Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Judging "Bad" Student Writers

Periodically I hear my colleagues bemoan the state of incoming freshmen student writers, how "bad" (or worse) the incoming students' skill sets are. This attitude frustrates me. This dismissive attitude towards incoming students shows a certain amount of arrogance and selective memory loss. Most of us were not brilliant writers when we got to college for the first time. I certainly wasn't. We got better with a lot of practice.

I can't believe it goes without saying that of course new students' writing isn't going to be as good as ours, as English or writing (or, generally speaking, language) teachers. We have at least one degree in English (or a closely related degree, such as rhetoric, or the language that the professional teachers), possibly even multiple advanced degrees in that field.

Perhaps many of us were stronger writers to begin with; at the very least, we may have had a stronger interest in writing and developing our talents. But even more importantly, at this stage in our lives, having completed at least one degree in English or writing, we have had the opportunity to write a lot more than the incoming freshmen have at this point in their lives - just beginning college. Our students are starting out; why this keeps getting forgotten or ignored is beyond me. We've been doing it longer. We have had more practice. Expecting our incoming students to have the same skill set as we do is unreasonable.

I'm also pretty sure that for those of us whose strengths and interests were in English, literature, and writing were quite weak in other areas. I had to take algebra a number of times at various colleges, and I'm sure that there are teachers at the college level who would complain that my skill set was not "basic."

I find the definition of "basic" to be extraordinarily subjective. I have no background in physics (I've never taken a class); I took chemistry twice, and I don't recall if I ever took a biology class, although I have taken both a cultural anthropology and a physical anthropology class. I never made it past geometry, and as mentioned earlier in this post, I've taken algebra multiple times, although I'm quite good at mental math and arithmetic. Does this mean I don't have basic math and science skills? How much should I know before I'm truly well-rounded and have a basic understanding of math and science? And who gets to decide what's considered basic, especially if now as an adult I have no reason to use them? One could argue that writing is a more "basic" skill because one is more likely to need writing in one's day to day activities, in one's job, than advanced trigonometry. Yet we have to start somewhere, and expecting students whose previous experience was lacking - or years in the past - to have "basic" knowledge defeats the purpose of continuing education.

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