It’s a reasonable question that deserves an honest answer. It needs to be addressed quickly, because a student who doesn’t see the point isn’t going to care, and a student who doesn’t care is a student who doesn’t learn. In the essay collection Bad Ideas about Writing, Andrew Hollinger’s bad idea is answering this question with “you’re going to need this for college.”
Hollinger says this is a bad answer for many reasons. For starters, it’s evading the question, just another way of saying “Because I said so” (Hollinger, pp. 333), and it “passes on the responsibility for meaningfulness to the next level of education.” He goes on to say that it tells the student that you don’t care, so they shouldn’t either (Hollinger, pp. 334), and for those students who aren’t planning to go to college? You’ve just given them explicit permission to check out (Hollinger, pp. 335). Further, it’s often inaccurate. The five-paragraph essay might get you through the admissions process, but it doesn’t hold up in a college setting.
A better idea, simply put, is to give a real answer. Alas, nothing in life is simple.
Students vs. the English Department
The titular question is not unique to high school English teachers, but English teachers have a harder time answering it than other departments. A math teacher has it relatively easy, as math builds upon itself in very visible ways, and it crosses over to the college setting unchanged. Not so with writing.
In their study “Writing in High School/Writing in College: Research Trends and Future Directions.”, Joanne Addison and Sharon James McGee found that “College and high school faculty across the curriculum are generally aligned with one another when it comes to prewriting, clear expectations, and good instructor practices.” but they found less “informal, exploratory writing” and less student to student interaction regarding writing in college than in high school (Addison and McGee, pp. 157). High school and college writing teachers superficially agree on how they should teach the writing process, but there are differences in how they do. And in this regard, it seems that high school teachers are doing better.
If teachers teach differently, it seems reasonable to conclude that their students will write differently. Why do high school and college writing teachers teach differently? College professors generally aren’t required to have as much education on how to teach than high school teachers do. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that high school writing teachers more closely adhere to established pedagogy, though this cannot account for all the differences. If students’ writing reflects how their teachers want them to write, then it would follow that, according to established pedagogy, the high school students write better than the college students.
This is not the case. Any successful college student will tell you that the way you learned to write in high school will not serve you well in college. From this chain of logic, it seems that the established pedagogy about writing does not help students in a practical sense, and college students are a pragmatic bunch. This could be another part of why they oftentimes disdain required writing courses such as First Year Composition (often abbreviated to FYC).
Linda S. Bergmann and Janet Zepernick make inquiries into how college students view their English courses in “Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” The students they surveyed often told them that it seems like college faculty don’t think FYC is particularly important. Their reasoning? First, it’s relatively easy for incoming freshmen to bypass FYC with dual enrollment credits or good SAT scores. Second, FYC courses are some of the least standardized courses in the curriculum (Bergmann and Zepernick, pp. 130). What you get depends almost entirely on the professor. It leads to the question: “What, then, is the point of this class? The school doesn’t seem to know, and the professors all have different ideas. Maybe there isn’t a point.”
Bergmann and Zepernick also found that students see writing for English as different from writing in disciplinary courses. They see it as personal and interpretive, while they see writing for say, engineering courses, as being graded solely on content. They do not think the skills learned in English classes are transferable to their discipline, though they do see disciplinary writing as transferable between disciplines (Bergmann and Zepernick, pp. 130). As a result, they see FYC as a waste of time, merely checking off a required credit.
Clearly, we have a failure to communicate. If students don’t think the skills they’re learning in composition courses are useful to them, then they won’t care beyond the grade, and are less likely to actually learn something, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The notion that disciplinary writing is graded on content alone is patently false. An engineering professor is likely to be more forgiving of minor grammatical errors, yes, but if your paper is unreadable? They’re less likely to even try.
You might look at all of this and think “wow, these students are jerks!” Admittedly, some of them are. But on the other hand, students have reasons to be pragmatic.
The Job Market
Here’s something to consider: how often do writing courses teach the sort of writing formats used in the workplace? Formal emails, PowerPoint presentations, technical reports, and so on? Addison and McGee draw data from the National Commission on Writing and their own surveys to note that the types of writing required in the workplace are not the types of writing that teachers, high school or college, assign very often (Addison and McGee, pp. 164). They go on to say that “Many faculty resist workplace genres on philosophical grounds, often arguing that their role is to help prepare citizens of the world, not train workers.” (Addison and McGee, pp. 164-165).
This sort of attitude shows a major divide between the teacher’s mindset and the students’ often pragmatic attitudes. College in the United States is expensive, and the white collar job market is very competitive. Students are quite justified in viewing college as a means to an end. While it is an admirable goal, making students into better citizens does not get them jobs, or help them pay off student loans.
Bergmann and Zepernick’s findings, then, should come as no surprise. At the end of their discussion of student attitudes towards English courses, they say that “Although students showed exposure to a process-oriented approach to writing […], they were nonetheless highly product-oriented, believing that the final product of any piece of writing […] is the grade it received [or] the extent of its acceptance or approval by their supervisor.” (Bergmann and Zepernick, pp 136) In other words, they found that students see writing as a way of getting what they want. This isn’t entirely unreasonable. Writing is the vehicle for your thoughts, ideas, and data, not the content itself. But that vehicle is very important, and this attitude may cause students to neglect it.
“You’re Going to Need This for College.”
Early on in his essay, Hollinger condemns this answer by saying that “Teaching doesn’t need to be a magic show” and “Students who understand the mechanics of learning may become better at learning.” (Hollinger, pp. 334). Education doesn’t have to, and really shouldn’t be, a mysterious and arcane art to be kept secret from those who do not practice it.
The better answer, in simple terms, is explaining why you teach the way you do, and trusting your students to understand. But it is wrong to characterize that answer as simple. Do you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching? Is it going to help your students get where they want to go? Will it help them figure out other kinds of writing? Perhaps a better idea is to ask the titular question of yourself!
Addison, Joanne, and Sharon James McGee. “Writing in High School/Writing in College: Research Trends and Future Directions.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 1, 2010, pp. 147–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27917889
Bergmann, Linda S., Janet Zepernick. “Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 31, iss. ½, Fall/Winter 2007, pp. 124-149. Ebscohost, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eue&AN=31131523&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Hollinger, Andrew. “You’re Going to Need This for College.” Bad Ideas about Writing, edited by Drew M Loewe and Cheryl E Ball, West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute, 2017, pp. 333–337. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf