On the Ineffective Teaching of Writing

I’ve been helping both my mom and Ryan with some of their coursework. Mom is currently studying at Grand Rapids Community College, where inter alia she is taking a sociology course. Ryan, at Davenport University, is enrolled in several courses with substantial writing requirements. Across the board, the work they’re being asked to do seems irrational and counterproductive.

First, mom. She has been assigned a 10-page research paper by a professor who has announced that he will not respond to emails unless he is called “Dr.” — a sign of first-rate jackassery if ever there was one. The paper he assigned is a literature review, but bizarrely, he’s limited the scope of permissible sources to only academic sociology journals, irrespective of the student’s chosen subject matter.

Next, Ryan. In one course, he needs to submit weekly two-page papers formatted in precise APA style complete with a minimum of three sources and running heads. In another, he must ape law-school conventions to mix ethics and compliance questions in a single, major term paper; this same professor marked him down because, on an informal handout to the class, he put his optional list of sources on the same page as the last set of his bullet points.

All of this leads inescapably to a single, vexing point — these students are being forced to write unnecessary assignments, allegedly mimicking real-life situations, using formats and templates that are nowhere to be seen in the working world. This forced obedience to outdated templates does not serve these students well; instead of teaching them how to think, these faculty are teaching students to blindly follow unnecessary structural patterns — and worse, they are falsely suggesting that this approach is common in the workplace.

Except in fairly rare circumstances, the overwhelming number of graduates from GRCC and DU will not routinely write papers using APA, MLA or Chicago style. They will not obsess over reference citations or cover sheets or running heads.

What they will do, however, is need to write well. And it seems, based on the assignments that they’re receiving, that instruction in persuasive writing is lacking. It’s not “writing coaching” to mark people down for obscure violations of APA style when elementary errors of reasoning or bloated, passive prose permeate the homework. In fact, one professor even told Ryan to prefer passive voice because it’s less confrontational! Egads.

The state of writing education in our local colleges remains subpar. Faculty who demand honorifics and conformance to minor trivia while allowing sophomoric prose to pass unremarked, violates the promise of higher education for thousands of aspiring graduates.

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