Why We Can’t Farm Out the Teaching of Writing

An assistant professor recently wrote to me with an interesting request: “I would like you to suggest a software package or other applications that could more critically assess formal writing than the grammar kernel in Microsoft Office. I am disappointed in my students’ writing yet don’t really have the time to fully evaluate writing assignments.”

Well, then.

I found the question to be strange, and his tone more than a little demanding, but I did a bit of checking. Microsoft’s spell checker is a great tool against typos, but, as we all know, it often makes nonsense out of students’ prose by suggesting correct spellings of completely different and inappropriate words, which they accept without thinking. Its grammar function drives me nuts, but I suppose for some it can provide a prompt to look more closely at sentences.

When I tried Apple’s Pages, I was delighted to find that the program points out clichés and wordy phrases. It also reflects the aesthetic of its developers. When I start a sentence with “but” it tells me that phrasing is informal, and that “it is preferable to avoid beginning a sentence with ‘But.'” It says the same thing about “And.” If you use words like “conceptualizing,” it complains about complexity and suggests using a simpler term like “thinking.” I can imagine whole academic papers underlined with little green Mac dots.

There are probably programs that do exactly what my correspondent wanted but his message raised an underlying question: Isn’t it a faculty member’s responsibility to critically assess students’ writing? Sure, some kind of program might be useful in pointing out tics and bad habits, but the very quest for such a thing is symptomatic of a larger problem.

At a party last summer I met a political scientist who told me that he never comments on his students’ writing; it’s simply not part of his grading process. He assesses their ideas, he says, not the prose.

I asked how he could separate the ideas from their expression. We volleyed this around for a while, and eventually he said that he didn’t feel that he had the expertise to comment on their writing. He wouldn’t know, he said, what good writing looked like. I asked if he thought he was a good writer, and he said yes—because he’s been published.

This guy has an Ivy League pedigree and teaches at a good liberal-arts college. He seemed smart and reflective, and it was clear that he had thought hard about his responsibilities as a teacher, but he had concluded they didn’t include instruction in writing. I encounter that attitude quite a bit in academe. I think it’s wrong.  <Read more.>

Via Rachel Toor, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Do Your Job Better.


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