Express yourself -

Express yourself

But it gets funky when you have a subject and a predicate

Express yourself

Photography by Andrew Tolson

First year students arrive on campuses with their laptops, an iPod, an iPad, a Twitter account, a personal blog and a Facebook page. “They are so expressive and they have so much to share,” says Margie Clow-Bohan, director of the writing centre at Dalhousie. “But the writing skills need work.”

Most of Clow-Bohan’s colleagues would say she is too kind. The class of 2011 is opinionated and expressive but they can’t structure an essay, don’t know how to write an introduction, write paragraphs that are two pages long, and have murderously bad grammar. This is the lament of professors from Victoria to St. John’s. “The grammar sucks and the writing is awful. ” So says Paul Budra, associate dean and English professor at Simon Fraser University, about the quality of the essays he sees: fragments, comma splices, apostrophe, pronoun and agreement errors, and tense mistakes. High school teachers are failing students, he says. “There’s this emphasis on expressing yourself, on this idea that if you get it on the page, it will be fine,” he says. “It’s not.”

“Universities teach subject matter, not writing,” says Richard Stren, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “It is assumed that by reading academic articles, students will absorb how to write. It doesn’t work. I gave out a lot of Cs.”

“Teachers are afraid to teach grammar,” says Visnja Cuturic, an ESL instructor who teaches grammar and academic writing at the University of Toronto. “They know the rules instinctively, but they can’t teach them. And rote learning is a thing of the past.”

I know this first-hand. I teach a college English class at a downtown college in Toronto. The first time I collected essays from my students, who are a variety of ages but have all received a high school degree, I was stunned. Subjects didn’t agree with verbs. Sentences started on page one and kept up the fight until page two. Commas were either used not at all or appeared in startling places. It wasn’t that there weren’t any ideas in the papers; it was that they were so buried by the wreckage of bad grammar it would have taken the jaws of life to free them.

“I believe writing well is intricately tied up with thinking clearly. As a responsible citizen, you have to grapple with issues at a very deep level, and if you can’t do that on the page, you’ll have trouble,” says Ginny Ryan, director of the writing centre at Memorial University in St. John’s. MUN students come to her writing centre for hour-long sessions; the students get one-on-one attention from a graduate student in their discipline. Since 2008, MUN engineering students are required to write an essay on ethics. Ryan visited the engineering classes and taught essay writing to the students. “It’s difficult to escape MUN without some kind of writing skill,” she says.

Dalhousie requires students to take two “writing-intensive” courses before they graduate. Erin Wunker, an English professor at Dalhousie, teaches a year-long introduction to literature class, which is considered writing intensive. Wunker doesn’t make it an easy ride. “I wear them down,” she says. “I tell them they’ll use these skills if they are writing a persuasive demand for a raise or explaining, in a cogent fashion, the source of a patient’s illness.” Wunker matches students with a peer-editing buddy. “They’re not allowed to write sycophantic, empty comments like: ‘I liked your essay!’ ” she says. “They have to write critical and thoughtful things, or they don’t pass,” she says. The improvement is astonishing. “The students always say they dreaded the peer editing but it turned out to be the most helpful part of the course.”

There are five writing centres at the University of Toronto where undergrads can get help from graduate students. “There was a sense that we weren’t reaching enough students,” says Sandy Welsh, a sociology professor and vice-dean of teaching and learning in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto. Enter the Writing Instruction for TAs (WIT) program. Ivan Kalmar, an anthropology professor at U of T, teaches an introductory course with 1,200 students. The class is broken up into groups of 30 students, and each student attends eight tutorials, run by WIT-trained TAs. Every student submits an essay proposal before turning in an essay, and the TAs, Kalmar says, catch the big errors before the final paper comes in. “It’s an opportunity for students in a massive class to get one-on-one feedback,” he says. “The marks have gone up tremendously, and the students say the tutorials were the most rewarding part of the course.”

“We shouldn’t be waiting until smaller classes in the second or third year to introduce writing skills,” says Kalmar.


Express yourself

  1. It is a testament to good teaching when students entering University and those finishing their academic careers, are able to comprehend an assignment, can put together a paragraph, can write a decent research paper that makes sense,: can spell properly and pose sensible comments, spoken in good English, in class. This is not always the case. As one who has been immersed within post-secondary academia for six years at a top Canadian university, I am continually shocked at what I see and hear around me. I must remind myself that it is NOT easy to gain entrance into this university, and all of these students did so. A very popular word now in contemporary university and college culture is "like", though whether it is being used as a verb or a noun or a pronoun is Greek to me. It is common to hear, ""Like, my friends and I are going to the party on Friday night and like, are you going to be there, too?" Or, "I have to, like, give my presentation tomorrow. I hope that I, like, ace it". Well, I hope so also.

  2. Appalling verbal grammar notwithstanding, while tutoring in certain disciplines and reading over lecture notes (with the intent to assist and bring out the best in my student) I have often noted horrific spelling, punctuation and sentence structure, which leads me to wonder what quality of teaching these people received from K to 12??????? How could the educators pass students who cannot put appropriate English language down on paper? What kind of writing and verbal grammar was used in English courses, or in any other courses, that required writing and language skills? (continued)

  3. Once one has completed post-secondary education, .prospective employers will judge one on how he/she comes across – not only in appearance, professional demeanour and the ability to fit into the organization, but how he/she is able to articulate his/herself grammatically. A very poorly written cover letter or C.V. might be tossed aside, whereas one that is clear and easy to comprehend can lead to an interview. Similarly, the ability to communicate well verbally is correlated to the general impression one gives. If one speaks horribly, the impression given is that this is not a terribly intelligent or educated individual. In reality, that might not be the case, but appearances matter. Given the fierce competition for professional positions now, this matters even more (continued(

  4. While there are professions that do not require the worker to write anything or if they must, what is written need not be articulate, there will always be occasions in life whereby good writing and speaking skills serve one well. Some examples are applying for a mortgage or another loan, being called to court, being engaged in a business deal, serving on committees, volunteering in the community, and so on.
    It is very true that Universities are focused on the disciplines taught, in some cases professions – and not on teaching reading, writing and public speaking skills. It is assumed that the student has mastered these by the time he/she commences University, but once again, the reality is often different.

  5. All told, it is a good thing that educators at the post-secondary level are supposed to give constructive criticisms on research papers, exams and assignments. Imagine if they did not and simply assigned a grade? One shudders at the thought that thousands of students
    would never realize they could barely write or speak, and they would carry on….as Paul Budra, associate Dean and English professor at Simon Fraser University duly noted: "the emphasis is often on expressing yourself , that if you get it on paper, it will be fine. It's not".

  6. Personal expression reveals the creativity and uniqueness of the individual. But too often, it also reveals what can be perceived as weaknesses, flaws and even character defects. With this said, it is clear that k-12 educators need to clamp down on grading, and overall assessing their students in terms of reading, writing and speaking. Perhaps all post-secondary institutions in North America should commence requiring simple English language proficiency tests, including writing paragraphs or even short essays. For students coming from abroad, there could be English language equivalency courses made available to them and required, before they start attending a Canadian or American University. (continued)

  7. The English language is beautiful. Sadly, it appears that, in the new millennium, there is a need to re-address the proper use of it within the educational system. Horrible self-expression by young Canadians is a problem that won't go away anytime soon. The generation that will follow the baby boomers could be wonderful speakers, writers and communicators, but they must want this for themselves and schools must want this for them.
    Barbara J. Sowak
    B.Ed., Sec., B.A., political science/history/art history (11)
    University of Alberta, Canada

  8. Oh, give me a break. What do you think high school English teachers teach, exactly? Emoting 101? We teach grammar; we teach comma usage; we teach proper essay structure. We do it every year; every semester; every month; every week; every day. Do you want copies of my handouts? Do you want copies of my assignments? Do you want copies of my rubrics? How about copies of the comments I spent hours making – all pointing out the errors in grammar, spelling, comma usage, word choices, poor syntax, weak structure, faulty logic. We are NOT failing students. Do you blame yourselves when students fail to learn the material you taught? Have you not learned yet that pitfalls of basing any conclusions on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. Perhaps the lower standards have to do with
    a)more students are enrolled in post-secondary education than ever before; b)younger students; c)a culture of anti-intellectualism; d) student apathy; e) the imapct of growing number of ESL students. How would you fare were you writing an essay in your second, third, or even fourth language? Would you know where to place your commas?

  9. This past summer while doing research on the summer of 1977, I came across an editorial in a toronto daily lamenting – yes, the poor writing skills of 1st year university students – and yes, once again, their high school teachers were blamed.
    And – not that I would base any argument on anecdotal evidence . . . I remember during my first year as a T.A. how a colleague agonized over his decision to fail two students with abysmally poor writing skills. Both of his students were over 65.

  10. It is good if you have graded your students fairly and critically. That is what the system needs. Impartiality and professionialism combined with compassion and the ability to be mentoring = good pedagogy.
    I appreciate constructive criticisms within my own work, (as long as it is fair) because that is how I learn. Post-secondary academia is a learning process.Sometimes, when we write research papers, we cannot see the forest for the trees! But I am aware that there are far too many educators in elementary and middle and secondary schools who are not critical enough. They will pass students or give out "B's when, in reality, the students are not at that level. I have it on good authority that on occasion, students are graded in accordance with the parents' wishes, though I would hope not!

  11. I concur with your comment about ESL/foreign students, but I also maintain that if foreign students intend to study at a good international University it would serve them well to attempt to learn the "host" language. I have had comments made to myself from foreign students who admitted that they wished they had made an effort to learn English proficiently because it would have helped them and/or improved their grades.

    My main point is that for one to gain entrance to a top Unversity, there is an assumption that the person has good to excellent commnunication skills and the article Express Yourself has corroborated that, unfortunately, this is not so. If there were
    not a problem occurring, MacLeans would not have addressed it.

  12. 1. The students do make an effort. Making an effort does not immediately translate into excellent results. The consequence is that the standard of essays might be lower than expected.
    2. Well, MacLeans addresses a lot of things, but this in itself does not mean that the problem is occurring. My point, however, had nothing to do with whether the problem was or was not occurring, but rather that it was not a new problem, or one specific to this generation, as the column and articles appearing in the Toronto paper in the summer of 1977 show. (In other words, it is likely that the professors complaining now, were of the generation about whom the professors were complaining then.)