Righting our writing

I love when professors hand out essay prompts four weeks before an essay is due; it’s like a little reminder of how out of touch they are with my world. No, professor, I will not be starting this essay until two days before it’s due, but thank you so much for giving me this piece of paper, which I will likely lose by then. You’d better post it on Glow, too. About a week later, the professor will start dropping hints that you should have started your essay by now, halfheartedly asking how the research is coming. At this point, the entire class will duck their heads and intensely scribble in their notebooks while uttering noncommittal assents. Two weeks in, the suggestions to start your paper will become a little less friendly, and the week before the paper, professors will be honestly shocked that you’re just now coming to office hours.

Why are they shocked? They’re shocked because you’re not practicing the time-honored art of essay crafting. They’re shocked that you’re not racing to get your essay done so you can tear it apart in an extensive and labor intensive editing process. They’re shocked that you’re approaching their task like a college student.

Herein lies my problem with Williams. I genuinely believe that our professors want us to write well, to be able to convey an erudite subject in a compelling way – or at least in a way that doesn’t make the average person want to tear out his or her own molars rather than getting to paragraph three. But I’ve learned the hard way that merely wanting something to happen doesn’t make it so (thank you, Prom Date 2010). Oh, but the College does try to make it happen, the administration will tell you. We have the Writing Intensive requirement; you’ll take at least two classes that require you to write a lot! You have to love a good quantity over quality argument. I can write you 21 pages of complete crap, if you’d like. I can do that pretty effortlessly (I learned how to fluff with the best of them at The Williams Record), but that’s not what our professors are asking of us.

Our professors want us to write well, but they don’t give us the tools to do it. I’m a public high school kid, and I mean “public” in the ugliest sense of the word. The last time I was taught how to write, I was in fourth grade, and the end of my five-paragraph essay was greeted by a “MEAP IT!” cheer from the rest of my study team. I’d like to think I’ve progressed from my days of writing about the core democratic values for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), but no one has taken the time to make sure. Sure, the essays we’re returned are littered with notes scribbled in the margins – literally scribbled, step up your penmanship game, profs – but these notes rarely address whether you’ve adopted a persuasive voice or whether you have a narrative arc. Instead, your essays are attributed with “explore this,” or “are you sure this is what you’re trying to say?” For professors, these are helpful comments because they help your thought process, and they fit with the professor’s goal to teach you the subject of his or her coursework.

But they don’t help you become a better writer. In fact, I’ve yet to encounter a class that explicitly states that one of its goals is to make students better writers. Last semester, one of my psychology classes took 45 minutes to talk about writing papers, and it’s the longest I’ve ever been instructed on how to write at Williams. So what is our solution? I don’t think that requiring a universal writing course or even explicitly requiring all students to take an English course fits with the Williams ethos, but I do think critically examining the Writing Intensive requirement is a good place to start. You see, I’ve already proven the Writing Intensive requirement is flawed by writing this op-ed – I’m about 650 words in, and I haven’t even gotten to my point. A quantity-based requirement isn’t going to get us anywhere good. Instead, Writing Intensive classes should prove that they make an effort to address the quality of writing, the ability of students’ words to convey a complex argument efficiently and compellingly in their coursework. Writing Intensive courses should focus on the craft of writing and take time from the course to workshop pieces not just for the strength of their ideas but also for the strength of their eloquence. In order to make Williams students great writers, we have to dedicate our resources to developing their thoughts and their verb usage. We can’t rely on fourth grade MEAP preparation to do that work for us.

Nicole Smith ’14 is a political science major from Midland, Mich. She lives in Prospect.

  • midprof

    “They’re shocked that you’re not racing to get your essay done so you can tear it apart in an extensive and labor intensive editing process. They’re shocked that you’re approaching their task like a college student.” 1) It’s not *their* task, it’s *your* task. 2) Wouldn’t doing the work on the schedule suggested by the professor actually afford you the time for feedback and revision that would make your writing better, as you apparently hope? Only if you get the basics out of the way prior to the 48 hours before the due date can you actually “focus on the craft of writing” as you suggest.