Can we teach writing?

I just finished grading the first essays in my introductory class. I asked my students to summarize the argument in an article I choose from the Wall Street Journal, explaining the economics principles behind it. This assignment requires (I hope) a fair amount of thought, but once that is complete, not that much writing in terms of pages.

Grading economics papers may be different from grading papers in English composition, since I need to assess both the content and the quality of the presentation–I know this is a false dichotomy but it’s something I tell my students when we talk about what I am looking for in their papers.

Also, since I am not an English professor and so not “officially” a writing teacher I may be speaking out of turn here. Please let me know if I am.

I found myself categorizing the students in three ways: the authors seem to be good writers, the authors seem to be poor writers, and the authors seem to be able to write capably with sufficient effort. (I know I may be rushing to judgment on the basis of one assignment, but this is not a new issue for me.)

My position has always been that writing is a skill that can be learned with practice. It’s certainly worked for me, I think, though I’ve always been considered a decent writer. So here is my question: For a long time, I’ve wondered if anything I do actually improves the writing in my students. I’m not feeling particularly depressed today. I just wonder if student writers, good, poor or in-between, get better as a result of my assignments. More specifically, I wonder if a student can improve enough to change categories. I’ll admit I haven’t looked carefully at this question, and perhaps the effect is too small to measure on the basis of one semester’s work. What I do know is that I get students in my upper level courses, even seniors, whose writing I still classify as poor.

Anyone care to comment?

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1 Response to Can we teach writing?

  1. rrycroft says:

    Since no one is born a good writer, they must have been taught. If we can’t teach writing, why are we offering all these writing intensive courses?

    I realize that big jumps in ability are few and far between for students of this age. I think diminishing returns set in around 9th grade, but still think the marginal product is positive, if small. If only there was a way to test it empirically. Maybe your procedure for evaluating electronic discussion could be put to good use here.

    I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about your ability to teach writing just because you are not an English professor. First, what you are teaching is writing in your discipline. If you can’t do it, who can? An English professor certainly can’t teach writing in economics because they don’t know what a marginal product is.

    Second, English professors are probably not the gold standard when it comes to teaching writing or else why do we need a writing intensive program? When I was in college, the only formal instruction in writing I got was in freshman English. And that was considered enough. Now it is only the beginning of a four year process.

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