College Students Writing: Two Perspectives

As a homeschooling mom and as a college teacher, I was interested to see A Constrained Vision’s post “Joe College and Writing.”

One thing that came up is the idea that English classes teach literature rather than writing.

I have found that to be true, at least partially. It is one of the reasons my sons, in our homeschool, had multiple “English” classes. We separated out grammar, vocabulary/spelling, literature and writing. Because they know the grammar and have a vocabulary beyond the 12th grade books, we no longer have formal grammar and vocabulary classes. But my eldest, who is in college taking a writing class, will still have a literature class at home this year.

I have been teaching at a community college for four or more years. (I don’t remember anymore!) This summer, however, I have had more students get As than in any class in years. My Brit Lit class was all students who had passed freshman composition and so should have been able to write. And they could! (It was so refreshing.)

In freshman comp this summer I started with 23 students and ended with 14. That’s a bit better than average for my classes. And I had a bunch of As. (Yeah!)

I also had two Ds. (But no Fs.)

One D was because a student didn’t turn in 15% of the work. She forgot. (Really. She had it. I’d even pregraded it for her so she could fix errors. But she didn’t turn it in.)

The other student received a D because she has trouble forming correct English sentences. She knows the material, but her grammar is defiantly problematic. I expected her to fail, actually. But she did all the work, all the re-writes, all the extra credit. And she made a D.

Of those who finished the class, two students, including one who made a C, had strong grammar problems. The student with a C had trouble with subject-verb agreement (the men is) and apparently did not know that the past tense exists in English. This lack of grammar education is a problem. By the time a student is in a college freshman level course there is no more time for grammar remediation within the classroom setting.

I try to do a bit of personal remediation. I give everyone some help by marking their first three papers and allowing them to re-write. That way students who are on the ball will not continue to make the same mistakes– or at least they will recognize them for mistakes when they are pointed out. If we were writing those papers by hand, it would be more worthwhile for the students. Then they would have to write the sentence correctly to start with. But…

Hmm. Maybe I could require them to handwrite all the sentences with grammatical errors after they have corrected them. That would enforce the correct usage. I like it.

Anyway, my emphasis in English is always writing. My PhD is in English with a major in “Rhetoric and Composition.” I like to read, but I don’t love literature. At least, not all literature.

I do love Old and Middle English stuff. That’s why I liked the Brit Lit class so much. But even in that class, three weeks long, the students had four papers to write. Each paper was two or three pages long, typewritten, which isn’t too long, but it did require them to organize their thoughts. And two of the exams were essay exams. So they had a lot of writing.

In my “writing about literature” course, second semester of freshman composition, I require four papers. One is two pages, about poetry. Two are three to four pages, about short stories and plays. And one is a four to six page research paper with eight sources.

What about freshman comp itself? I usually have seven papers with four rewrites, for a total of eleven papers. This summer we had five papers required, with one optional one, and three required rewrites, again with an optional addition. However, I also required about twenty pages of additional writing on the readings we were covering in class. And we had a final exam, which was essays, with a practice exam (also essays). So my summer class did about as much writing as a regular class, but I spread it around in more bite-size pieces.

I’m going to continue the bite-sized pieces thing. I think it helped me get to know my students’ writing abilities more and they had to write more often.

Do I think that students are less able to write now than, say, twenty years ago when I started teaching college? In a way, yes. In a way, no. I think twenty years ago people still read more and, therefore, their writing was richer than most students’ writing now. But there were still people then who needed remediation and who, even after getting it, still had trouble writing coherent English sentences and paragraphs. I would say that there is not a lot of difference in their ability to write grammatically, but there is some discernible difference in the quality of their presentation of ideas.

I’m going to keep teaching literature to my sons and add more writing to their life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge