On Thursday, Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford were in Fresno by invitation of my department's graduate student organization Students of English Studies Association. I think it was a first to have two such prominent Composition scholars present at California State University, Fresno. I had breakfast with them and a group of our really wonderful graduate students that morning. Both Andrea and Karen were really gracious and went out of their way to praise the work our graduate students were doing (Andrea had heard them present last year at the CCCC). At breakfast, I was interested to hear about Karen's work--but I also was fascinated to learn about the creative work that Michelle Brittan and Mario Rosado (two of our MFA students) are doing. Both are interested in anthropology, a discipline that continues to intrigue me.
Later that day, Andrea and Karen told us about a research project they're doing. Thirty years ago, Andrea coded and analyzed a collection of essays produced by college freshmen in writing classes. She's also familiar with a similar collection from the 1880's. Now, Andrea and Karen have solicited essays from universities all over the U.S. They are engaged in a herculean effort to understand the contemporary strengths and weaknesses of college writers. They also led us through the task of looking at teacher comments and trying to come up with a coding system for them. This was an authentic task--they wanted our advice on what to look for in these essays.
I want to back up, though. Probably the most interesting thing I learned from them was their assessment of how today's college freshmen compare with students 30 years ago. Here are some of the important points:
- Thirty years ago, students had a lot of spelling errors. Today, most essays have very few spelling problems thanks to spell check.
- Other than that, the problems of college writers are pretty much the same in both eras. This is an important point since the idea of a literacy crisis has predominated for decades.
- The most striking differences between the two sets of students are that 1) Today's students write more arguments/persuasive pieces instead of the narratives that predominated 30 years ago. 2) Today's students are assigned much longer pieces to write.
Basically, then, when teachers complain that student writing is getting worse, that's not an accurate perception. As writing teachers, we need to understand that we are involved in a decades-long endeavor to teach writing rather than an epic battle to assure that high standards are met.
We are writing teachers; we want our students to be effective communicators. It's challenging but rewarding work. Let's not be distracted by the rhetoric of crisis.