Joe College Can’t Write, Report Says : Teachers Consider Essays a ‘Frill,’ Rarely Assign Them


UCLA Writing Programs, which handles the teaching of composition at that university, established a committee last year that studied the amount of writing students were doing in their core “general education” courses. In its report, the committee summarized the consensus of those who have thought seriously about the role of writing in education: “Unless we deliberately integrate writing practice into the curriculum at an early stage and consider writing as inseparable from cognitive processes generally--from thinking itself--we fail to adequately educate our students.”

‘Fruitless for Everyone’

How, then, are our colleges and universities doing in terms of this basic responsibility? Most of them are, to borrow the language of the committee, failing to educate their students adequately. The picture at UCLA is summarized in the report: “Those teaching upper-division courses complain that their students can’t write, can’t adequately develop, contextualize and interrelate concepts on paper and therefore, given the existing constraints on their time, faculty members often conclude that assigning papers is fruitless for everyone. Thus it is not surprising to hear graduating seniors say they never had to write an essay after English 3.” English 3 is the basic composition course.

UCLA is not unusual in this respect. UC Berkeley conducted a survey in 1984 which revealed that only about 25% of their undergraduate courses required “a substantial amount of writing or rewriting” (5,000 words for the quarter was considered substantial). Barbara Davis, director of the Office of Educational Development at Berkeley, reports that “there has been a longstanding concern about the quality of writing on the campus.”


Betty Cain and Charles Cooper of UC San Diego have studied the amount and kind of writing done by undergraduate students at UCSD’s Third College. Instead of asking instructors how much writing was assigned, they had students keep detailed logs of the writing they did. They studied a group of freshmen in 1981-82 and sophomores in 1983-84. They found that in both years more than half of the instructors assigned no writing. Of those who did, only a small proportion assigned extended essays and “only four research reports were assigned in 122 classes.”

The authors conclude that these results “suggest a limited, if not impoverished, academic writing experience for most . . . sophomores.”

The writing crisis pervades our system of higher education. Susan Obler, who teaches English at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, recently completed her Ph.D. dissertation, reporting the results of her study of writing in community colleges. She surveyed 304 faculty members at four community colleges in California and conducted extensive follow-up interviews with 20 randomly chosen respondents.

‘Not a Mode of Learning’


She concluded that at those colleges she studied “writing was not a mode of learning, a vehicle for interacting with facts and concepts or a way of discovering meaning; in short, writing was not a basic skill. To some extent, writing was considered a frill like a field trip: something special, a nice thing to have, but not something the system can really afford on a regular basis. What this situation may be communicating to students is that in the college enterprise, writing is not very important.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that those who have done the research I’ve cited here, and many others, are working to correct this conspicuous failure of our colleges and universities.