Pride and presumption


Being an English major myself, I understand why people believe that writing is an essential skill for the field. The program is more full of essays and writing assignments than any other program. Students and professors alike take it for granted that students already have a basic knowledge of how to write upon entering a program. As a potential English major, it feels like you’re expected to be able to write a good paper and read 12 novels at the same time. (In the same way, of course, potential economics majors are expected to come in with a solid understanding of mathematics.)

It’s true that they assign the work. The English program regularly requires its students tackle 10-page essays and 400-page novels, which probably does inadvertently strengthen their writing. But from this practice, an assumption arises: “All English majors and specialists are good writers.”

But are English majors really taught to write any better than other programs? Is there a heavy focus on the intricacies of writing well in the English program?

“I believe only English classes with tutorials are taught to write well,” said Carrilee Bryan, a double major in English and history. Bryan nevertheless believes that all English majors write well, “but only because this is their field of study and through practice there’s a tendency to write better than those out[side] the field.” That is, English majors and specialists write well only because the essay-intensive curriculum has them writing nearly all the time.

So these assumptions are floating around, and they do carry some weight—at least among students. English professor Cary DiPietro says the departments set fairly uniform standards of writing for their students.

“Student writing is not assessed according to the whims of any given instructor,” said DiPietro. “There are very clearly communicated expectations that students must meet in their writing. For the discipline of English, these expectations include the thesis, organization of the argument, close reading, and quality of writing.” For example, an online document lists these expectations for ENG110, which he teaches.

DiPietro doesn’t necessarily expect better writing from an English major than from a psychology major. “Again, students are required to meet standardized criteria, so it makes no difference what their majors are,” he said. “I’m happy to learn when students are enrolled in the specialist or major program in English and drama, and it may be true to say that they are more competent essay-writers—but only more competent meeting the requirements for an essay in English, because they will have had more practice writing in the discipline. However, when it comes to my assessment, the disciplinary specialization of the student is immaterial; [it] simply doesn’t matter.”

It seems the assumptions shouldn’t be quite so simple. English majors and specialists write well in the sense that they are more likely to meet the English department’s standards for writing a good essay. But, according to DiPietro, the stereotype that English students walk in as better writers doesn’t sit well with instructors. “Good instructors don’t make assumptions about their students’ abilities, but instead assess the work put in front of them according to objective, standardized criteria,” he said. “There are obvious disadvantages to making a priori assumptions about students.”

This should probably come as a relief to potential English students. It means they aren’t automatically expected to be great writers. It also means that with practice, they’ll come to meet the expectations set for them by their program of study, and the same is true of any program. But in terms of what those outside the program believe, the lines get a little hazy.

By analogy, would you expect an art history student to be a great painter? It might be a bonus if they are, but in reality the art history program focuses on analyzing existing work, not the mechanics of creating new works. Art history majors don’t learn how to hold a pencil to get the shading just right. In the same way, why should we expect English students to be great writers?