Rob Cobb

Against throwing words away

Updated May 02, 2014

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

This university produces a lot of words. With more than 40,000 people in the greater university community, each of whom I conservatively estimate writes about 50,000 words per year, the combined number of words is around 2 billion per year. To put that in perspective, we write the equivalent of the entire Lord of the Rings saga almost 2,000 times a semester.

Some of those words turn into blogs, books or newspapers, and some are even published in prestigious journals.

However, a large portion of the words we labor over appear in undergraduate papers. Those papers are read once, graded, returned and often thrown in the garbage.

Few papers are fun for anyone — the students writing them or the professors and teaching assistants grading them. Sometimes students put a great deal of thought and effort into the words they use. More often, they do not care. They do not need to care in order to get the grade; they only need to follow the rubric. Either way, students receive limited feedback and usually have no opportunity to apply that feedback to their writing.

I am convinced writing is critical to learning. It bolsters the logical mind, deepens comprehension of facts and evidence and helps us separate rhetoric from argument. On top of that is the need to communicate effectively after graduation.

Writing can make a difference. But when we write for one set of eyes, we often despise it. It doesn’t have to be that way.

There is a small but growing effort in the university to contextualize undergraduate writing. In Professional Writing classes, students write from the perspective of professionals. Creative writing classes often encourage the publication of student work. Class blogs serve as platforms for students to write for an audience. This trend needs to spread faster and go further, and students and faculty need to push to make it happen.

All writing ought to have real context. When we write papers for a professor, our aim is rarely, if ever, to convince that professor of a position; rather, we aim to convince the professor to give us a good grade. We ought to have a real communicative objective at stake.

This will look different in various classes and departments. For journalism students, it might mean writing for broad publication. For policy or theory students, the goal could be to convince a real audience of a position. Scientists and engineers can write to explain how systems work.

Professional writing classes ought to be tied to the real work of real organizations, not ones you invent for an assignment. Why not let undergraduates write grant applications for real nonprofits? Why not let undergraduates write public relations and marketing materials for real companies? Why not let undergraduates translate arcane research articles into summaries comprehensible by the public?

If you are a student, lobby your professors to make your assignments authentic. Start sharing your work so you will care more about it.

If you are a professor, design assignments that are more than a waste of words and a tragic misuse of the time of intelligent, caring students.

Let’s quit spending our time producing garbage and start writing for each other.

🤓😽 Rob Cobb
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