Monday, October 8, 2012

The College Writing Problem: Stop the Presses for Journalism and English Majors

Philip White

In the course of the Atlantic’s recent series, The Writing Revolution, contributors have explored how to inspire struggling students, discussed the need to go beyond curriculum requirements, and delved into the disparity between how American society treats its high school athletes and their star student classmates.

Each of these pieces has merit, and yet as I read them, I was inspired to move beyond what works and what doesn’t for K-12 writing instruction and jump ahead to the problems of writing in higher education. 

In his fine essay, Arthur Applebee writes that in 2011, 40 to 41 percent of public school students at grades 8 and 12 were assigned less than a page of writing homework per week, and that 80 percent of these assignments didn’t involve composition.

You may think and hope that this dearth of practical writing is overcome once students pack their bags for college and that our higher education institutions have challenging syllabi that prepare able students to write the next great American novel, become the new David McCullough, or, heck, just eke out a living as a poet or freelance journalist.  But, in many cases, such an assumption is ill founded.  

The composition courses required at liberal arts colleges (typically Comp 1 and Comp 2) are usually a joke, covering the basics of grammar and style that previous generations mastered in high school or before. If you don’t know a verb from an adverb by the time you’re 18, what hope is there for you? Indeed, enterprising students can and should do all they can to avoid such rudimentary instruction—and the cost of six useless credit hours—by taking a CLEP test that exempts them from Comp course requirements.

The picture is little brighter when it comes to those brave and creative souls who choose an English or journalism degree. The typical limitation of the former is a lack of practical exercises that allow students to critically evaluate a text in a way that sharpens analytical skills applicable outside academia. The length and scope of such essays have been steadily reduced, to the point where a two-page, double-spaced exercise in brevity is the norm. There’s nothing wrong with being succinct, but such an assignment is a cakewalk for most able undergraduates. Many won’t excel unless they’re pushed, and a few hundred words now and again just isn’t going to cut it.

There are many challenges for journalism degree programs, but these can be distilled into two main points. First, the newspaper game has changed so much with the closing of many dailies and weekly publications, the staff cuts at others and the rise of online-only pubs like The Huffington Post, which rely ever more on unpaid contributors from its vast blogging network.

The same is true of magazines: while there are an increasing number of specialty publications and overall reading stats are up (if you believe the claims in the 2010—2011 Power of Print campaign run by the Big Five of Time Inc., Hearst, Advance Publications' Condé Nast, Wenner Media, and Meredith), many more have folded and many of the surviving titles are run by skeleton crews. Still more titles have become online-only ventures that require Web 3.0-ready writing—complete with tags, optimized search terms and such—elements all too often ignored by behind-the-times journalism programs.

Second, there are too many schools at which the journalism professors have never actually worked as journalists. Sure, having a Master’s and Ph.D. in journalism is beneficial, but a lack of practical experience makes it nearly impossible for an instructor to prepare his or her students for the working world. I was fortunate enough to have a journalism adjunct professor whose day job was running several local newspapers. I was shocked by the red ink hemorrhage on my first few assignments, but soon realized that this detail-oriented editing from a real editor was making me a better writer. If it wasn’t good enough to be printed, it wasn’t good enough for him. His diligence and the equally severe, yet constructive, reviews from three others professors conditioned me for writing outside of academia. And when I’d finally reached his high bar, Mr. Kevin Wright put one of my feature stories on the front page of his flagship paper. So began my writing career.

For journalism professors who don’t have Wright’s practical experience, bringing in guest speakers to provide guidance on essential topics—such as how to prepare for and conduct an interview and how to establish connections with editors—can help. But this is no substitute for an instructor who can pass on lived lessons to would-be journalists. Or for one who not only has writing chops to bolster academic credentials, but also encourages students to get ahead by (heaven forbid) building a useful portfolio while still in college. There are, of course, fine journalism programs—including those at Columbia University and the University of Missouri—but too many others are letting students graduate with an all but worthless BA based on theory-heavy courses from a bygone era.  What student wants to pay 100 grand for that education?

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