Conditionally Required Reading

In my courses I assign a lot of writing. This is because disciplined personal thinking is vital to the learning at the heart of any college course in the humanities, and writing uniquely fosters that kind of thinking.

However, to put it bluntly, many students are unwilling or unable to write at the college level. The reason for this is not obscure. According to the Los Angeles Times,

A report by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, a panel of academics gathered by the College Board, found that 75% of high school seniors never receive writing assignments in history or social studies.

The study also found that a major research and writing project required in the senior year of high school "has become an educational curiosity, something rarely assigned." In addition, the report found that, by the first year of college, more than 50% of freshmen are unable to analyze or synthesize information or produce papers free of language errors.

Students, take this to heart: Your need for remedial education does not mean you are stupid or immoral, only that you have been ripped off. You have been oppressed by a culture resigned to low expectations, apathy, and decadence. Repent and be baptized! Take the red pill! Workers of the world, unite!

Where was I? Oh, right. I assign regular written exercises to force students to think. Moreover, rather than let exercises just reinforce the sloppy writing habits and mushy logic that your high schools have let you get away with, I structure courses to create and strengthen healthy writing habits and disciplined critical thinking. This entails peer reviewing, enforced editing, and — for the students who need it — additional reading in the basics of writing.

There are many ways to be poor at writing. I have chosen supplementary reading in several common areas of weakness. For students who demonstrate a need for improvement, one of the following texts will be required. Those who do the reading will find not only that their writing improves, and the grades on written assignments along with them, but that they have a chance to earn extra credit on tests as well. All these books are accessible, enjoyable, and free from technical grammatical terminology.

A good all-purpose text is Michael Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003). Its chapters offer principles and examples that show students how to make their writing simple, clear, smooth, grammatical, graceful, responsible, orderly, and powerful — addressing the most common vices that afflict collegiate writers and cultivating the most important virtues that should characterize writers of every stripe. It is concise, unpretentious, and inexpensive too.

The following volumes offer more intensive help:

First, much student writing suffers from basic errors in grammar, punctuation, vocabulary choice, and sentence structure. Students who need guidance will want to obtain Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1996).

Second, even more student writing suffers from awkward syntax, limp style, unclear organization, and false pretense. Students with problems here will want to obtain Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999).

Third, some students have chronic problems with writing well under the time constraints of a busy college semester. They spend hours and hours on short assignments only to find out they had answered the wrong question, or they run out of time researching their answer, or they fail to allow time for re-reading and polishing the work before they hand it in. These people will want to obtain Sanford Kaye, Writing Under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process (New York: Oxford, 1989).

Some students are strong in all these areas. This course will require nothing more from them, but they will still find any of the above texts useful if they wish to work further on improving their writing. A helpful and more advanced writing guide is Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose (New York: Broadway, 1999).

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