Law professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish describes becoming alarmed about the inability of his students to write a clean sentence–even those who were instructors in his college’s composition program. What was going on?
I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.
Unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, Fish writes. Colleges, however, aren’t the culprit. The damage is done long before. If he were to look in elementary schools, Fish might find the same issue, writ small. Writing instruction–especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically.
A commenter on Fish’s blog who works for a testing company describes his amazement ”that a ‘writing’ test often is scored without regard for punctuation, sentence composition or spelling. The instructions provided by the state for scoring these essays makes it clear that these factors should be disregarded.”
Translation: The war is over. The bad guys won.