Doper Profs: Has the quality of students’ writing plummeted in the last 15 years?

I took classes at one of the easier Universities to get into (but still a good one) here in Alabama and I proofread several classmates’ papers just because I loved reading the silly shit they would turn in for class. I still remember my favorite. It was an expository “get to know your student” type assignment, where we were required to write a one-page paper on our hobbies.

“I like pimpin’ bitches, hoes, and women.”

I urged him to reconsider the difference between bitches, hoes, and women as a thesis, as our teacher was an ardent feminist.

They do have remedial writing courses, usually English 090 or something like that. You can take them if you fail English 101 spectacularly or if you don’t pass the writing proficiency part of the entrance exams. I’m pretty sure you could take them if you just wanted to, for giggles. I don’t think the university would argue with your money.

Writing is a tool, and if you don’t use it often, it gets rusty. So I could someone who was borderline on passing the proficiency exam and who studied a subject without a strong writing emphasis fall to the level Figaro is describing. I haven’t really seen that, though, because English Lit is writing intense, and the music majors who have asked me to proofread their papers weren’t too horrible. They were looking for a proofreader, though, so they were one step ahead of most people right there.

It’s an epidemic!

Important point, IMO. For instance, the student whose email I excerpted in my OP would certainly never say “thanks you” when speaking. He knows the right expression. But he doesn’t care enough about how he expresses himself in writing to even notice those kinds of things. I think it’s a blended issue – part skill, part attention and desire.

<ahem> I believe that’s an archaic spelling. Today it’s more commonly prufreedor.

Sweet. I’m a horrid writer and when I get to college I won’t be the only one.


Aaah! You’re making my red pen hand twitch!

Figaro, I think another part of the situation is that some people have a true disconnect between what comes out of their mouths and what goes down on the paper. They speak intelligently, but write like a chimp pounding on a keyboard. It’s part of skill, but sometimes it goes beyond that. I’m not sure what it is – performance anxiety, lack of confidence? It’s like the gears are turning, but they’re not touching each other.

I was this close to asking this one writer to just dictate his articles into a recorder and then transcribe them. You could tell that he knew what had to be in the article, and he could tell you the important parts, but he couldn’t get it down on paper. We joked about the articles being translations from the original hippo, they were that bad. Then we started doing monthly writing conferences/critiques, and he got so much better. That’s probably not a choice for you, but you could require your students get their papers reviewed at the writing center before turning them in or something.

Do people not know what the little squiggly red and green lines under words and phrases are in Word? I know it’s not perfect, but it can help. A lot.
To be fair, I’m pretty good without it. The grader’s reaction to my hand-written placement essay when I started college was “Wow.”

It’s true. Even in my professional life outside of teaching and singing (I also have one foot in business), some of the worst writing I come across is from people who are exceedingly well spoken in person. Press releases, marketing materials, emails – sometimes I just gape at the horror. On a few occasions I’ve kidnapped press releases coming out of our company and re-written them before sending them to the PR firm.

I’m not seeing a problem with community colleges teaching basic skills. Student tuitions are heavily subsidised, so it’s not a case of using one student’s tuition to teach another. The bulk of the funding is coming out of the community pot. So if improving basic skills is good for the community, which I happen to believe is the case, good on it.

As for other colleges, I’ll let them decide what’s in their best interest.

I guess I’m lucky. When I was a teaching fellow earning my doctorate at an Ivy League school, I did notice that many students did a poor job on immediate assignments like memos and postings to message boards. For written work like papers, I think the students availed themselves of editors (peer or professional) because generally, the problems I encountered were not grammar-related.

Now as a prof at a large state university - and I should mention I’ve only taught grad students - I am fairly impressed with the professional and courteous manner that students demonstrate. I’ve told them to call me by my first name. They still say “Dr.” E-mails are always grammatically sound. I think it might have to do with the fact that most of my students work at the university and this is part of their professional identity.

Writing-wise, I didn’t see an appreciable drop-off in the quality of writing, though I have a limited sample and only one minor assignment. I do make the point that strong writing is expected in my course, and point them to our writing center, as well as extolling the value of peer editing.

Remediation is as old as the American university. And profs have complained about their students’ preparation for college since the 1630s. So I don’t think this is a completely new phenomenon. I will note, however, as someone who has taught in K-12 and higher education - that the diminished expectations seem to start early. When I was in school, we were subjected to draconian rules, such as having to re-submit papers if there were spelling errors, or poor penmanship. Many of my colleagues teaching in high schools are so concerned with preparing kids to pass standardized tests that there is little time to revisit or reteach poor writing and grammar skills. College might be the first time that kids are actually asked to write for the purpose of communicating and demonstrating knowledge of content - not to reach competency on testing criteria.

I haven’t been teaching quite as long as the OP notes, but I’d say it’s about the same in my years of experience. The difference is that people tend to excuse poor grammar and writing much more nowadays, whereas years ago it was a source of embarrassment if you couldn’t write well.

Yup, they really shold learn proper spelling before they write emails. Particularly to college level editors.

I teach a full load of comp courses online for a state university.

Has writing ability declined? Yes, it has. What’s interesting is how–essay and letter structure is better, but sentence structure is in the toilet, along with punctuation, grammar, and usage. No one knows how to use every day versus everyday, two, to, and too, their, they’re and their, its versus it’s, etc. Students seem to think if they insert due to, proceeded to, informed, and upon in their writing it makes them seem erudite. Anything beyond a simple sentence is, if you are lucky enough to get one that has a main verb, a hopeless train-wreck. In order for them to understand linking two independent clauses with a semicolon, they first have to be taught what an independent clause is.

And don’t get me started on their knowledge of formatting with a word processor, or naming their files with meaningful filenames. I get folders full of files named “essay” or “file.”

Good writers are not entirely extinct, though, and I occasionally get a brilliant bit of analysis–the most recent of which was truly stunning. A girl from one of these Evangelical schools actually went into the Torah to come up with a semiotics of a Cohen Brothers movie.


When I was teaching, over 30 years ago, I had the exact same observations, without the use of word processors or file-naming.

BTW, I do my best to let students know they are being heavily penalized for not knowing this stuff, but many students choose not to learn it, and just take the low grade. I think the problem is more a sense of entitlement. Anyway you look at it, you can’t solve problems by throwing slogans at them.


This same complaint has been made about college-aged students going back to since before you were born. If you don’t believe me, look it up.

It was said ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, forty years ago, fifty years ago. College profs have ALWAYS complained that incoming students lack writing skills. There is scant evidence the situation is getting worse.

It reminds me of the quip my dad used to repeat often about engineering graduates from universities hereabouts. When asked to sign their name they’d put down two x’s.
“The first x is my name, the second is my degree.”

This would be funnier if it were an “x” and an “n” :smiley:

Your perspective is a joke. But not in the “ha ha” sense.

My dad wasn’t that much of a nerd. :slight_smile: