The other day I was sitting in my office reading student work when the voices of two young women sitting in the lounge down the hall penetrated my consciousness. One was telling the other that the one sure thing they could do with their undergraduate degree in Professional Writing was to go to graduate school.
I couldn’t resist. So I got out of chair, walked down the hall, and told the three students then occupying the lounge that they would probably soon regret carrying on their conversation at a high volume level. I explained that I had spent much of a sabbatical year investigating the kind of writing being done by graduates of writing programs at Slippery Rock. Providing them with the URL of this blog, I invited them to take a look, as they would discover our graduates involved in quite a variety of occupations other than graduate student.
I didn’t deny that the English department’s writing programs were primarily liberal arts degrees, designed to give flexibility and choice to the students enrolled in them. Still, it is remarkable how many of those students do end up in jobs in which writing is an important feature. We have, in American higher education, created a large amount of degree programs that are obviously vocational in nature. Pursuing them puts students on very direct, and some might add confining, career paths. Left unspoken are the experiences of many students who leave college in their early twenties, and who spend the next decade in a variety of positions before they possibly settle into something that at least looks long term.
Also left unspoken is the amount of demand for employees who can communicate well through written language, as well as the sheer amount of written language that is produced during the quotidian activities of ordinary people engaged in economic and civic endeavors. Skill in written expression and rhetorical awareness are not given the prominence of the subject matter mastery associated with specific fields of inquiry. Writing is always present but often invisible, in part because we have often discussed writing only within the frames of pedagogy and formal publication. Even within the academy people often only notice writing when it is done poorly, and not when it is functioning as the engine that propels both knowledge and social action forward.
When I first began teaching, more than 35 years ago, I habitually thought that writing courses were among the cheapest an educational institution could offer, requiring little other than a room, a set of desks, pens, and paper. No expensive labs or other kinds of instructional equipment. The digital age has changed my perceptions somewhat, since visual, and sometimes even audio presentation has become more and more integral to a writer’s thinking and text production. Still, I’m guessing that writing instruction remains one of the cheaper educational endeavors in regards to per-pupil costs.
Unfortunately, that truth hasn’t resulted in writing instruction, based in the humanities, the sciences, the arts, or the social sciences, having a firm and secure place within the academy. Too often, it is still associated either with belle lettres or with academic tests of knowledge, and not with direct learning of knowledge or as one very significant way in which things get done. Budget cuts at public universities like Slippery Rock are resulting in less writing instruction, not more. One reason is that writing classes must be relatively small in size, and if required of all undergraduates there must be an awful lot of them, in general education programs that do not attract, as majors do, students to your school. If the answer is to move away from the traditional first-year instruction in composition and rhetoric, then building writing programs that emphasize use across the curriculum would seem a logical next step. However, whether universities have either the will or the money to build and strengthen such programs remains in doubt.
In the short term, such neglect of writing could result in a heightening demand for people who can write well. An activity so integral, and yet so invisible to many, will grow in importance, not lessen.