The “Student Writing Problem”

“Something is wrong with student writing.” Composition teachers encounter this phrase often. Sitting in our graduate office last semester, which the English department shares with History, I overheard a history student talking with his TA about a paper. The student said he had written in a certain way because that’s how he’d learned it in writing class. To that, the TA responded, “They don’t even know how to write.” Apart from the minor cold war this caused between the sides of the room for the rest of the term, it made me think. Apparently, there is something wrong with writing instructors too.

I’m not alone in this thought. Mina Shaughnessy agrees that something needs to be done about composition instruction. In her sarcastic essay “Diving In” (1976), she presents four Piaget-like developmental stages for writing teachers. Shaughnessy does two things with this essay. She forces teachers to examine their own habits and see how dangerously out of touch they are with students. The essay also implicitly blames academic selfishness for the student writing problem. Her staged imply that composition teachers are trapped in the nineteenth century, still looking for essays written by students who grew up learning with Homer and Cicero. Any issues with student writing are there because instructors fail to see the complexity of basic writing tasks performed in class and because teachers underestimate students’ value as thinking human beings.

But it is too much of a simplification to lay the blame solely on instructors. Accordingly, the researchers working in composition studies answered Shaughnessy. Critics like Andrea Lunsford (1979), Linda Flowers, and John Hayes (1981) point to brain development as an answer. Because students’ cognitive abilities are not yet fully developed, they cannot easily perform the tasks that academic writing requires. Lunsford in particular believes that “basic writers” have trouble forming abstractions. Students are “able to formulate spontaneous concepts, but not able to remove themselves from such concepts” (300). As students mature, she writes, they develop a less egocentric view, continuing the process of “de-centering” throughout their lives (301).

The cognitive model is as simplification as well, and it smacks of the scientific fetishism that Mike Rose writes about in “The Language of Exclusion” (1985). Schools and universities, he says, are notoriously fond of efficiency, and it if far easier to account for composition when it is reduced to statistics in spreadsheets and explained with medical rationales. And composition students are complicit in this trend because it is easier to win money from budget committees with statistics than it is with testimonials. Like the students who Lunsford says fall back on their familiar modes of discourse, it seems universities also fall back on their own favorite mode: statistics.

So if the blame can neither be placed wholly on students nor entirely on instructors, where does it belong? Further, is the “problem” of student literacy a chimera (the “myth of transience” as Rose dubs it (562)) or is it really solvable?

First of all, blame is a political word, a retrospective word. Blame demands accountability for a past or extant problem. So long as instructors and theorists of composition seek to lay blame for the student writing problem, we will never move closer to a solution (if one exists). Moreover, blame is a chameleon. It often hides in research under the names reason and cause. In Flower and Hayes, the reason for poor writing is a lack of cognitive development. In Shaughnessy, the cause of poor writing is inflexible pedagogy. What these writers want to show is that someone or something is responsible for the problem, and there is something positive to be said for that approach. Blame allows us to put a name or face on a problem. Once it’s identified, it can be dealt with.

In composition, though, despite all the blame that has been laid, we are no nearer to understanding just what is wrong with student writing, the face of the problem. Instructors could name specific errors, such as tense shifts or pronoun confusion, or vague errors, like a lack of commitment or poor idea development; yet no matter how the problem is described, it cannot be stated completely.

So what is to be done? I don’t suppose to answer that in two pages, but the essays I’ve referred to here offer some solid advice. To begin, we must follow Rose’s advice and do away with terms like remediation and any other medical metaphors that imply something is curably wrong with student writing. As long as instructors think something is wrong, they will search for a solution—and there just isn’t one to find. Instructors also need to follow the spirit of Shaughnessy’s paper and be aware of their students as thinking human beings. All of them have something valuable to communicate in writing, and they must be given the chance to do that without feeling like they are unwelcome invaders who have scaled the ivory walls of Fortress Academia. Finally, we must follow Lunsford’s advice. Students need to learn by doing, and composition courses should center on student writing. When students take the initiative and see themselves as functional writers, there will be more room for fair dialogue between composition students and about improving student writing. All the theorizing in the world means little when it comes to students putting pen to paper or fingers to keys and actually practicing composition.

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