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College Writing: Could We Discuss Reasonable Expectations and Teach Good Grammar?

As an instructor of College Writing, I am struck by what expectations are placed upon our students in terms of the types of essays we ask them to produce and the level of academic savvy we presume they should display even within their very first semester of college.

Having been a Grade 9-12 English Language Arts teacher for a few years in a NYC high-school, I can attest that we are entirely unreasonable in our assumption that the skills we ask of them could possibly have been acquired simply over the course of the summer between graduating high school and entering our English 110 classes (because we know 95% of them did not acquire any of those skills in high school). I have had many colleagues agree with me that we have to “un-teach” high-school bad-writing habits before we can teach them good College Writing. And this is not even addressing the other 900 pound gorilla in the room which is the high proportion of students whose fluency in speaking English—never mind writing it—is not sufficient to allow for complex argumentation and detailed dissection of any number of academically rigorous topics.

Yet, we ask all of these same students—lifelong English speakers with bad writing habits and English Language Learners alike—to write “ academic” papers on a host of sophisticated issues, requiring serious research and organizational expertise when the basic skills of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhetoric are not at a level concomitant with the assignment.

We are told that E110 (or Euro120, or E130, or any of the “W”) classes are not grammar classes.  While I agree that this should theoretically be true, in practice I struggle tremendously with assessing a student paper in which the lack of grammar and syntax skills greatly hinders, hides, distorts or prevents the communication of “meaning-full” ideas.

The inclusion of a CW2—a second semester of introduction to college writing—possibly represents a unique opportunity to significantly address this issue: perhaps at least some of the class time in CW1 (E110) should be devoted to such old fashioned topics as vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhetoric…before we even ask the students to tackle research, MLA citation and other such esoterica.

I know Qc is a “Senior College” and, therefore, anything resembling a “remedial” class is anathema, but this should not be seen (or portrayed) as in any way remedial; rather, it should be understood that the study of these now-out-of fashion subjects is one of the building blocks towards really improved, truly adult, undeniably sophisticated, stylistically authoritative—in a word: persuasive—writing ability that ought to be the hallmark of any college graduate.

I wonder if any of you, my colleagues, have strong thoughts about this, pro or against; I would be curious to know.

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3 comments to College Writing: Could We Discuss Reasonable Expectations and Teach Good Grammar?

  • I typically teach students who take my literature courses after they take CW1 and its sequel. I can agree with you that “at least some of the class time in CW1 (E110) should be devoted to such old fashioned topics as vocabulary, grammar, syntax, [and] rhetoric.”

    How it can be done, however, is problematic, considering that the college cannot openly endorse the idea that CW1 or any literature course should include grammar instruction.

    As I see it, the only option we have is to teach grammar informally. We can take ten minutes each class and go over one particular rule. I also send students emails with grammar and writing tips. This seems to be as far as I am allowed to go.

    If you are aware of any relevant discussion on this issue in the English department at QC, please let us all know.

    • Dear Alexander,
      Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely correct that QC views as anathema anything that sounds like remediation.
      You ask about relevant discussions on the issue. Actually, I have been participating in workshops for W classes sponsored by Writing At Queens. From the start, the W instructors were unanimous in their assessment of the fact that they have–for lack of a better terminology–“a grammar issue” which gets in the way of teaching the content. While no precise policy or methodology has yet emerged, the fact that there is a growing willingness to talk about the issue is encouraging. I’ll post here what conclusions we reach by the end of the workshop series.