Writing: consistently graded, rarely taught

The education we get on writing essays fails to meet the expectations placed upon us

By: Aaron Richardson, Staff Writer

Writing has been an integral part of my experience at SFU. From 300-word responses to 20-page papers, my writing is a tool professors use to assess my understanding of a topic — and I’m sure the same can be said for many SFU students.

As I’ve progressed through my degree, and begun to take upper division classes, the expectations placed on the quality of my writing has increased. That increase in expectation is not a surprise by any means. However, what is surprising is how little writing instruction was present in classes.

At SFU, students are required to take six credits of classes designated as writing intensive (W). There are several criteria that a class must meet for it to be classified as writing intensive. Some of which include the presence of adequate feedback, revision, and a course where much of the content involves instruction on writing. According to SFU, “courses that require written assignments but do not provide explicit instruction on writing would not qualify as W courses.”

Although these might sound like effective methods for a writing course, in my experience, this does not directly translate in-class. Over the course of my degree, I have taken seven classes designated as writing intensive. In many classes, W designation or no, learning how to write is a secondary goal compared to learning what to write about: the primary subject matter of the class. Because of this, the prescribed feedback portion of the class takes the form of only scarce comments on papers.

In many of the supposedly writing intensive classes I’ve taken, the comments have nothing to do with writing, but are instead related to how well the student understood the topic of the paper. This is entirely understandable. But if a class is going to be labeled as writing intensive, then it needs to start spending more time on teaching us how to write.

The best way to improve writing is through a process of trial and error, with feedback and a series of revisions. When the classes that are intended to teach students writing fail to meet these criteria, it becomes a problem. This is especially true if writing is continually used as a grading tool, and if the expectations continually increase year after year.

One W class I took that did do the job right went through the process of writing an experimental paper. The assignments throughout were short versions of the sections of an experimental paper (introduction, methods, results, discussion), and a final project bringing them all together.

In another class, they divided writing instruction and the course content between the tutorials and the lecture. The lectures taught the content of the course, while the tutorials were primarily aimed at teaching us how to write and edit our work.

Teaching students how to write is certainly possible, and effective when done properly. The issue is that this is not typical for W classes, and classes that are not writing intensive have no obligation to teach writing in any form at all. While it would certainly be too much to enforce writing requirements on non-W courses, classes that are intended to teach writing should have the criteria enforced, or have further criteria placed on them. If this is not possible, more programs should have a solid portfolio of W options.

Either way, SFU’s writing education has a long way to go.