General Literacy: Reminiscences of Early Days of “Writing Across the Curriculum”

Dr. Tamara Fudge, Professor, Kaplan University,  School of IT

Long, long ago, having a college education indicated that a person had attained a general literacy, which can be defined as the ability to learn about complex issues, to think critically, and to write well. My great aunt was a perfect example of the literate elite. Aunt Nina was born in 1890 and earned a bachelor’s and even a master’s degree from prestigious universities, which was an incredible feat for a woman of her era. The letters she wrote with the flowery, flawless, and fantastic language of her generation were composed with great care on her manual Royal typewriter. Her passion was teaching children, and her students had an excellent role model to follow.

©2014JupiterImages

© 2014 Jupiterimages

But somewhere between her generation and mine, the push for writing well abated. It probably wasn’t the large influx of jobless but academically ill-prepared post-WWII servicemen going to college in the late 1940s and 50s that precipitated a slide in this higher-level of literacy. It probably wasn’t even the fault of the overly-relaxed 1960s, although it’s always easy to blame the 60s for things we can’t explain. Somehow, we just got lost.

While the idea of writing as a component of all coursework wasn’t new when I started to teach (some sources say it started even before Aunt Nina was born), the Writing Across the Curriculum movement was fairly new in the 1980s and most certainly hotly debated in faculty meetings at my first teaching job. The question about how faculty members who are not themselves English teachers would know how to grade all these new assignments was countered with the fact that we all obviously had college degrees and should know how to write. The complaint that this addition to every course would infringe upon our precious academic freedom eventually died as the threat of a low literacy level of graduates was finally seen as a future alumni (and therefore recruiting) issue. Myopic, yes, but it was a start in fixing what is still in crisis: the reclaiming of general literacy as a perk of having gone to college.

Unfortunately, many of the new, hastily created assignments in the 1980s were of little value. Because research required a visit to a library (remember those?), some teachers simply required short opinion papers. These often resulted in uninformed ramblings that were either graded simplistically for their grammar and spelling or marked as “completed,” so the final grade was not lowered for failure to comply. Short opinion pieces were easy to assign, easy to write, easy to grade, and easy to forget, providing little educational value.

Then there was what we might call the “What I did on my summer vacation” personal narrative assignment. Again, no research was required and the grammar and spelling could be graded, but where is the educational value of such a piece, for example, in a science or health class? It’s easy to assign, easy to write, easy to grade, and easy to forget.

The academic community at large has thankfully grown over these last few decades to espouse–or at least better tolerate–Writing Across the Curriculum. As we move forward, we still need to be mindful that our assignments offer value. The best assignments are not so easy to assign, not too easy to write, might be a little difficult to grade, but hopefully, they will not forgotten in our quest for general literacy.

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