Who is to blame for people’s poor writing skills? It isn’t texting or tweeting. It’s a fateful decision made in 1875, from which we’ve never recovered. In this episode, we find out what went wrong — and how today’s educators are reinventing the way writing is taught.
Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer. In each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today and figure out where it came from, what important things we're missing, and how we can create more opportunity tomorrow. Do you think you're a good writer? Maybe you do, so here's another question. Do you think the people around you are good writers, the people you work with, the people you went to school with, maybe, let's be honest, your friends and family? Can these people write. I bet you think the answer is no, and you are not alone.
Voice Clip (Washington Post): It is commonly noted that young people today don't write as well as older generations.
Jason Feifer: That's the first sentence in a Washington Post story. It was written by an English teacher, and it came with the headline, The Real Reason so Many Young People Can't Write Well Today. This concern doesn't just apply to students. It is said about adults too. Back in 2004, the New York Times even ran a story headlined, What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence, and it reported...
Voice Clip (New York Times): Millions of inscrutable email messages are clogging corporate computers by setting off requests for clarification, and many of the requests in turn are also chaotically written, resulting in whole cycles of confusion.
Jason Feifer: The piece cited a survey of 120 American corporations, which concluded that a third of employees in the nation's blue-chip companies were bad writers. These businesses were spending more than $3 billion a year on basic writing lessons for their employees. Now, let's be clear about something. In many episodes of Build for Tomorrow, I sat out to prove that a modern concern should not be a concern at all, but here there is no doubt. A lot of people cannot write, even accomplished professionals. You've seen it yourself. These people can barely string a sentence together. Who can we blame for this problem? Isn't that always what we want to know, who is to blame? Here is where it gets interesting. There are, of course, no shortage of fingers being pointed. If you want to hint at where they are pointing, well, you already heard it in that Washington Post story from a minute ago. Here, I'll refresh your memory.
Voice Clip (Washington Post): You people today don't write as well as older generations.
Jason Feifer: The headline said, quote, "Young people can't write well today." We are as always treating this as a today problem.
Voice Clip (John McWhorter): We always hear that texting is a scourge. The idea is that texting spells the decline and fall of any kind of serious literacy or at least writing ability among young people in the United States and now the whole world today.
Jason Feifer: That's from a TED Talk by the linguist John McWhorter who, to be clear, is summarizing the criticism of texting, but not endorsing it. You want to hear what an endorsement sounds like? Well, just turn on a report from CBS6 Albany.
Voice Clip (CBS6 Albany): Our kids are texting faster than ever. Teachers are noticing a direct connection between an increase in texting and an increase in assignments handed back with errors.
Jason Feifer: Here's one from NBC News.
Voice Clip (NBC News): Young brains need a lot of external stimuli to develop, particularly from birth to age three, what's known as the critical period. It's during this time that children's neurons are making connections for fundamental skills, such as vision, hearing, and language, but these needs are based on centuries of human evolution, which used to have nothing to do with screens. Consider a child watching a video instead of listening to parents read a book. It's a far different experience for the brain. Rather than kids learning to focus and imagine the story, the device presents everything to them, so certain cognitive to become underdeveloped.
Jason Feifer: on and on it goes like that. Texting, tweeting, reading garbage on the internet instead of Shakespeare, word processors that correct our spelling and even our grammar, pick a modern tool that in some way intersects with reading and writing and you can find it being blamed for the decline in people's ability to write. This feels logical, because when we look backwards at pre-digital generations, we say, "Behold, the beautiful handwritten letters. Look at their timeless works of literature."
Jason Feifer: The older generation, we believe, were simply better writers than we were because writing was a more integral part of their lives, and technology clearly ruined that, which makes sense until you look back at the complaints of those elegant and articulate pre-digital people. You don't actually have to go that far. In the 1970s, Newsweek put it on their cover. It was a cover story that screamed, Why Johnny Can't Write. It claimed that, quote, "The U.S. Educational system is spawning a generation of semi-literates," end quote. But to see the real scope of this, let's go back a lot further to the words of a man born in 1831 who founded the nation and was the editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post from 1883 to 1899.
Elizabeth Wardle: Edwin E.L. Godkin, who was one of the people who decried the illiteracy of American youth, wrote several well-known pieces at the time in which he listed all the evil influences, and that's his term, evil influences on poor writing.
Jason Feifer: This, by the way, is Elizabeth Wardle, a professor of written communication at Miami University in Ohio. I will give her a fuller introduction later because you're going to hear a lot from her, but for now, what were those evil influence of the 1800s?
Elizabeth Wardle: Street slang, the bad writing in newspapers, popular novels, and he very specifically said, quote, "The better the novel, the more evil its influence," the carelessness of teachers, and the failure of our educational institutions. Right there at the beginning, that's a story that has not changed.
Jason Feifer: But it gets even more interesting because this is not one of those things that have just been said since the beginning of time. It's not like a, "Kids these days," thing where you can find thousands of years worth of grumpy old people complaining about the younger generation. No, this complaint about writing has a start date, a specific time, a specific year when the complaints began, when everyone decided that people today simply can't write. It's something Elizabeth stumbled upon as she began her academic career and was trying to understand why so many people are such bad writers.
Elizabeth Wardle: Even when I was writing my dissertation, I was thinking, "How are we teaching writing? Why are we doing that? does it actually work?" I set up a study to see, "What are we doing in this class? Does it work." It didn't work, and then I started reading about, "Why were we even doing it?" That took me back to the 1870s where I realized we've been doing it wrong since 1875, despite knowing that it doesn't work.
Jason Feifer: 1875, it is that specific. What happened then? That is what we're digging into in this episode of Build for Tomorrow. We're going to find the real culprit behind our bad writing, which isn't texting, and it isn't tweeting, and it isn't anything modern at all. Along the way, we will also see whether the past really had better writers than the present, and whether history's most classic writers also wrote some real garbage, and very importantly, how we can finally solve this problem and create better writers now. That is all coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. Our ultimate destination here will be the year 1875, but before we get there, let's back up a little further to examine the caliber of writers that came before, because if I asked you to think of writers before the year 1875, who would you think of? I know what you'd think of. You'd think of the greats, Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Emily Dickinson. We can go back further, John Milton, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Homer, the authors of Greek tragedies. These are the kinds of people who we think of from the past, and we think they were full of more talent than the present, that something about their old times created the kinds of writers that last for generations. I wondered, is that actually true? Because this is an important context for our evaluation of why people cannot write today. I called up a very scholarly man to ask a very silly question. When we think of Shakespeare, we think of amazing writing. We think of, "They don't make them like they used to."
Isaac Butler: Right.
Jason Feifer: This was a person from back when, who was flawless and created these timeless masterpieces. I wondered, did Shakespeare write anything that scholars just consider to be kind of crap? That laugh comes from an old friend of mine named Isaac.
Isaac Butler: Hi, my name is Isaac Butler, and I am a writer and theater director based out of New York.
Jason Feifer: Fans of Slate might recognize Isaac's voice from the podcast Working where he is a co-host or the Culture Gabfest, where he is a regular. Also, if you're interested in acting, Isaac has an amazing new book coming out called The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, which none other than Nathan Lane said was quote, "The best and most important book about acting I've ever read," end quote. Wow. Anyway, Isaac said that yes, scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote some crap, three pieces of crap in particular, Timon of Athens, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry VII. To be fair though, Henry VII was the last thing Shakespeare wrote, and scholars believe he didn't actually write all of it, probably just part of it. But anyway, it was a real disaster in every sense.
Isaac Butler: There's a part in the play where cannons are fired, and one of them sort of misfired and lit the thatch roof on fire. The whole building burned down. Only one person died, and it actually destroyed the Globe Theater of Shakespeare's Greatest Work and Legacy.
Jason Feifer: So Shakespeare went out with a bang?
Isaac Butler: He really went out with a bang. Yeah.
Jason Feifer: But Isaac said, "Look, this doesn't really answer my question, because if we want to understand whether the past was full of objectively better writing than the present, then we must understand why great writers from the past are considered great at all." Here, Shakespeare actually presents a useful case study, because although none of what we are about to say takes away from Shakespeare's obvious and lasting talent...
Isaac Butler: There's a bunch of different things that had to happen in order for Shakespeare to become Shakespeare. You know what I mean? In order for the sort of deceased, middle-aged playwright to become the greatest writer of all time. One of them is, is that after his death, a group of his colleagues and friends had to get together and publish a folio edition of all of his plays, and they had to decide on what were the sort of quote unquote definitive versions, because many of those plays, there's multiple different versions of them floating around. There's bootleg published versions of them. Authorship did not work the same way in late 16th, early 17th century England that it works today.
Jason Feifer: For example, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. He stole the plots from other writers, which was fine at the time, totally acceptable, and also, a play back then was never really considered finished. It would be performed, improved upon, revised, performed some more, and this would go on for years. Shakespeare would make his own revisions, but also, and this is so hard to even imagine today, but other versions of his plays would be performed with revisions made by other people which sometimes contained great, new changes that would eventually be attributed back to him. Sometimes they contained not-so-great things.
Isaac Butler: You take a play like Hamlet, there were multiple versions of Hamlet flying around in Shakespeare's time. It's unclear how much of a hand he had in publishing any of them. One of them is in fact called the bad Hamlet by scholars, and there's some debate as to whether it's the bad Hamlet because it's someone reconstructing the play for memory or if it's... You know in the old days where someone would sit in the movie theater with a camcorder and record the... Maybe someone did that and transcribed it. To give you just an example of it, the most famous line of Shakespeare is probably, "To be or not to be, that is the question." In the bad Hamlet, it's, "To be or not to be, that is the point."
Jason Feifer: Just imagine going to Broadway, settling into your expensive seat, and realizing 30 minutes in that, "Crap, we bought tickets to Bad Phantom of the Opera," although let's be honest, isn't Bad Phantom of the Opera just called Phantom of the Opera? Okay. That's reason number one that Shakespeare becomes Shakespeare, because authorship back then was fuzzy and Shakespeare benefited from the best revisions. Then you've got a couple other reasons. For example, British colonialism sure helped, because as the British forced their culture and language upon people across the globe, they presented Shakespeare as the pinnacle of the English language. This created a continued scholarship of his work, which introduced it to successive generations. Also, Isaac says, let's not forget...
Isaac Butler: Everything is timeless until it's not, and there will be a day when these things that we consider great and timeless no longer feel that way anymore.
Jason Feifer: There have been other works by other writers that have been considered timeless or classic or brilliant at points in the past, but then those works ran afoul of changing cultural norms, and they either stopped making sense to people or their jokes or plot points felt too outdated, or they just became offensive. Shakespeare, in fact, has one of those. It's Taming of the Shrew.
Isaac Butler: The misogyny in it is almost impossible to explain away completely. You'll see productions where they try. Once you get rid of that, it's like a bunch of jokes from the 16th century that don't transfer that well.
Jason Feifer: There is a parallel universe in which William Shakespeare is a guy who's very talented, and he's successful during his time, but then he dies and his friends don't put together a greatest-hits version of his work, and the British don't carry that book around the globe, and he just becomes forgotten, like so many peers whose works have been great, but did not survive, or many people whose works were very bad and did not survive. This is true of all time periods. For example, did you know that even as we consider Greek tragedy to be the origin of Western dramatic writing, we actually only have 32 surviving plays?
Isaac Butler: We know of at least 10 writers of Greek tragedy, but only three of those playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides survive. The work of seven of those writers has been completely wiped out.
Jason Feifer: Why did these three writers survive? We know that monks of the middle ages transcribed the surviving plays because it was a good way to learn classic Greek, but why those plays? Why not other plays? Did they just not like them? Were they bad? Even though we know of 10 writers total, surely there were more, dozens, hundreds, thousands of writers all lost a time because... Why? We don't know, but here's what we do know. When we think of the great works of art from the past, we are experiencing a kind of survivor's bias.
Jason Feifer: We see only the great works that survived, sometimes for reasons that had little to do with the great work itself, and we do not see all the regular, forgettable stuff that was indeed forgotten. Greatness is not inherent in a time. Greatness is what survives from a time. Okay. All of that is really a caveat to our larger question, which is, "Why have people spent nearly 150 years complaining that kids today can't write and believing that something about their particular time has ruined the art of writing?" It is now time to turn once again to Elizabeth Wardle with a more proper introduction.
Elizabeth Wardle: I'm Elizabeth Wardle. I work at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where I am the Roger and Joyce Howe Distinguished Professor of Written Communication, and I direct the Howe Center for Writing Excellence that the Howe's endowed.
Jason Feifer: Elizabeth is passionate about writing and how writing is taught, and as we heard before, she has pinpointed the source of our problems. For such a big and what feels like abstract problem, you have a specific date, 1875, in which you identify everything going wrong. The apple of writing is eaten by Eve in 1875. What happens in 1875?
Elizabeth Wardle: Around 1875, the universities started to change. Before that, it was very much an oral tradition. They were not asking students to read or write extensively in their native tongue. It was lots of sort of debate and declamation and all that sort of stuff.
Jason Feifer: That's because the people who went to college before 1875 were... Well, they were pretty much all white, wealthy men who were being educated to be the American elite.
Elizabeth Wardle: People went to college in order to be lawyers, preachers, gentlemen scholars.
Jason Feifer: But then the world started to change. It became more industrial and urban. Work started to look more like we're familiar with work now, with jobs that required specialization, and printing technology became even cheaper, which meant that it was much more possible to access books and to send each other written communications. All of this meant that workers needed to be more literate. To prepare the modern worker for success, universities started to shift as well. They began asking students to write. Harvard right around 1875 created an entrance exam that required writing. Once Harvard did that, other universities followed, and that is when everyone discovered...
Elizabeth Wardle: The students are writing terribly. Why are they writing so terribly? There was this very specific moment where they could have said, "Because we've never taught them to do this." But instead, they said, "Our boys illiterate, and it's the fault of..." Then there was a long list of things it was the fault of. Instead of saying, "They're being asked to do something that we've never asked them to do before, because there was no need. We were in an oral society. When they were reading and writing, it was often in Greek or Latin..." They suddenly had to do a thing they never had to do. Instead of saying, "Gosh, they're learners. We should teach them." They said, "They're lazy. They're stupid. They don't know how to do this. Somebody has failed them. It's definitely not us." They totally missed an opportunity, and we have never recovered from that.
Jason Feifer: I dug through newspaper archives from the time just to see how people failed to understand the problem, and it is pretty amazing stuff. For example, at a gathering of Massachusetts teachers in 1883, the president of something called The Agricultural College stood up to blame, quote, "Too much sentimentalism and too little solidity in common school education these days," end quote. A year later, The Boston Globe ran a story headlined, Better English: Educators Told It Is Time to Improve. This was coverage of another meeting of educators where this time someone from The U.S. Census Bureau stood up and blamed what we would now call political correctness for the problem. Here's what that person said.
Voice Clip (Boston Globe): Teachers who try to select good material are hampered by the antagonism men so generally have towards expressions conflicting with their ideas. Publishers making books for the universal market are compelled to cut out what might offend an adherent of any scientific, religious, or political idea until some books have no moral vitality.
Jason Feifer: In 1892, a Harvard committee that was tasked with solving the writing problem decided that it is...
Voice Clip (Harvard Committee): A little less than absurd to suggest that any human being who can be taught to talk cannot likewise be taught to compose. Writing is merely the habit of talking with the pen instead of with the tongue.
Jason Feifer: But anyway, back to 1875, a minute ago, you heard Elizabeth Wardle say that schools totally missed an opportunity that we never recovered from, and here is what that opportunity was. She is, again, going to reference E.L. Godkin, a newspaper editor who was on the Harvard committee.
Elizabeth Wardle: Instead of saying, "Writing is becoming so complex in this increasingly specialized society, where more people have access to literacy. This is really interesting. Let's study it," he said, "It's remedial, and if you can't do it, then you are a," quote, "idler and lounger," one of his other great quotes, "and you really need a remedial class."
Jason Feifer: A remedial class. Harvard, the committee believed, should be in the business of teaching great literature, not helping students learn how to write. But if Harvard must teach them, then fine.
Elizabeth Wardle: We're going to create a new class called English A, and it is a remedial composition class that will have to be taught by the least powerful people, because who would want to teach a remedial composition class? I guess what we'll do there is fix the most broken of the student writers. Everyone else can just go ahead and go into their other classes. Then in the meantime, we will harass the earlier teachers to try to actually do their job better.
Jason Feifer: That was the solution — the birth of first-year composition, or freshman comp, a class that is still around today, and back then was treated with great disdain. And it gets worse from there. Harvard and other higher ed institutions started blaming K through 12 schools for not teaching students how to write, then K through 12 schools were totally pissed and thought it was really higher ed’s responsibility, and Elizabeth says this tension is still with us today. Because people across time have been so convinced that writing isn't actually that hard to teach, they have always been looking for easier and easier solutions, more versions of freshman comp, and that is in part why something called the theme essay became popular. Now, this is a form of essay that had been around long before 1875. It was basically a writing assignment in which students would write an essay using a very rigid structure around a certain theme. Now, to be fair, lots of people even back then understood this to be a bad idea. Someone named G.F. Graham wrote in 1842 that...
Voice Clip (G.F. Graham): The theme is a form of composition never likely to be of much practical utility in afterlife. A knowledge of theme writing will be of no assistance in writing a letter or a description, neither is it indispensable to the construction of a sermon or a moral treatise.
Jason Feifer: And of course, you might recognize what they’re talking about by now — because theme writing evolved into the five-paragraph essay that so many of us were taught in middle or high school… and then, of course, never ever used again, because G.F. Graham of 1842 was right. Now to be fair, the five-paragraph essay is generally considered to be a fine starting point for teaching kids how to formulate an argument. But the problem is… schools often treat it not as a starting point, but as the end goal itself.
Elizabeth Wardle: I like to talk about it in this way. There's well-structured problems, and there's ill-structured problems. Well-structured problems have one right answer, two plus two equals four. Ill-structured problems do not have a right answer. Every writing problem is ill-structured. There's a bunch of ways you can do it. Some of them will work. Some of them won't. They're more or less effective. But school really likes well-structured problems because they're so much easier to assess. What you've just named there, the five-paragraph theme, is a great example of trying to take the ill-structured problems that always go with writing tasks and make it into a well-structured problem, because I can assess it easily. Do you have five paragraphs? Do you have an intro? Do you have one sentence that names your three points, and do you summarize your three points at the end? That's a well-structured problem. But nothing in the world ever gives you a well-structured problem that you can usually solve with writing,
Jason Feifer: Constructing the form of the essay rather than encouraging students to focus on the content of their argument and then break out of the essay format to better serve the content becomes the goal itself, because of course, writing is hard to teach and hard to grade. Let us be super clear about that. This stuff is hard, but a simple five paragraph form is easy, easy to teach, easy to grade. Elizabeth wants to be clear. This is not a teacher problem.
Elizabeth Wardle: First of all, I never blame teachers. I blame the system. Right? We have been in a system since 1870 that misunderstands writing and misunderstands learning. We are currently in what one of my colleagues calls the accountability regime, which is much more interested in a quick pre and post test that proves you've done your job than actually measuring any kind of meaningful student learning.
Jason Feifer: Which means that a structure of writing becomes emphasized over the actual engaged of writing, which is a nice representative of the problem as a whole. To review, writing was not something we emphasized in education until the late 1800s, and then as soon as we did, we decided that young people were stupid for not having learned something that we did not teach them. Then everyone up and down the education ladder basically pointed their fingers and said, "Hey, you are responsible for teaching writing, not me."
Jason Feifer: We narrowed the task and turned writing into a paint-by-numbers experience that could be efficiently taught and graded, but that had little practical application in the real world, and that limited people's understanding and comfort and curiosity about writing. A dysfunctional system calcified and has been with us for so long that we still haven't managed to purge the mistakes of 150 years. Yet, because this is our way, we also still blame every new generation and every new tool that they have for not living up to the imaginary standards that we ourselves never met. What will solve that problem? That is the section I am going to write for you next, coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right. We're back. Now that we've seen where writing went wrong, how can it go right? I will caveat upfront, this is a subject of massive debate and endless books, and I cannot possibly summarize everyone's thoughts or arguments or TED Talks in the next few minutes. Also, progress has been made, lots of it. In the 1960s and '70s, researchers began studying how writing works and how people learn, and that birthed different fields of academic study and teaching, which in turn has created more progress. Consider what I am about to say as just cracking open a door, the illustrating of what solutions look like.
Jason Feifer: I am going to dig into this from Elizabeth Wardle's perspective because she has been shaping the way writing is taught at Miami University and has seen important results. But to really appreciate what she's doing and why she's doing it, I need to add one more detail to the original sin of writing. As you'll recall, when freshman arrived at college in the late 1800s, and they could not write because, of course, they were stuck in a first-year comp course taught by the lowliest people on campus, people who Elizabeth and her colleagues like to call the sad women in the basement...
Elizabeth Wardle: The sad women in the basement, the faculty wives, whoever was stuck with it were teaching what they knew how to teach, which was often literary genre, so it was probably some sort of literary essay. It is certainly not in any way related to what you're going to be doing in science or engineering or social science.
Jason Feifer: In other words, the first writing courses framed writing as a certain specific thing, a form of communication that looked and felt one way for one audience, for one purpose, taught in one field, and this is the heart of what Elizabeth thinks we need to fix. Not everyone will be great as an essayist. "That is fine," she says. In a specialized world with so many different forms of communication, we need to expand not just how we teach writing, but how we define writing. We're going to look at this in a few ways. First, we'll talk a about how writing is taught in grade school, then we'll move on to what's happening in higher ed, and then how and why to expand the definition of writing. Let's start in K through 12, where again, just to stress, Elizabeth is not blaming teachers. She's blaming the system.
Elizabeth Wardle: What you need to do is help students love reading and writing and don't wreck it for them. Thomas Newkirk has done some really interesting studies about this multimodal drawing that young children do. As they're learning to read and write, they almost always are drawing and writing at the same time. Anything a kid does, it's like a picture, and then maybe whatever word they're learning... which is the world that we're living in, right? Multimodality is everywhere, but there comes a point along the way where you take out the multimodal, and you take out the visual, and you start making them right in these five-paragraph themes.
Elizabeth Wardle: How about if we help them engage in literacy, broadly conceive, really enjoy it, write all the time, use drawing, use all kinds of technologies, and really be excited about it? And it isn't like a thing you do in English class where your teacher corrects with the red pen, because we actually know that's not in fact how you improve. You need to write a lot for real reasons to audiences who are not interested in your errors, but interested in your ideas. I think teachers could do that if the system rewarded them for doing that.
Jason Feifer: In hearing this, I thought back to my own experience. A quick thing about me. I make my living in one way or another as a writer. I write books, magazine stories, podcasts, talks, and back in high school, I even wrote a blog before the word blog existed. This was at members.aol.com for you old-timers, and I wrote for a local music magazine. You might think I excelled at school writing, but no, I did not. I hated writing in school. I found it insulting and infantalizing, and I could find no compelling reason to treat it seriously. That is because of what Elizabeth said above. You need to write for real reasons. To me, writing was a real thing that could reach real people. Who was I reaching in school? I knew that I had an audience of one, and that audience didn't seem to matter. It didn't matter to me.
Elizabeth Wardle: Right. That audience isn't interested in what you have to say. They're looking at errors. It doesn't make any sense because you never say... If you read something in a magazine, you don't say to your friend, "I can't wait for you to read this. You know why? It's error-free." Never.
Jason Feifer: Right.
Elizabeth Wardle: That's not why you're excited about something you read, but that's what we're doing to our students. How about if we get excited about what they have to say and then give them a chance to revise, during which time most of their errors will actually disappear?
Jason Feifer: Elizabeth has a wonderful phrase that she used a bunch when we spoke. It is this, "Writing mediates activity." "That is the point of writing," she says. In the real world, writing is for some purpose. It drives action. But in school, it does not, and that's a problem to fix.
Elizabeth Wardle: I had a student say once, "I've never written to an audience before. I've only written to a rubric." That's terrible. That's horrible. Writing mediates activity. If you are going to give an assignment to your student, what activity is writing mediating? If it's only and ever proving what you know, like, "Okay, there's some places for that, but isn't know more interesting to give them assignments that mirror what happens in the world when writing is mediating activity?"
Elizabeth Wardle: As an example, I had a colleague who was teaching a world religions class, and he's so bored with all these essays that the students are turning in. I said, "Well, where in the world do people actually write about these issues?" He showed me a magazine, Christianity Today. I said, "Do we need to talk about this anymore?" He was like, "No, no. I know what to do." He went back. They all found a magazine. They all wrote articles for the magazine. One of them was the editor. One of them was the layout person. They made a magazine, and then they wrote for real reasons. That was not pseudotransactional. There is no reason that we can't be doing that, but it's not how we're trained to think. We just assign what was assigned to us.
Jason Feifer: And this is a window into the larger thing that Elizabeth is doing at Miami University, which is part of a national movement called writing across the curriculum. The idea is to get professors and students, who are outside the traditional essay-writing English classes, to engage with the idea of writing — to think of what they do as writing. Because the thing is, most people do not think of themselves as writers… even though they’re writing all the time.
Elizabeth Wardle: Lots of my students who say they're not writing, the first thing we do is an inventory, every place you write and all the things you write in a week that have nothing to do with school. They're writing. They're writing all the time. But most of that stuff doesn't even get counted as writing or named as writing. They say, "Yeah, I'm a fan-fiction writer. I write thousands of words a week. I'm not a writer because that's not rewarded in school." If we could help them see all the kinds of writing that matter, they might say, "I'm not a very good essay writer, but I am great at lab reports and fan fiction," then great. Then you don't feel bad because you're not a bad writer. You're better at one thing than another. We teach them that you can always improve because writing is not something you're just born able to do.
Jason Feifer: Where do you think that students' mentality comes from where they don't believe that their writing, even though they are? Well, one answer is obviously 1875, but I'd say it is still being reintroduced and emphasized to every new, successive generation in ways that sound like... Well, let's take a listen to this old thing again.
Voice Clip (CBS6 Albany): Our kids are texting faster than ever. Teachers are noticing a direct connection between an increase in texting and an increase in assignments handed back with errors.
Jason Feifer: What if the problem, and stay with me here, what if the problem isn't texting? What if the problem is in part at least the belief that texting is a problem? Okay. Let's take this at face value for a moment. Students are texting. Students are writing badly. Is this a correlation or causation? probably correlation because the problem existed long before texting did. But anyway, let's set that aside and look at the situation from a student's perspective. The student texts with their friends. They understand the rules and formats of that mode of communication, and they are rewarded for it with a robust social life.
Jason Feifer: Like Elizabeth says, writing mediates activity. Then they come to school, and writing does not mediate activity. Writing is a task presented with rigid rules where the purpose of the task is to be error-free. To be clear, many of these rules are, of course, important. Grammar and syntax and organizing thoughts is all very important to learn. But always, always, as students are learning these rules, they are begging for an answer to the question, "Why does this matter to me? What will I do with these rules?" The answer, the answer that I got as a student and the answer that I am quite certain many students are getting today, is that they must perform these rules for evaluation, which is not a very compelling answer. The student is taught something, and it is this, writing is a thing that is hard and unpleasant and not relevant to your lives.
Jason Feifer: What does the student do? Well, they continue to write in the ways that engage them. Maybe that's just texting to start, maybe other things. Maybe they write TikTok sketches and song lyrics and fan fiction, but they don't consider any of that writing, and they certainly aren't rewarded for it in school, which means they don't engage with the lessons of communication that they have learned and maybe even taught themselves in this other form of writing that they like, which means they never extract those lessons and discover what parts of them are transferable to other forms of writing, because yes, writing a TikTok sketch actually can inform the way you write other things because that's how writing works. A TikTok sketch teaches you, I don't know, efficiency and pacing and building of inform, but the student will not make that bridge. They will instead consider themselves to be a bad writer because writing is a thing that they were told they're bad at. How do you counter that? It starts by teaching the teachers, and that is what Elizabeth is doing at Miami University.
Elizabeth Wardle: Part of the way that we've done it is by saying, "Faculty, it's not as bad as you think. You can actually do this. We're going to help you. We're going to pay you to come and spend a semester learning what you actually already know." We spend a semester with them. They have to come in teams, because if you come alone, then you're just that one weird person who wants to change everything in your department. They have to come in teams, and then they have to work with teams who are different than them. Part of what we do is have them figure out what they already know about writing and how they use it and see how what they do is different than what the guys in mechanical engineering are doing and then say, "Now, how do you apply this to your own department?"
Elizabeth Wardle: The best example I can give you is that the economists came, and the economists said, "We don't write. There is a writing requirement. We don't like it, and we don't want to do it." The first thing that happened is that we started listing everything that they do in a given week, and they were like, "Yeah. Okay. We write all the time, but a lot of this stuff we didn't really realize was writing because charts and graphs and explanations of charts and graphs, that's writing." As soon as they realized that, they also realized that I and my colleagues in English could not teach that for them because we don't do that. Then they were like, "Wait, this is totally ours to do. We actually don't want you to do it. We need to put it not just in one class, but across every class that we teach." They went back to their department and did that.
Elizabeth Wardle: They created a sequence of courses in their major, where they ensured that in every single class, students understood that what they were doing with symbols in econ was writing and that they needed to get good at it or they would be failures as economists. That's what people need to do. Right? The faculty need to do that. Then when the students do it, what I'm seeing there is that they will say when you interview them, "Well, I'm not very good at writing essays, but I'm a really good geologist, and I'm really good at writing to other geologists and explaining what we've learned. I'm pretty excited about that because I can't be a geologist without doing that." It totally changes everybody's attitude, and I think that attitude's actually half the problem. You think of something horrible that you can't do, and as soon as you realize that's not the case, everything opens up to you.
Jason Feifer: Remember earlier when Elizabeth said that there are two kinds of problems? There are well-structured problems and ill-structured problems. Well-structured problems are the ones that have an answer, a specific, un-disputable, one answer. Two plus two is four. That's it. That's the answer. Ill-structured problems have no singular answer. She said, "Every writing problem is an ill-structured problem." What I like about her work and everything she just described about how she's teaching teachers is that it is an ill-structured solution. It isn't mind-blowing. It isn't some magic formula. It allows for infinite possibility and variation. The great mistake we made in 1875, which we have not corrected today, is that we tried to make a complex problem seem very simple, and this is not a writing problem or an 1875 problem. This is an everything problem. Just look around. This is politics and moral outrages and pretty much every complex problem that gets pinned on a boogieman.
Jason Feifer: In the case of writing, it just happens to be street slang and popular novels in the 1800s and texting and tweeting today. I have said it before on my show, and I will say it again. When we simplify problems, we inhibit our ability to identify meaningful solutions, because if texting is the problem, then the solution is just to get rid of texting. Simple, right? But that doesn't solve the problem. The great lesson of writing is that when you discard all the lazy answers, when you take history into account, when you see that we've been complaining about the same thing for more than a century, when you really start to take seriously the problem, you can find creative and meaningful and ill-structured solutions, solutions that allow for and even embrace all the complexities of the world, solutions that say, "Let's build something for the world we are in rather than the world as we imagine it to be." Solutions are possible. Write it down.
Jason Feifer: That's our episode. But hey, one last thing, we talked earlier in this episode about how crappy writing from the past is often forgotten and all we remember are the great things. Well, I have one more funny reminder of that. It is a teeny-weeny reminder, if you will. I'll tell you more about it in a minute, but first, have you experienced rapid change over the last year? It may sound scary. It may feel scary, but it doesn't have to be. Sign up for my newsletter, which is also called Build for Tomorrow, where I show you how to turn change into opportunity. You can get it by going to jasonfeifer.bulletin.com. Again, J-A-S-O-N F-E-I-F-E-R dot bulletin dot com. If you want to get in touch with me directly, you can do so at my website, jasonfeifer.com, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @heyfeifer.
Jason Feifer: This episode was reported and written by me, Jason Feifer, sound editing Alec Bayless. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The actor you heard reading those old newspapers was Gia Mora. You can learn more at giamora.com. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help, to Matthew J. Nunez, whose paper on theme writing was helpful during this research, and to James Cerone, a listener of this show for first turning me on to Elizabeth Wardle's work. This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea.
Jason Feifer: If that's you, then get in touch with them proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again, that is cki.org. All right. Now, as promised, when Isaac Butler and I were talking about the idea of survivor bias, which is to say how we associate the past with great works of art, because we never see the garbage that was forgotten, I told him how it reminds me of how so many people will say something like, "The music of the 1960s was so much better than any crap we have today," to which Isaac said...
Isaac Butler: If you're talking about the early '60s, there's also the novelty song movement. There's a period of time where popular music is... (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window? the Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. You would be surprised if you went back and looked at how big the novelty song movement was. There's a few years where it's actually just a fire hose of crap, but that's not what we think about when we think of the '60s. We think of The Beatles.
Jason Feifer: Just to be clear, this reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.
Voice Clip (The Beatles): (singing).
Jason Feifer: What can you say about that? I guess here's what you can say. It is writing? Not good writing, but writing. Anyway, thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer, and let's keep building for tomorrow.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.