Politics & Policy

College Students Can’t Write?

What a "scoop."

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently discovered something that parents have known for at least the past 15 years — America’s universities don’t teach college kids how to write . . . at least, not how to write very well.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of recent college graduates today cannot express themselves with the written word. Why? Because universities have shortchanged them, offering strange literary theories, Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, and other oddities in the guise of writing courses. They’ve offered everything, really, but the basics of clear writing.

This higher-education failure has been an open secret among employers and among those of us who have dealt with college writers and their writing over the years. I witnessed this deficiency myself as a college instructor at Duke University. Only now has this gross failure of higher education drawn the attention of the Chronicle.

Although the expose in the Chronicle’s (Jan. 3) focuses on the failed undergraduate writing programs at Duke and Princeton and recent efforts to improve or replace them, the Chronicle identifies what has been a nationwide trend for some time.

College students generally can’t write well, and the fault lies entirely with the universities.

At Duke University, for instance, it was an open secret for more than a decade that the University Writing Course was a fraud — a preciously expensive fraud. Says the Chronicle:

Duke students . . . had been saddled for years with a failed writing program. Since the mid-1980s, Duke had used a method, developed by a now-retired English professor, that was based on peer interaction. In 1999, the university revamped its requirement. “It was clear to the faculty that it was broken. It was clear to the students who took it. It was clear to the parents of those students and their grandparents,” says Robert J. Thompson, dean of the liberal-arts college at Duke.

This clarity apparently escaped the attention of Duke’s administration, which had no problem charging an exorbitant tuition for a “broken” course for more than a decade. It was a course that stayed “broken” for more than ten years despite the aforementioned clarity of apparently everyone on the campus except the groundskeepers and Duke President Nan Keohane.

I can confirm Dean Thompson’s frank assessment of the Duke writing program. Duke’s University Writing Course was the responsibility of Duke’s English Department, and it was during this dark period in Duke English Department history — coinciding with the worst of the Stanley Fish years in the late ’80s and early ’90s — that I was a Duke political-science graduate student, situated in the building right across the quad from Fish. It is now common knowledge that Fish almost single-handedly corrupted Duke’s English Department with the acquiescence of the administration. The whole sordid, cash-driven mess was chronicled in the February 1999 issue of Lingua Franca.

It wasn’t a clandestine affair, mind you. Lots of people on campus knew what was going on.

But rarely, if ever, would anyone of stature state publicly what many people knew — namely, that Stanley Fish was destroying the English Department with his dubious and expensive radical faculty hires and recruitment of substandard graduate students steeped in bizarre postmodernist theory. But the administration pretended there was no problem.

Instead, Duke’s administration indulged and funded the enthusiasms of academic extremists such as Fish and his cronies. A few principled traditionalists in the English Department fought a valiant rearguard action, and principled academics such as Professor Kenny Williams and Professor Victor Strandberg held on long enough to see the post-modernists all but defeated and exposed as charlatans.

Throughout this period, besides the brave minority of traditionalists in the Duke English Department, the only consistent voice and clear eye on the situation was the independent school newspaper, The Duke Review.

Back in 1991, the Review predicted the fall of the Fish English Department, saying:

“The great collapse has begun. We will inevitably find that all the cash and perquisites squandered by Duke’s administration will not save the cult of deconstructionists, post-modernists, New Age Critics, Marxists, and feminists from the historical oblivion for which they are destined.”

Eight years later, in 1999, Lingua Franca got around to reporting that: “For much of the last decade, the Duke English Department has been a model for academic entrepreneurs and the object of widespread envy. Now the department is in tatters: Its star faculty has fled, and its curriculum is virtually nonexistent. But was the Duke model ever what it was cracked up to be?”

Obviously not.

Besides tagging Fish for the destructive force he was, The Duke Review also established the link between the declining Fish English Department and Duke’s substandard and downright creepy University Writing Program. That program was staffed mainly with untrained Fish-recruited graduate students. And it was not popular at all with undergraduates forced to take the course.

“Duke was asleep at the switch,” said a 1994 Duke graduate, who is now a professional journalist. “They basically brought in disinterested graduate students, gave them no oversight, and said ‘go to it.’ With no supervision, those grad students would talk about their research into, say, Shakespeare’s sexuality. They’d talk about anything rather than teach you clear and concise writing. They themselves probably didn’t know how write. It was a sham, and I had to learn to how to write outside the Duke classroom, on my own.”

In the early 1990s, I got a personal feel for the quality of undergraduate writing and the UWC itself, because I served as a political science teaching assistant for the basic international-relations course. I conducted four discussion sections totaling 66 undergraduates. After several months of hearing odd stories from my students about strange UWC class sessions, I made it a point to quiz my students on the type of writing instruction they were receiving. In the process, I discovered that only five of the 66 had heard of Strunk and White’s Elements of Styleand only three students actually owned it.

Make of this fact what you will, but it indicated to me that whatever was going on in the UWC, it didn’t concern clear expression or concise words to paper. If not good writing, then, what was Duke’s UWC teaching? I asked.

I discovered that there was no common instruction across the many sections of UWC students, no required text, no baseline or minimum standards. Instead, English Department graduate students, who made up the majority of UWC instructors, could run their sections as they saw fit. Most of them saw fit to teach their dissertations on deconstruction, postmodernism, lesbian literary theory, and the like.

And student reaction to the UWC?

“The UWC program was Duke’s first indoctrination attempt for new students,” said a 1999 Duke graduate, who now serves as managing editor of a publishing house. “My instructor was a literature graduate student, a militant feminist who changed all indefinite pronouns from ‘he’ to ‘she,’ required students to read bell hooks and other ‘diverse’ works, and transformed all assignments into political arguments. An assignment on the university’s patriarch, Washington Duke, was acceptable to her only if it attacked the ‘male-dominated society.’ When a classmate wrote an essay on ‘heroes,’ she would accept it only if it included female heroines as well.”

Predictably, as the English department molded itself in Stan Fish’s image, the quality of English Department graduate students decreased commensurately. The chain reaction carried over to UWC instruction, and it deteriorated even further.

“UWC was a joke,” said a 1996 Duke graduate who is now a student in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “All the students knew UWC was worthless, and I think that deep down, the surly grad student instructors knew it too. In four years at Duke, I didn’t meet a single student who learned something or became a better writer as a result of that course.”

In February of 1994, an external review commission rated Duke’s English Department as substandard and deficient. Its graduate students couldn’t compete for jobs with their peers from other institutions, and the English Department developed a “sorry recent placement record” for its new Ph.D.s. The external review also expressed reservations about the University Writing Course. But still the English Department was permitted to run the UWC, and it changed nothing.

The Duke Review reported all of this in an expose in 1994, when the actual confidential report was leaked to the Review. It took five more years for the university to scrap its University Writing Course and start again “from scratch” as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I estimate that at least ten consecutive Duke University freshmen classes — an entire decade or more of Duke undergraduates — received substandard writing instruction in the UWC. More precisely, their parents were ripped off by a university pandering to faculty and radical student excesses rather than responding to the needs of its students. Duke’s dean of the liberal-arts college Robert J. Thompson has admitted as much. The rich irony is that the only course required of every Duke undergraduate was the one course that Duke reluctantly scrapped after a decade of uselessness.

But the writing course disaster at Duke didn’t just “happen.” Its poor quality and continued existence for years is a direct result of administration irresponsibility and lack of faculty accountability.

Now that Duke has admitted its negligence — if not outright malfeasance — will it refund a portion of the tuition paid by the parents of students shortchanged during those years, which would include every undergraduate who attended Duke during the period? Will Duke name names and reprimand those responsible? Will Duke President Nan Keohane step forward and issue an apology to every student subjected to the flawed UWC? Will anyone at Duke be held accountable in what has to be considered one of the greatest academic debacles in the school’s history?

Deeper questions, still: Why was it left to a handful of college students and to an independent school newspaper — The Duke Review — to tell the truth publicly about the writing program, a truth that everyone knew and agreed with behind closed doors but did nothing about? Why was Duke so impervious to self-examination and reform? More important, are those same truculent administrators still in charge?

Is there any reason to assume that the situation with respect to the writing program at Duke has improved? Has anyone been ousted? Has anyone been summarily fired for gross incompetence? Or is all the blame to be heaped on the head of that poor “now-retired English professor” who concocted the whole mess back in the 1980s? How convenient for Duke to finger the guy who left the school years ago.

I honestly don’t know if the writing program at Duke has improved since the launch of the new program in 1999, or if students are provided quality writing instruction instead of the spontaneous musings of alienated fried-brain radicals. Universities are notoriously tight-fisted where it concerns information about curriculum and faculty and their own performance in educating their charges. Lord knows, Duke has good reason to be tight-lipped about its teaching performance given its track record with the UWC.

Nationwide, no one can really say for certain if the message has gotten through to college administrators, who are always more concerned with politics than pedagogy. But we can try to find out.

Let’s conduct an unscientific and anecdotal poll.

If you’re a Duke student in the current writing program or you’ve taken the required writing course since 1999, send to me an email with your assessment of Duke’s writing program at badwrite@aol.com. Your name and e-mail remain confidential. Your evaluation does not.

Be clear.

Be concise.

Be concrete.

Be comprehensive.

Of course, if your email is an unintelligible, postmodernist, jargon-laden harangue, I’ll know the answer for myself.

Stanley K. Ridgley is president of the Russian-American Institute and for eight years served as executive director of the Collegiate Network, a national association of college newspapers. For nine years, he was the editor of CAMPUS Magazine and most recently contributed the foreword to Write Tight. He founded The Duke Review in 1989.

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