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By Writing You Will Learn to Write

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Addressing the Challenges of Teaching Writing in Higher Education

In the Time Magazine article “The Righting of Writing” (1980) the staff reporter notes “In the age of talk show, tape recorders, telephonitis [sic] and declining educational standards, the clearly written word is swiftly becoming a lost art.” Here we are in 2012 in an age of reality shows, telephone texting, and declining educational standards, and the challenge for writing in higher education is still the clearly written word. This made me think that maybe, we do need to return to an old standard: clear, simple, and clean writing.

I identified with the University of Iowa’s David Hamilton, who was quoted in “The Righting of Writing” (1980), he used the term “the battered writer syndrome” in the article to illustrate what was not working for educators and their students. When papers are so marked up with grammar corrections, the student can no longer see if any writing, let alone if any clear writing, has been accomplished. Many times, we are still teaching writing by beating our young writers with red ink for grammar errors; and, although we may use a more pleasant color, it still does not take the sting out, and the students are stranded learning years of grammar in a writing class.

However, in order to write, students need to have a mastery of grammar. Often times, what was “taught has been forgot.” Punctuation is key to simple, clear, and clean writing. Therefore, we need to close the grammar gap between high school and college. The key is to make grammar unforgettable. Instead of placing a rule into the paper for every error I like to relate a story, so the students remember the story more than the rule. For instance, whenever I see two periods in a citation sentence […we were young.” (citation).] I tell them: One hockey puck on the ice. One period to a sentence. Students remember the rule better if given a memory tool. It always takes care of the situation, and we never have to revisit the grammar bug again.

If there is ever a time to encourage one’s students to run with scissors, it is in English class. For more students than ever before, college is their last chance to succeed and write with confidence. We need to shore up gaps in grammar, and then we need to get back to the basics. The challenge is that it is difficult to combine a grammar refresher course with a writing class and still obtain the desired writing results.

We do learn by our mistakes, so it was the last line of the article that intrigued me most. I had not seen these Latin words since my grade school years, but they spoke to me again: scribendo disces scribere. In English, it means by writing you will learn to write.

By Carol Froisy
Associate Professor of English and Writing, American Public University

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