students and employees.

  • Skydaemon

    In regards to accessing scholarly research. This is partly a question of onus.

    If you view poor research skills as an individual responsibility, then obviously students are to blame, even if they’re new at it. The assumption pretty much dictates the conclusion.

    However, there is the question raised by sheer numbers. If millions of students who are supposedly the brightest of their lot nearly all fail to do something well, maybe there’s a systemic reason at fault.

    As you mention, it could be that it’s written for another audience. Which I think is a surmountable problem for most students. The lack of context is a much larger issue, and one that, in the digital age, is much harder to excuse.

    I suppose I simply consider the idea and structure of a journal to be obsolete and archaic. Not to mention brick and mortar libraries. A lot of that sort of research is as much archeology as the discipline they’re actually trying to learn about.

    At some point, this stuff needs to be digital, and what starts to matter is improving the signal to noise ratio. There’s Google Scholar, which is definitely a step in the right direction. But beyond that, we should be at a point where research is written in a way that is intended to be accessed digitally.

    That could mean being search engine friendly. Or it could mean having some kind of link structure built into and through documents. It can also mean presenting the context you are working within, even if it’s merely a link to a concept.

    If you’re going to assume that all scholarly research is tied together in some contextual fabric, then it should be recognized that eventually that fabric grows to the point where no one can view it all merely by looking at all the details. At that point, the solution isn’t to spend a decade researching everything ever written about a topic before using any of it. The solution is to reorganize your tapestry so context can be attached without doing that.

    Why should research be organized randomly in flat journals or books. Why can’t all of it be organized in heirarchical trees where you can drill down from a higher context to where you need to go. In such a system, perhaps a single book isn’t necessarily in a single position in the heirarchy, or it could be broken up into sections.

    Such a system should be achievable, and it would alter future discussions and undergrad research immeasurably.

    I should point out there’s 2 ways to build such a system. The first is to go through everything ever written and reorganize it. The second is to simply discard the less adaptable or useful works and start over. The latter may not be as big a deal as we imagine. Especially if nobody actually uses those parts of it anyway.

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