Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Readin'. Writin'.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the reading and writing skills of my students - and how said skills are generally lacking.

My assessment of their reading is probably not so much "they aren't good at it" but rather "they never do it, for neither pleasure nor education nor work." Obviously this is a generalization. Every semester I get at least one good writer, and at least one student that I know reads things from time to time, either the newspaper or some science fiction novels or perhaps even some classic literature.

My assessment of their poor writing comes almost exclusively from looking at the technical memos that I insist accompany all of their computational assignments. The technical memos are supposed to explain the premise, methods, assumptions, and results of their calculations, as well as giving recommended practical solutions to the problem in question. The students' memos are largely terrible, and not just in a way that I think I could train out of them (discipline-specific conventions that just take time to learn) but in a way that should have been trained out of them already (how to recognize and avoid sentence fragments, etc.).

Let's assume these issues are partly related. I will lump them into the same category and say the students are generally opposed to the written word - theirs or someone else's.

I was discussing this with a colleague of mine in the education college, and she pointed out that perhaps some of the reading-aversion is because my students are primarily male, and that she recently read a book which posits that when we teach kids to read, and to analyze writing, it's usually in a way that implies they need to have some kind of emotional connection to the writing, and that's a big turnoff to the typical young man. I can see this. It's why I hated reading things for English classes in high school and college myself. It didn't seem to have any practical value to me to discuss how I FELT about a book/poem/story. My husband, by the way, thought this was crap, though he himself does not like to read (but because he thinks he is too slow at it).

I once was at a meeting with some other faculty in my discipline and we were talking about some really interactive teaching, and one of the profs said, "In my course we have great discussions, but we're able to do that because the students read the material before they get to class." I asked her how she was able to get them to read, and she said, "I just expect them to." I am pretty sure my expectations would have no such magic effect on my students, and actually I kind of thought her response was code for "Because I am a GREAT teacher and you are not, duh." Also, my students are generally very, VERY bristley about the money it is costing them to attend college, and so a large number of them refuse to buy textbooks, even when it puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of getting required work done.

And the writing . . . cripes. Yesterday as I was grading another stack of mediocrity, I was wondering why I don't feel like they're improving in quality at all, even after five technical memo assignments returned to them with comments and grades. For some of them, maybe most of them, I suspect they just don't care. In which case, should I feel free to just slap a number grade on there and not spend the time to give constructive feedback? As it is I tend to focus on just a few key things or else I would be writing all over the paper, but even that sucks up time.

I also am not sure if they don't care because (a) they think I am just a bit of a nutcase in making them WRITE in a technical class, and they just want to pass and graduate and they don't care to put any time into improvement, and/or (b) they do not believe me when I say that being able to communicate technical material in written form is something that most people have to do on the job, in one way or another. Or maybe it's something else.

But, WOW, does it make me not want to ask for the memos anymore.


Professor Zero said...

This writing thing is a serious problem. I am in literature. In college and graduate school, we learned to analyze texts objectively, and to write in a precise manner.

When I became an assistant professor, student evaluations really mattered. I was shocked to discover that the students considered rigorous thought to be inappropriate to our discipline. I discovered that I could get high evaluations if I stopped preparing class and simply allowed students to emote with the texts. I was, and still am scandalized by this.

A another university, I had a different experience. Students still didn't want to discuss the texts in any sort of rigorous way, but they did want to chat about their content, and the contexts in which they were produced. I say chat because I do not mean, learn systematically or think rigorously.
Still, I was and am happier to at least chat about something real in class, than I am to solipsistically emote.

Finding that this worked well enough, I stuck with it for some time. Students at my institution have no prior writing experience anyway, so just getting them started
was at least something, I figured. I needed to get tenure, deal with my family, things like that, and couldn't rescue my students' writing singlehandedly. I became a little lax.

A large part of the reason I've invented the Professor Zero identity, though, is that I've decided to stop the nonsense. Things have gone far too far, and the buck has to stop somewhere. I've become a writing maniac in that I insist on rigorous thought (although not perfect control of the language--I'm realistic). I'm also advising everyone into math, physics, and philosophy for their electives. I do not mean those "Physics for Poets" courses. I mean anything that requires systematic thought.

Glad to have you on board, and glad to see you're getting cited.

Ms.PhD said...

I say instead of whining about it, fix it.

Technical writing can be taught. Basic technical skills can be learned, even later in life by students who should have learned them sooner.

I routinely train grad students in basic English grammar skills, largely because my field is dominated by international scientists, but also because I know it's important, nobody taught it to me so I had to learn the hard way, and I enjoy teaching writing.

Get a good basic workbook and devote a day or week to writing bootcamp. At the very least, xerox something for your $-challenged students to use as a reference for basic rules and hand that out.

It will help alleviate, thought probably not cure, the routine horror of grading, and it will help your students in the long run, whether they realize that now or not.

And don't forget the WHO CARES component of teaching grammar. If they realize how foolish they look, their pride will do all the work for you.

Sasha Blackwell said...

Great post, thank you