Dismal student writing

Sometimes I read a passage, and I’m not sure whether I should laugh or sink into the depths of despair. Yesterday, I started reading The Elements of Teaching Writing, and I’m already comfortable enough in my nerdiness to say that it’s actually a somewhat enjoyable read. There are quite a few good tips packed into this little book, so here’s a shout out to Bedford/St. Martins for making professional resources free to English teachers.

The intro of the book asks the questions “What is wrong with student writing? (and who is responsible?),” which basically means that the book picks up the conversation about writing where hundreds of water cooler conversations in hundreds of faculty lounges have left off. But  the passage that caught my attention was the one where a Harvard professor said of the failing exams of freshmen that they “were deformed by grossly ungrammatical or profoundly obscure sentences, and some by absolute illiteracy.” And, apparently, the exams he was discussing were fairly numerous since half of the freshmen in the Harvard class of 1874 failed their first writing assessment. The professor continued on to say, “The candidate, instead of considering what he had to say and arranging his thoughts before beginning to write, either wrote without thinking about the matter at all, or thought to no purpose. Instead of aiming at good work, and to that end subjecting his composition to careful revision, he either did not undertake to revise at all, or did not know how to correct his errors.”

I wonder if they used the same types of water coolers at Harvard in 1874 because the conversation hasn’t changed much.

So, now, I don’t know whether to cry or laugh. Part of me wants to chuckle. Is student writing sometimes painful to read? I’m not going to lie. Yes, it is. (Though I think the book goes on to make a solid observation that some of this poor writing is done by students backed into a corner by poorly designed assignments.) But, now, when I’m at the water cooler and everyone wants to blame me for all of the poor writing in the world, I can take comfort in the fact that in over 130 years, no one has found the remedy for the problem. I certainly don’t need to feel bad that I haven’t found it.

Side note: I don’t actually feel bad very often that I haven’t found the remedy. If I got personally bent out of shape every time I got blamed for all the bad writing in the world, I would have become a twisted shell of humanity two years into my career.

On the other hand, I want to cry. After all, it’s been 130 years, and no one has found the remedy. This knowledge could lead me to question why on earth I go to work every day? But, fortunately, I think I can make at least some difference, and I think I can teach my students some writing plus some awareness about life, so I’m not planning on calling in sick tomorrow.