Sunday, May 19

UCLA writes off essential composition instruction


SUBMITTED BY Leigh Harris and Christine Holten

For those attending the “Defending the Public University” colloquium in Kerckhoff Grand Salon this afternoon, the erosion in the quality of a UCLA education may be topic No. 1. The teaching of writing is an arena that is already being whittled away by the University of California’s economic hard times. Budget reductions on our campus have already forced the suspension of writing tutoring and an increase in composition class size for this academic year. And administrators are considering suspending undergraduate writing requirements or forcing students to take required writing courses during summer sessions or at community colleges. There is legitimate worry that temporary changes made to save money will become permanent.

If UCLA proceeds with such changes, the undergraduate curriculum will be severely diminished. Why should changes to writing instruction at UCLA matter? The answer is simple. Writing is an important bellwether of a healthy public undergraduate education.

UCLA currently does an impressive job helping students develop strong writing skills. Students entering their first years are required to take at least two writing classes before graduation: The first focuses on critical inquiry and academic analysis, while the second centers on discipline-specific writing. These small student-centered courses, taught by some of the finest professors on our campus, are now viewed as too expensive in this budget climate.

Focused attention to writing is at the core of undergraduate education because it meets the needs of the students that the UCLA campus was created to serve: residents who might not otherwise be able to pursue higher education, especially those graduating from California public schools. According to UCLA’s Office of Analysis and Information Management, 76.2 percent of first-year students in 2008 graduated from California public high schools. Budget reductions to public schools will certainly mean even less attention given to students’ writing in our high schools.

College writing classes are interactive and student-centered. This learning environment is perfect for this generation of UCLA students who have come of age in the digital age. For them, hands-on, proactive ways of accessing information is second nature.

At the same time, writing classes are an effective antidote to the ways interactive media have undermined learning. Engaging in multiple activities simultaneously and shifting toward abbreviated forms of reading and text transmissions, for example, foster shallow forms of attention and contemplation. Well-taught composition classes promote sustained focus and thought.

In addition, without high-quality writing instruction, students with UCLA diplomas may be less competitive not only in graduate school but also in the workplace. According to a survey by the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges in collaboration with the Business Roundtable, the ability to communicate clearly in writing boosts employment and career advancement opportunities. The Conference Board, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management note that even four-year college graduates are deficient in written communication skills. These studies make it clear that writing instruction is not a marginal academic activity, nor should it be viewed as an anachronism of a time when UCLA could afford it.

The bleak budget situation at UCLA is forcing unwelcome changes to most academic programs and may change the face of undergraduate instruction. But as UCLA responds to these challenges, it would be wise to use writing instruction as a measure of how well it has done in preserving the heart of undergraduate education: the mandate to prepare students to be creative, independent thinkers and clear communicators.

Harris and Holten are lecturers in the writing programs.

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