We need to
teach our students
how to write
In the stramash about university fees we're in danger of ignoring another matter causing deep disquiet amongst those concerned with academic excellence: the quality of writing exhibited by modern students.
Individual grumblings vary but the underlying complaint is that the majority of today's undergraduates arrive at university – all universities, whether ancient, red-brick or post-1992 – knowing neither the basics nor the point of grammar and punctuation; using words haphazardly and interchangeably; and a few so tone-deaf that text-speak seems appropriate in an academic essay. However, the real tragedy is not that students arrive at university with poor writing skills: it's that many leave without visible improvement.
You might call this evolution, or perhaps something trendier like the democratisation of communication in a multi-cultural society. I, however, call it a disaster because for both undergraduates and graduates, poor writing skills have one highly unfortunate result: they make people who are perfectly clever appear unnecessarily dull or stupid. How could this not be the case? If an English literature essay reads like a solicitor's letter, how can it please? If an engineering report is ambiguous, how can it impress? If a personal statement is a linguistic mishmash, will it not be consigned straight to 'trash'?
Pace Oscar Wilde, let's call a spade a spade. Schools are responsible for poor writing skills in one respect at least: from exclusive independent to bog standard comprehensive, poor writing is often accepted without comment. Indeed, in the name of 'creativity' or 'encouragement' or somesuch, teachers are warned against the red pencil. At the chalk-face, shame at poor standards has morphed into resignation, which, in turn, hinders the students from making the qualitative shift to the standard of writing required for higher education.
Universities voice concern, but they cannot wait for a school revolution. If all their graduates, without exception, are to display at least competent writing skills, effective action is required at university level.
This is not easy. Course handbooks are already filled with advice on semi-colons, clarity, structure, referencing and plagiarism. But if, as is the case for many students, semi-colons are mysterious, the concepts of 'clarity' and 'structure' nebulous and the difference between plagiarism and referencing obscure, then how will even the most detailed course handbook help?
Over the past three years, I have read dozens of student essays, both anonymised and with the student present, from all manner of different subject areas. Four points of interest have emerged.
Pedants need to accept that writing does evolve and that their own
personal ticks – apart from exclamation marks, whose use, as I've argued before, should be taxed – are not of biblical significance.
First, I agree with those who argue that writing skills should be re-integrated into subject teaching rather than taught separately in bolted-on lectures or workshops. How to write about, for example, history or chemistry, should be part of history or chemistry. Second, the modular system, in which students' work is seldom marked by the same person twice, militates against writing skills monitoring or training. Third, if a student writes only one or two essays per term, or, as with many science students, none at all until their degree is well advanced, how on earth are they to improve at all? Writing is like playing a musical instrument: to advance, frequent and consistent practice is required.
Finally, lofty anecdotes about antique schoolmasters who 'beat apostrophes into me' are an enjoyable but unproductive indulgence. Pedants need to accept that writing does evolve and that their own personal ticks – apart from exclamation marks, whose use, as I've argued before, should be taxed – are not of biblical significance.
In my opinion, however, there is one unalterable: over basic grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and word choice we need to adopt the approach of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother, whose published methods of extracting the best from her children raised western blood pressure (and possibly standards of violin and piano playing, as mothers secretly follow her lead). Amy Chua refused to accept second best in anything, and whilst you may feel her stamping on unsatisfactory homemade birthday cards a little strong, her tough approach has much to recommend it. If applied to writing skills, schools trying to scramble up league tables would have to raise their game. There would be tears, I dare say, but having once made a daughter re-write an essay after the essay had won a prize, I can assure you that the pain is shortlived. And who wouldn't like to hear universities whoop with joy at a bunch of beautiful first year essays?
Those who maintain that writing is passé and that speed of communication now trumps grammar and punctuation are mistaken. Academic assessment and career enhancement are still based on writing, whether through lab reports, research projects, essays, reviews, online job applications, grant applications, construction specifications, media submissions, or a mixture of all these formats and more. Moreover, in an era of high unemployment, employers faced with straight As and endless 2:1 degrees will use ever more finicky filtering methods. In 2012, one wrongly placed apostrophe could cost you dear. Writing still matters. It always will.
What, then, is to be done? Well, let's recognise the problem without getting all antsy over split infinitives. Let's also recognise financial constraints. And let's fly the flag for the University of Glasgow whose Learning and Teaching Development Fund opened the way for me to set up a practical and cost-effective way of improving academic writing skills through a highly tailored website of subject-specific information, examples and exercises.
Other universities may be doing something similar. We must hope so since university education is pointless if an incoming student, filled with ideas and insights, never learns to write effectively in the required style, and an outgoing student still cannot write a decent CV. Of course, universities are not remedial schools. However, they can no longer just hope for the best. If Scottish universities are to produce great writers, they'll have to play their part in teaching students how to write.
Katie Grant is an author, a freelance journalist, a part-time lecturer
and a broadcaster