Imagine an accounting teacher who discovers that a significant number of her students can’t add up a column of, say, ten eight-digit numbers manually. They can put them into a spreadsheet and SUM a column, but they are not able to add numbers together themselves without the aid of the computer. Next, imagine an English teacher who discovers that a significant number of his students can’t compose a paragraph of complete, grammatical sentences. They throw a bunch of words together (some copied from the Internet) in their word processor and let the grammar checker tell them what to do with them. The accounting teacher, of course, ultimately wants to teach her students, among many other things, how to depreciate assets and write off liabilities. The English teacher ultimately wants to teach his students how to do everything from scanning a poem to deconstructing a narrative. But is there any hope if the students have not mastered these basic skills of adding and writing?
I think the obvious answer is no and, fortunately, the situations I describe are not very common. I do wonder, however, if we test these abilities often enough. I fear that we let students get away with an inability to add and compose far too long. I could blame primary and secondary education for this, but I think universities must themselves insist on a certain standard and not admit students that did not acquire basic competences in school. Those that manage to get in should immediately feel their incompetence if it’s there. For those that recognize their limitations, there is, fortunately, a lot of hope.
I’m sometimes told by teachers in the quantitative disciplines that their students understand perfectly well how to make up for any deficiencies they might have. If they’re not used to solving math problems, they know they must simply dedicate a number of hours every week to training the relevant skills. Indeed, I’ve always found it amusing that “the suffering of learning” was called “pathei-mathos” in Aeschylus’s original Greek. The passion of math is to suffer and learn. This, like I say, is well understood by students and scholars in the mathematical disciplines.
I try to normalize the struggle to write well in the same way. Writing isn’t just something you’re good at or not; is is something you undertake to become at better at through suffering. That’s sort of a melodramatic word, but any good writer will tell you I use it advisedly. I’ve recently been trying to argue that writing instruction should not always try to be “helpful” to students. We should not show them ways around the difficulty; we should encourage them to face it. It is only by going through the suffering of the trying to write down what they know, with sincere aim of discussing it with other knowledgeable people, that they will learn how to write strong scholarly prose. Words can, perhaps, be “processed” by a machine. But sentences and paragraphs must be composed by living brains. Life includes moments of struggle. Writing moments.