Good News/Bad News on College Kids

For almost three years now I have taught magazine writing as an adjunct instructor at Rowan University in Glassboro. As my fifth semester comes to a close this month, I am at once more encouraged and more discouraged about the future of education than ever before.

First, the encouragement.

Without question, this semester’s group of 18 students (with majors ranging from public relations to journalism to education) was the most enjoyable and engaging I have ever taught. I don’t know if my teaching style has finally come into its own, if this spring just happened to bless me with an exceptionally talented lot, or some combination of the two. Whatever the case may be, the majority of my students this semester were not only passionate about the written word, but also seemed to grasp concepts that have otherwise gone over the heads of students past (i.e. having a strong narrative voice, understanding interviewing techniques and embracing the mantra of show-don’t-tell). They were intellectually curious, outspoken in class and a general joy to teach.

Now, the discouraging part.

When I first started teaching at the college level in 2008, I was appalled, frankly, by the lack of writing proficiency shown by some of my students. I’m not talking about the difference between being a good writer and a great writer—I’m talking about the difference between being nonsensical and competent. Grammatical horrors notwithstanding (the contraction for “they are” written as “their”; tenses flip-flopped from past to present and back again), I’ve seen far too many college students pass through my classroom doors without being able to effectively communicate even the most basic thoughts and concepts through the written word.

This semester was no different. Peppered throughout my classroom were students whose writing proficiency fell somewhere between eighth- and ninth-grade levels. It was evident in their graded assignments; it was far worse in some of their emails. Consider the following note a student sent with the semester’s final project:

“Here is the 1 without the quotes italics… let me know if this is okay…. i can come home b4 5 2morow and fix it if its not! thanks!”

I don’t know what’s going on here, but something has to change or the future will be grim indeed. I’m not saying everyone has to be Shakespeare, but sharp, effective communication is a cornerstone for successful individuals and societies, and there’s no reason college students attending a rather fine university should be struggling with basics like capitalization, punctuation and subject-verb agreement.

Whenever I go down this particular road of lamentation, I think back to what my dad told me when I was young. “Nicholas,” he said, “if you can master the English language, you can master anything in this world.” Someone needs to communicate this to our children…before it’s too late.

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