1. Opinion

On writing, oh, rote is us

I teach an undergraduate class in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida. My job is to introduce these future engineers to topics relevant to their college and professional careers. This includes helping them to write competently.

Highly prized though they may be, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates must still be able to explain themselves and their ideas. Over the past two years when I turned to the writing element of the coursework, I began the lecture with a direct question: "How many hate writing?" Every time, 80 or 90 percent of the 110 students in the class would wildly wave their hands.

My inner self would mumble, how can they be so dumb? Don't they understand that clear writing makes for clear thinking? And that if they can't communicate, they can't succeed? All engineers write copiously — just not in college.

Some may blame their aversion on the old idea that math and science people aren't writers, just as poets aren't programmers. Neither stereotype need be true, but I wanted to understand what was happening. Finally this semester I concocted a better follow-up question to plumb this visceral revulsion to what is logically one of the most important activities of professional careers.

So I spontaneously came up with an assignment: Write a 300-word article on why they hate writing. The results showed a barely submerged anger, and sometimes one that was boiling right on the surface. Remember, these are many of the best students in the state.

Fifty of the 109 students wrote with some emotion about nine years of being drilled to write the "FCAT way": a formulaic, bloodless exercise that drained the fun out of putting pen to paper. Here is a typical sample of three student papers expressing their opinion on FCAT education.

"FCAT Writing: help or harm?"

By Elise duTreil

My hatred for writing stems from the first time I had to practice an FCAT Writing essay. They taught us the proper formula for planning an FCAT essay: figure out if the prompt is narrative, expository, or persuasive, draw your graphic organizer, make a book and introduction, write two to three paragraphs, and form a conclusion. It didn't matter how creative or insightful one wrote, it only mattered if that writing had the correct organization. They would choose bland, uninspiring prompts that sometimes were difficult to relate to and build upon. For example, the eighth-grade essay for 2004 was to persuade the principal to allow or not allow chewing gum at school.

Teachers would teach students to support such prompts with made-up statistics or quotes encouraging them to lie on essays. This would not help them later on when they were supposed to cite sources and provide real, not fabricated, evidence. Also, the grading depended upon two random people, possibly in a different state, that were paid to get through as many essays as fast as possible and agree on the scores. Many students were devastated when scores came out, and they didn't get what they expected.

We never got feedback, just the cold, hard numbers. Our scores would also affect the teacher's and school's funding and rankings. If a school's kids did poorly, the school was punished with a low grade and less funding. This spurred the teachers to focus solely on the FCAT style of five-paragraph essays. It got boring and repetitive to write these formulaic essays every FCAT Writing year. I grew to dread the FCAT Writing season and was relieved when it was finally over after 10th grade. By the time FCAT Writes was done, my relationship with writing was damaged for good and to this day I still hate to write.

"Breaking up is just the write thing"

By Tim Schoenrock

Dear Writing,

It's not you, it's me. We first met in elementary school, and we were always close. At times, I would catch myself staring blankly in to your soul, at a loss for words. Other times, we would share experiences only limited by our imaginations. The contrasts of your tattoos to your skin were unique and ever changing, but you always knew how to explain them. We sometimes even shared the occasional ice cream cone. You expressed who I was like no one else or ever will.

But alas, we both knew it couldn't last. They made me abuse you. We both knew that you had very strong feelings of the great matters of the world. Here I was, forcing you to argue things of little importance, all the while knowing you had no interest in whether polka dots or stripes were better and if brown was an ugly color. As we got older, they started limiting how big or small you could be. This hurt you; you had always believed that it was on the inside that mattered, not how you looked at first glance. They took you away from me and highlighted everything they thought was wrong with you. They started rating you on a scale 1 to 6 and telling you that you had no voice. They were shallow and didn't know you like I did.

They convinced me to make you into what they thought was beautiful, and I did it. You went along with it to let me follow my dreams, but I couldn't stand what you had become. I wanted to be someone and move on in life, and I forgot what we used to be. Hopefully we can meet again one day under better circumstances.


"Pasteurized prepared cheese product"

By Daniel Holloway

As I open my fridge for the fourth time tonight, I am greeted by a lonely package of American cheese labeled "Kraft Singles American Pasteurized Cheese Product." I return to my room defeated. The staggered whines of my empty stomach slowly form a thought. Why did I buy that cheese? It is generic, bland, lazily spat out by a factory in some dusty city. I didn't buy it with quality in mind. I bought it because it was cheap.

But why am I writing about cheese? Shockingly, the plight of modern dairy is the same as public education. Young students are taught to treat creative writing as a meaningless hurdle, not as an expressive pursuit. Instead of knowing the beauty of writing, students are handed a sterilized checklist and are told to pass the test. School systems have taken art and transformed it into drudgery. In short, I love writing, but how I hate how it is taught today.

Our schools must be released from the chains of lifeless tests. We should take all of the funding that goes toward exams and invest in a wider breadth of age-targeted reading. Give the students an hour every day to sit down with a book and learn. They would expand their vocabulary, learn new ideas, and see the value of writing. The greatest novelists have also been the most avid readers. We should use this knowledge to cultivate fledgling writers.

I believe that the greatest adventures begin with a suggestion, not a command. Writing is a wonderful activity, and we must start to present it as such. When we treat people like they're slices of cheese product, nobody wins. We waste money, we waste time, and we waste potential. The goal of education should be to make individual lives more interesting. Leave conformity to Kraft.

These examples above are just three of the 50 papers that unanimously scorched the FCAT process. It turns out, these engineering students can write but have been so discouraged by the rote process of the FCAT that they no longer enjoy it. You can get a further sense from some of the titles, such as "Stripped of Thought" by Tiffany Dixon, "FCATs to F-Bombs" by Nicholas Imamshah, "Literary Despise" by John Wilson, "Writing Reports for Big Brother" by John Varela, "Disciplined to Detest" by David Zobel, "I Hate Writing" by Alexandra Hagan, and "Zero My Hero" by Dustin Remsen.

The essays were considerably better than preceding classes. I asked myself if the FCAT approach was so damaging, why were so many of these essays good, as demonstrated in the three examples. I discussed this with the students and together we felt that the subject hit a raw nerve, and that energized them — they lost inhibitions and felt free of restrictions. The essay length was small at 300 words, and there was no evidence of FCAT formatting. And my observation from teaching at other universities was that these students were very much above average — their intelligence overcame a system.

The writing style taught in this class is not just engineering writing, but universal writing. We require Roy Peter Clark's book How To Write Short, and students have four one-page essays for the term. (Clark is vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times.) Writing small is not a fad but the way that engineers, scientists and others have communicated for more than 100 years.

Occasionally a student or two will loudly protest why they have to write so much. There are many answers, but here's what I tell them: In the modern world, people may text, Facebook and email four to eight pages per day. It was a point of several students that they did not actually hate writing, but wanted the topic to be their choice. The FCAT preparation did not give them a choice, and subjects were bland.

Todd Farley works as an essay grader for a standardized test company in Des Moines, Iowa. His book Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry describes an essay grading process in detail. Graders were given two minutes to put a grade from 1 (low) to 6 (high) on an essay. Graders were given a 15-minute break in the morning and afternoon, and had to request permission to go to the rest room. This dull, grinding atmosphere distorted an accurate grading system even if one ever existed.

What does all this mean? It means that in this sample we have taken the best and the brightest, and after nine tortuous teaching years, we have reduced their inclination toward writing to anger. It is not the teacher's fault. (Just ask my wife, Elaine, an elementary school teacher with strong opinions on this topic.) They are ordered to do this.

Now, these schoolchildren have grown up, and their adult voices are being heard. As currently constructed, Florida's comprehensive testing is a suffocating system that defeats creative writing. Let teachers teach. And let students learn.

Chuck Hawkins is a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Florida. He has also been a professor in ECE at the University of New Mexico where he was an Associate Dean of the School of Engineering. He learned the value of good writing from participating in international engineering conferences, writing books and from editing, all of which taught him that a professional better be able to write so that people can understand.