Argument: college students are poor writers because they ape the academic prose of their professors

An English professor argues that the problem with what students learn about writing in college is that they learn to write in the style of professors:

This Wall Street Journal article implies that our poor communication skills fresh out of college result from simple laziness or stupidity on our part. But Dr. Richard Lanham, professor emeritus of English, UCLA, believes the problem is not lack of learning.

Rather, he believes, when we are undergraduates, we learn all too well: we learn to ape the bureaucratic, academic, clear-as-swamp-water prose of our professors. He writes in his book, Revising Prose (in my opinion the single best practical book on prose writing in existence):

“Much bad writing today comes not from the conventional sources of verbal dereliction—sloth, original sin, or native absence of mind—but from stylistic imitation. It is learned, an act of stylistic piety, which imitates a single style, the bureaucratic style I have called The Official Style. . . .”

And to drive home his point, Lanham cites a passage from Talcott Parsons. This particular passage appears to be from Parsons’ book The Social System and you can see the passage here on page 7 in Google Book. (Interestingly, this passage is edited. Yes, it is difficult but why not cite a complete passage rather than starting at the end of a paragraph and cutting some of another?) Lanham says this about Parsons’ passage:

This is not prose. This is the systematic abuse of prose. Anyone hoping to learn writing should stay a thousand miles away from people who write in such a manner. That is, they should stay a thousand miles away from most university professors.

The author of this article goes on to cite Sokol’s Social Text hoax, argue that computers could teach academic writing (though it may not make any sense), and suggest that college students need to get beyond typical college classes.

The trend these days in college seems to be to train students to write in discipline specific styles: if you are a biology major, write a biologist, a sociology major, write like a sociologist (though not like Parsons), and son. This makes some sense for faculty as our professional careers are based on particular writing styles. It may not make sense for all students as they may not be interested in graduate school or professional careers. But, if students are specific majors, part of their senior-level competency should be an ability to communicate within that sphere.

However, the problem referenced at the beginning at the article may not be the same problem cited in the rest of the article. The article begins by citing a Wall Street Journal article saying that businesses are having a hard time finding possible employees who can write and speak effectively. But this problem is not the problem of academic writing; rather, it is an issue of basic communication. Employers aren’t saying that college grads are writing postmodern gibberish; rather, they are saying that applicants write as though they are interacting with friends. Academic writing may be problematic (and it is recurring issue within sociology though most work doesn’t read like Parsons) but the problem employers are discussing is a few steps before academic writing.

If college students are trained in any discipline specific style and can successfully write within that world, that’s better than not being able to write any prose. Theoretically, students should be able to write basic prose before they write discipline specific prose but some prose is better than no prose, right? Students need to learn the basics, thesis, supporting evidence, etc., and perhaps the average professor is not able to offer much help in this since they are immersed in academic language.

For students to move beyond simply aping the academic style of their professors, they need to practice writing a lot. Even while there might be guidelines and norms within particular disciplines, there is still freedom within these areas to exhibit some personal style. Within sociology, for example, there is a wide range between ethnographic and statistical/mathematical work. Styles are not formulas. Of course, more writing means more work for students and professors. But there is evidence that an increase in writing within academic courses leads to better educational outcomes.

On the whole, I think this is a bigger issue than academics passing along bad prose to their students. Sociologists could indeed do better than writing like Talcott Parsons. All classes should help students write basic, effective prose that can be used outside of the college classroom. How all this could and should be worked out within a typical four-year degree needs to be developed.

Sociologist finds many college students don’t learn critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills

A new book (Academically Adrift) written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska suggests that many college students don’t graduate with certain skills that colleges claim to be teaching. Here is a brief summary of the findings:

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

I wonder how colleges would respond to these findings. Within a 4 year institution (and across the spectrum of 4 year institutions), there are bound to be some students who do well and others who have more struggles. I wonder how much is in this data about the individual level characteristics of students and whether the authors suggest that spending more time doing school work would make a difference. Is it the college students who need to do more work, is it the professors who should be assigning more or asking for more, is it a campus culture that privileges other things over academic work (like extracurricular activities), or some combination of these three?

This suggests schools need to spend more time and effort on these particular skills and need to find ways to assess these (and the students’ progress or need for improvement) within their time at a 4 year institution.

The sociologists suggest there are some differences between disciplines:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

So actually doing more reading and writing makes a difference, no matter what the discipline. What does this mean for liberal arts colleges – is it really the place where students develop these particular skills?