University writing requirements are a joke


When your undergraduates leave campus with a Bachelor’s degree, can they write well?

I wish I could say that about our student body as a whole, but I’d be lying. And it appears to me that this condition extends far beyond my own campus.

I’m not going to claim that university students could all write well fifty years ago, and that things were better back in the Good Ol’ Days. I honestly have no idea if that is true. But sizing up the situation right now, here is what I see: Many people start college with little writing ability, and they are leaving college with little to no improvement.

What do we need to do to prepare students with writing skills, and the concomitant critical thinking skills, that should be part of a college degree? Curriculum people have introduced the notion of  “backward design,” in which you start the planning process with the desired outcome, and then work back to sort out what experiences are necessary to result in that outcome.

To create a curriculum for writing, backward design requires little brainwork. To be a good writer, you’ve got to do a lot of writing. You also must have experience revising your work. And if you don’t consistently write, the skill atrophies. (And you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions. But if you do it with adequate flair or aplomb, you can get away with it.)

So what do you need to be a top-notch writer when you graduate from college? The way I see it, a college student should be expected to do serious writing every semester, in at least one course. That writing should be edited by faculty, a TA, writing tutors, or in a well-scaffolded peer evaluation process.

Is this an outrageous expectation? For some schools, it is. For other campuses, this is the modus operandi. (For example, I wrote term papers and substantial lab assignments every semester as an undergraduate at Occidental College, a small liberal arts college which had an enrollment of 1600 students. Students at Oxy still do a ton of writing, and it shows.) High writing expectations are common at many well-endowed liberal arts colleges with non-huge teaching loads.

At my campus, that kind of writing expectation is considered outrageous. Most graduating seniors have only done substantial writing in the courses that are designated as “writing intensive.” These special WI-designated courses require students to write a total of 3,750 words (15 pages at 250 words per page), that get revised at least once. These can be several lab reports, one term paper, or a series of 15 one-page essays.

Our university policies require two WI courses to graduate. So, our university’s requirement for writing, over the course of 180 or so units before graduating, is 30 double-spaced pages of writing. That’s all.

We are letting students receive a degree from us with almost no writing experience whatsoever. Nearly all non-WI courses have little writing, because of the workload involved in running such a class. I’m complicit as well, I do have required writing assignments, but we don’t do the careful editing that is necessary to improve writing ability. With a base teaching load of four courses, and high enrollments, this typically isn’t considered to be a reasonable expectation, especially for faculty expected to do research and service. Even if it is one of the most essential things that students are supposed to be getting from college. (There are some of us who are requiring more writing, in the form of journals, lab reports, and essays, even though we don’t teach WI courses. However, these are outliers from the overall experience.)

The situation is actually even more dire than I have portrayed. While two WI courses are required for graduation, that requirement has been routinely waived by the registrar’s office for as long as I’ve taught at the university. Why is that? Because our university isn’t allocating the funding to run these WI courses – it would be too expensive to hire so many instructors required to fill the small sections associated with writing assignments. So most of our students are writing even less than the measly 7,500 words that are officially expected of them over their college careers*.

No wonder the students working in my lab have trouble writing up their manuscripts. All throughout college — and also in their high schools — nobody has taken the time to really teach them how to write. They’ve been shortchanged by the system from day one. Everybody who has had the chance to teach writing has passed the buck, including myself. It’s not expected, it’s not funded, and it’s not happening.

If you had to ask me what really separates a highly-selective “liberal arts education” from any other university experience in the US, I think one thing stands out:  Small liberal arts schools often have a combination of curriculum, class size, teaching loads, and priorities that require regular writing from students throughout their university career. Other universities have classes that are too large, teaching loads that are too high, and/or a curriculum that doesn’t recognize the primacy of the ability to communicate in writing.

The prescription is simple: We need to have our students write more. But also, the prescription is complex: Having our students write more will require huge amounts of resources, and our administrators are not prepared to make the allocations necessary to put writing front and center where it belongs in the curriculum.

Even at campuses where the writing requirement is genuinely enforced, those requirements are a mere joke compared to what it really takes to develop the ability to write well. You can’t think of writing as a box to be checked in a graduation petition. It’s something that has to be build into the DNA of the organization, and expected frequently at all levels. That’s not cheap, but it is an essential piece of a quality education that many universities have chosen to overlook.

*The 1000 words in this blog post would fulfill about one eighth of the total amount of writing that our students do in order to receive a Bachelor’s degree. That is, if this pitifully low requirement were ever enforced someday.

10 thoughts on “University writing requirements are a joke

  1. Speaking as someone fortunate enough to have gone to a small liberal arts college myself (Williams): everything in this post is spot-on.

  2. Good post as far as it went, and you can begin sentences with conjunctions. My daughter attended Smith and wrote constantly and left college literate with grad school offers from Penn, Columbia, Edinburgh, and LSE. But I taught writing in Oregon public higher ed for 20 years and agree that the literacy requirement was a joke–three courses taken at any time during four years of attendance. Most students I taught could not write and left college that way–semi-literate at best.

    The cause is funding, as mentioned. Support for higher ed is always followed by the words “math” and “science” with no mention of literacy. Hence the sorry state of writing instruction across the curriculum or in dedicated writing courses.

    But I’d agree with that the problem goes deeper. An illiterate population has certain advantages. See the current CR post and the one preceding it.

  3. I see this a lot, and wonder what can be done.

    I’ve been a bit thwarted in incorporating this in my official teaching, and so I wondered if I couldn’t go rogue and teach writing outside a course. Perhaps this could be in the form of a writing club that met once a month. Before the meetings, students would do some writing and we’d go over it at the meeting to see how it can be improved.

  4. Friendly guy, American higher ed needs to teach literacy on campus, and it takes four years to do so. Terry is correct that writing a few thousand words won’t do it. Writing is a skill that requires constant practice to improve, and that improvement comes with both practice and intellectual maturity, which won’t happen with one course.

  5. Although I was teaching mathematics (generally the calculus sequence or other lower division courses), I tried to always require at least one three-page paper on a mathematical topic (not necessarily mathematically rigorous, something from the news would be fine) in an effort to get my students to write.

    Sadly, I received a lot of flack over that from my students and no support at all from the administration (they didn’t tell me to stop, but they didn’t offer any kind of encouragement to continue either).

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