Friday, December 01, 2006

Lower division writing requirement 

Stephen has a snow day -- just cold here, no snow yet -- and directs me to Arnold Kling's lament over student writing. How many times have you heard this one before?
My recollection from my career in government and business is that written communication skills still matter. Out of over 100 students in my class at George Mason, no more than a handful could function in any capacity in a job that required writing a memorandum. Over half of the students are utterly incompetent when it comes to grammar and syntax. They have no ability to communicate complex ideas. Yet I do not fail these students. I feel that I must reserve my F's for the students who do not turn in papers at all.
Our university adopted years ago an upper division writing requirement for all students, which went into effect last year. For most students this comes in a senior 'capstone' course. So students write in other classes, but are expected somehow to learn to write by the time they are seniors enough to complete a "writing intensive course" (the university's words, and please don't ask me to explain what they mean.)

Since this seems to be my day for goofy ideas, let me put forward another one: How about a qualifying exam for students at the end of their sophomore years to test grammar and syntax? Students unable to pass the test may register for their junior year but must take a no-credit remedial course in writing and retake the test the next semester. Those who do not pass are dropped from the university.

Many students take six years or more to complete their degrees. Many of them took their required English course in their first year. Just as students who fall out of practice with their algebra or calculus or statistics might lose some sharpness of their quantitative skills, so too might students who don't write much lose their ability to understand grammar and syntax. Expecting it to be revived in a class in their last semester, at the same time that they are writing (horrific) cover letters to potential employers saying they are graduating from our school. These leave a bad impression of both the student and the school when written poorly. If we want to make the writing requirement more than just a hoop to jump through, we should invest more in the effort.