True writing classes are rare

High-school classes that teach writing are rare. College classes that teach writing are rare. Graduate-school classes that teach writing are rare. In fact, for most of my first-year law students, the required legal-writing course is the first class they’ve ever taken that is actually and seriously about writing.

I can’t prove my assertions, but I offer three anecdotes.

1. Pre-AP English isn’t about writing.
I know a 10-grader taking Pre-AP English. The course focuses on literature, not writing. The course covers a dozen books and plays, and the students learn about mythology (The Odyssey, The Iliad), Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet), religion (The Inferno), war (All Quiet on the Western Front), and more. They read and annotate these works, do group projects about them, and take tests on them.

What they don’t do much is write about them.

Yes, they usually write an essay as part of the test on each work, but that’s a timed, in-class writing project. Better than nothing, but not terribly practical. It’s really more about what they know than how well they can write. And besides, I’m convinced that high-school and college essays and the grading of high-school and college essays foster a formal, fancy, show-off type of writing, the kind everyone claims to hate but that many academics do and reward.

What’s more, for two of the works, the teacher had students prepare an essay outline and turn that in as the writing project. Not much writing practice there.

(I’m not complaining. I’m describing. Do you want to grade 100 10th-grade essays on The Iliad? Neither do I. Do you want to let 10th graders do the essay untimed at home and then try to catch all the plagiarism? Neither do I.)

2. College writing courses aren’t about writing.
I once attended a university-sponsored training session called “Creating Outcome Assessments for Writing Assignments.” Anyone teaching a writing course was invited, and about 25 teachers were there. We each introduced ourselves and named the course we were teaching. I was the only person whose course title included the word “writing.” The others were teaching history, literature, sociology, and so on. But each course required a paper, so it was a “writing” course. I realized they weren’t teaching writing; they were teaching history (or whatever) and had to give a writing assignment.

So who’s teaching writing? Maybe all the writing teachers already knew how to create an outcome assessment, so they had no need for the training, and that’s why none of them were there. Maybe. Or maybe there are very few classes that actually focus on teaching writing.

3. Master’s classes aren’t about writing.
One of my students told me no one had ever commented on her writing to the degree her legal-writing teachers had. In earning her master’s degree, she had written a lot of papers and a lot of essays, but she almost never got mechanical or structural comments on them. What was most important, she learned, was that the paper presented a great idea, an original idea, something new. That’s what mattered.

Of course, the paper couldn’t be sloppy, full of writing errors. But no one in her program was concerned about that; they were all average to above-average writers. So although the course grade was based almost entirely on writing papers, there was no classroom instruction on writing and very little feedback on the actual writing the students did.

My point?

Many of us assume someone else taught students how to write. We look backward to college, to high school, to middle school. We assume someone taught them writing. We assume they learned it. We assume they know the basics (and some of us define the basics fairly comprehensively, possibly forgetting what we once didn’t know). But what if no one ever taught them writing? I’m beginning to think no one ever did.

And why not?

Maybe it’s because teaching writing is a pain in the neck. It’s hard, and it’s easier and more interesting to focus on something like The Iliad or history or a new idea. It’s easier to assume someone else taught them writing, so we don’t have to.


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