Do Academics Devalue Writing?

I meant to write this blog months ago. It is inspired by observations made while at a conference in the spring with other writing scholars. The devaluing of writing is an issue I think about often as I inch ahead in my own PhD studies and consider, while applying for grants for example, how others will perceive my work. How my discipline perceives my work is especially crucial given that I am in a practice-based discipline not a humanities discipline where, you would think but it is apparently not so, that the value of writing would be more self-evident.

My research area is writing in nursing education.  I have conducted research on writing self-efficacy in first-year nursing students in several projects I started before I became a PhD student. When tackling psycho-educational topics in a discipline that privileges the biomedical perspective, there are those that will brush you off, tell you your topic doesn’t interest them, or look at you strangely and tell you they didn’t realize nurses needed to write. In that environment, it is hard to go up against, for grants or even to get certain journals to take you seriously, scholars who are trying to cure cancer, as the epitomes example.

But someone has to teach the future cancer curers of this academic world how to write and think.

In nursing the problem has looked like such:

  1. Most nursing programs in Canada do not teach writing at all to their students. Or if they do believe their students require writing skills, they require an English Literature course as a prerequisite (as if interpreting literature and writing about it will help them write better research synthesis papers). Or they require students take a basic generic writing course which drills grammar and a style guide. Discipline-specific writing instruction is rare in nursing programs (6% in Canada).  I am grateful to Jo-anne Andre and Roger Graves for the study that has fed me that stat.
  2. Writing ability is not an entry level practice competency for nurses at the national or provincial level in Canada.  I have been through the competency documents for every province (except Quebec) and none of them include writing as a competency. One of them (my own province, gratefully) includes the following statement under the heading of assumptions: “Entry-level registered nurses demonstrate English or French language proficiency (reading, writing, listening and speaking).”
  3. The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) the organization that “establishes and promotes national standards of excellence for nursing education”  has written a National Nursing Education Framework. Writing does not appear in the framework as a priority of nursing education until the Masters level of education. Writing is not mentioned in undergraduate education at all so I’ve been wondering where nursing Masters students are learning to develop such skills as as,
    “The ability to articulate verbally, and in writing, to a wide range of audiences the evidence for nursing decisions, including the credibility and relevance of sources of information,”

    if those skills are not honed in undergraduate education as a component of excellence in nursing education. The hardest writing requirement imbedded in that statement above as an educational priority for Masters education is the writing for a wide range of audiences. Understanding the needs of an audience is the most challenging writing skill of all. You come to understand the needs of an audience, through lots and lots and lots of writing and that writing exposure better come well before the Masters level.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on faculty in a nursing program that includes in its curriculum one of the rare 6% of discipline-specific writing courses. In fact, I developed that course. Our former chair, now retired, valued writing, but it is likely she included the course because she had a ready-made registered nurse faculty member (meaning me) to step in and develop the course. Our course, in its inception, was truly discipline-specific because it was taught and developed by a registered nurse. But she only made it one credit hour in value which does not represent the workload or the stress levels incurred by some students.

Nevertheless, I’ve still encountered problems from our faculty over the value of writing. For example, we have a parallel policy that students must pass every course in each term before moving on in the program. We weren’t far into our new curriculum (2 terms) when the writing course became a quick exception to that rule and students were were allowed to move to the next term without successfully completing the writing course.

As another example, at some point in our program we had to stop allowing faculty to be too autonomous in their assignment choices and the location of writing assignments needed to be pre-selected and permanent because writing assignments were being dropped from courses without any consultation. Instructors would trial an assignment, quickly realize how much work they were, and the next year it would be gone from their course. They did this stealthily, without telling anyone, and no one found out until it was too late.

I have also discovered how quick instructors are to place blame on the introductory writing course as the cause of students’ perceived lack of writing skills. I can’t even count the number of emails, hallway conversations, and pointed questions at faculty meetings, where I was required to address the generic finger point, “Didn’t they learn this stuff in your course?” As if I was the magic bullet. As if my course was the end of the line for undergraduate students learning how to write.

So it shocked me to be at a writing scholars’ conference (CASDW) and find out that the nursing experience wasn’t unique at all. That even in the writing studies discipline faculty were plagued with pointed fingers and statements of devaluing. Faculty calling writing a “soft skill.” The blaming of some unknown entity before these students arrived at their doorstep for their poor writing as if each individual course assignment didn’t require new learning, new writing supports, no matter the level these students were at. We seem to want students to be sitting in our classrooms fully formed when it comes to writing. And the industries we feed want students coming out with better writing (and communication) skills but they don’t want to lengthen programs to help students develop these skills.

When I wrote the tweet I posted above, many of those who contributed to the conversation thought I meant students were the ones devaluing writing but I was talking about faculty primarily. Many defined students’ devaluing of writing by them not caring about the grammar in their assignments. But grammar is not the only thing that makes bad writing. And what makes for bad grammar can be highly subjective and disciplinary too. What bothers me as a grader will be different from what bothers you. I, for example, could not care less about detecting split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, but I’m going to be all over bad uses of semi-colons. I’m much more interested in ideas, clarity, creativity, cohesiveness.

Reading qualitative studies asking students about what they think of the feedback they get on their writing enlightened me to student frustrations. The thing students hate the most is when their graders fail to see what they are trying to say in order to simply nit-pick at sentence by sentence grammatical structure. You want students to pay attention to grammar, tell them to read their papers out loud to themselves. Give them time in class to do it. More writing will improve students grammar but students quickly become disengaged in their writing if they feel their ideas are being ignored.

If students devalue writing it is because we model that to devalue it is acceptable. We model it by doing some of the things I’ve described above.  Allowing them to progress in a program without passing a required writing credit is like saying, well, you can get by without it. I’ve heard faculty talking to students about how much they hate writing too and avoid it. I’ve heard them validating student beliefs that nurses don’t need to know how to write to look after a patient. Faculty make these comments without any consideration for the nature of thinking that goes into writing that will benefit student thinking at the bedside.

In my experience, the faculty complaining loudest about the dire condition of student writing are the ones that seem to devalue writing the most. Many of these faculty have no intention of being a part of the solution. Many don’t recognize that in order for good writing to be handed in, supports must be in place and the educator assigning the writing must be a part of that support system. Bad writing in your course is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. Writing experts have known for years that drilling grammar does not fix that problem, so demanding that writing scholars come in and fix the issue by offering a 2 hour workshop on the basics of grammar, will not fix the bad writing your assignment produces. You’ll be lucky if any of the students show up. Deficit pedagogy, where we tell students what NOT to do over and over again, does nothing to teach them what they should do.

In  my mind, getting good writing out of our students requires three simple things:

  1. Writing a meaningful assignment and allowing student choice.
  2. Providing in-classroom supports for our own assignments.
  3. Allowing students to say something that is their own and represents their identity in the work.

Developing writing identity may be the key to helping students value writing. Students resent writing that demands they leave themselves out of the analysis. I don’t blame them. I resent writing like that as well. But so many disciplines continue to devalue writing, even at the professional academic level, that shows any shred of humanity.  They label that kind of writing as biased writing, lacking objectivity. I conducted a poll shortly after tweeting the devaluing thread, asking academics and researchers if they would call themselves “a writer”

If you remove the folks that were just spying, 56% said yes, 30% said no, and 14% said not sure. So just under half of the academics/researchers and Phd students who responded would not identify as a writer. In the comments below, some said they they felt writing was a necessary evil of the job. It was a task, not an identity.  Some felt it was not their primary identity (teaching was). But yet writing is what we do. Writing is what makes our research travel. Writing is what gets us degrees, promotions, grants, recognition, publications, and advances our careers. How can we not identify as writers?

If such a large proportion of those teaching and assigning writing to students cannot identify as writers then we have an identity crisis in academia. The problem of devaluing writing may stem from this identity crisis. I learned this week that writing studies scholars have challenges even being recognized as a relevant discipline. If we don’t write as academics, if we don’t value writing ourselves, if we don’t want to teach writing or help our students value writing, what is it that we do again?

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