The administration is currently in the process of debating new writing initiatives that will be implemented starting fall 2013. The university feels that students aren’t writing as well as they should be. Last week’s Features section includes an article called “How well do UTM students write?” The article investigates these new writing initiatives and the debate surrounding their implementation. Some faculty members believe in a “discipline-specific” approach to teaching writing. Some faculty members believe that good writing can be taught no matter the subject, or the discipline. Others still advocate for a mandatory first-year writing course.
But before we can even talk about which approach will improve writing at UTM, we need to ask: What is good writing? And what do our professors and TAs think good writing is?
Some of us have been getting mixed messages on what good writing is as far back as high school. First, many high schools teach writing and English in the same course. Whether or not anyone comes out and says it, this is the first point where students are being told that writing a good essay is the same as writing well. Rarely does anyone focus on what makes a good sentence or what to do with the verb “to be”. At least, not outside the context of essay-writing.
Then we get to university, and again the message is further engrained: good essay-writing is good writing. But not just any essay-writing; these essays involve four or five nested clauses per sentence. They use long, long, long sentences. They use “however” instead of “but”. The writing becomes only something an academic would want to read. No one ever tells us we have to write like this; positive reinforcement does it instead. I’ve played this game with my TAs, added a few extra nested clauses, lengthened my sentences, made it so that so that my essay sounds like it was written by an 19th-century British nobleman. And yes, I’ve done better in terms of grades. Much better.
Then there are other times where I applied the skills I learned in professional writing. I varied my sentence length. I avoided the verb “to be”. I used descriptive verbs. I made sure my writing was clear and concise. I got to the point. And yes, I also did better. But only sometimes.
See, it really depended on my TA. Does she think all paragraphs need to be the same length? Does he think I can only have three body paragraphs? I don’t think I’m the only person who’s found herself playing games to please individual TAs. Yes, of course, judging writing is a little subjective. But there are still a few universal style guidelines. That’s exactly why great books on writing tend to overlap in their advice.
This is one of my fears about the discipline-specific approach. It will further entrench departments in their idea of what good writing is. If you’re a biology major, and you go on to spend your life studying biology as an academic, then maybe it’s fine if you only learn to write like a biologist.
For those of us who will go out and get jobs outside of our fields, I predict that these mixed messages will be a problem. Especially if half of our TAs still think writing like a 19th-century nobleman is impressive. For example, a woman at my office who always writes emails in essay tone is constantly ignored. No one understands what she wants. No one wants to spend time figuring it out. More importantly, the word around the coffee machine is always “Why can’t she just say what she means?” This is scarier than you think. It means her accounts are never launched and her projects take months to complete.
I know what many of you will say. “I’m not planning to be the next Hemingway; I just want to get a 4.0 in this course.” But I think students should consider these different approaches and at least have an opinion. Think about your writing education in the past, however little or much you’ve had. How do you learn best?