American Culture

End of the semester writing professor blues

Here’s how it feels at the end of the spring semester for a longtime-journalist-turned-college-writing instructor:

I love working with college students, and I hope the feeling is mutual, for at least some of them, anyway. There’s no workplace I’ve ever found that’s more invigorating than the classroom.

But I work with freshmen only, and anymore, they communicate by liking, by following, by tweeting, by texting, and by slinging words and/or photographs and/or video on communications platforms I’ve never heard of. Most of the students I work with don’t understand—or, at best, dimly grasp—the value of what I encourage them to learn. Subject-verb disagreement? Fused sentences? Comma splices? Sentence fragments? The parts of speech? I’ve always (perhaps naively) believed these and related topics are the bedrock of good writing.


Today’s freshmen, though, have gone through middle school and high school without being taught this. (I always cop David Foster Wallace’s line and tell them to go home and sue their local school boards.) When I started teaching at the college level in 2001, I was stunned by the poor quality of student writing. Now, I’m used to it—but still, I can’t fathom the fact that so many students don’t know where to put periods. They’ve been making serious writing errors ever since they’ve been punching keys on their smartphones, and it hasn’t mattered in terms of their being able to communicate effectively—so far as they know, anyway.

I keep hoping it’s because they’re only 18. After all, I wasn’t St. Patrick of Academia in 1972. Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe it’s because good writing is unimportant to an increasing number of adults, but that’s a topic for another time.
Or maybe these things have little value anymore. If they believe this, then why should they care about sentences that make sense, paragraphs that hold together to develop an idea, or essays that flow logically from paragraph to paragraph to make a point? Why should they worry about using words alone to make someone laugh when a smiley-face emoticon is just a keystroke away? LOL!!!!!


There are of course exceptions every year. Some students’ writing is so good that I need to work hard to challenge them. Others with slightly less talent want to write with a honed edge to their work, but their number dwindles by the year.
Again, I’m not knocking students. Most of them are good people, personable, funny, sincere, and smart in their own ways. I truly enjoy working with them. I’m tired of swimming upstream, though.


We once sent messages via the Pony Express. Now, we watch TV on iPhones. Teaching communications today requires somebody who can speak the new languages of modern media, not somebody who thinks it’s a really, really good idea to put a period at the end of a sentence.

4 replies »

  1. One of the big topics at my university, and the reason for the Writing to Learn classes, is that employers complain that new hires can’t write. Almost any job requires a certain amount of writing, and we want our graduates to be desired by employers. Of course, this puts “education” behind “career prep,” but it is a step in the right direction to get students writing.

    • RetroHound, I teach freshmen who think they want careers in communications—from sports writing, ad copy writing, public relations, marketing, journalism, etc.—but we read a fair amount of poetry and literature, and I’m constantly touting writers from Coleridge to Dan Barry and everyone in between, trying to get students to appreciate the way words feel and how words make them feel. Of the 24 students in my class, though, I don’t know how many of them would “like” the course.

  2. I want to offer words of encouragement, Pat, but until we stop treating education as a consumer service and start treating it as a civic responsibility, we will remain a nation dominated by speed over clarity, entertainment over information, credentialing over educating. As a student said to me not long ago – “Why do you care so much about this? They’re just words….” My response? “Exactly.” Student was, of course, completely confused by such a response…. Sigh….

    • What troubles me, Jim, is the idea that the speed/entertainment avalanche will not stop. “They’re just words.” This morning, quite unexpectedly, I heard a recording of Seamus Heaney on the radio reading “Digging.” Just more words, I guess.