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Low Writing Standards Yield Inadequate Performance

Column by Brett Altschul
Staff Reporter

As I placed the finishing touches on my paper for Animal Behavior (9.20) at 11:30 p.m. on the night before it was due, another student in the class approached me, asking what I thought the essay question meant. I was shocked that she apparently hadn't even begun a five page paper that was due in 16 hours. The encounter set me thinking about the overall quality of writing at MIT.

In general, students at MIT are lousy writers. The biggest single reason for this is procrastination. We wait until the very last minute to write papers for our classes. As a result, quality of the final products ranges from low to abysmal. The papers are poorly constructed and badly composed, and they receive a minimum of editing.

I must confess that I am guilty of this procrastination just like everyone else. I take two days to compose essays on which I once would have spent a week. This isn't a sign that I write faster now; the quality of my work suffers more than a little. However, as I've seen quite clearly, I'm far from the worst offender in this regard.

The fact that MIT students produce such miserable prose has little to do with their actual writing skill; it's a product of the MIT environment. We spend minimal time on our papers simply because we get away with it. Professors at MIT appear not to care whether their students write with any facility whatsoever. (A quick look at the scientific prose that those professors themselves produce offers a hint why this is the case.) Since the expectations in classes are so low, the material produced is of low quality.

The level of writing that I was expected to produce in high school was much higher than it is at MIT. My high school teachers didn't operate under the assumption that their students would end up in fields other than science and engineering, fields where writing is considered marginal at best. It wasn't a secret that I was going on to be a scientist, but I still needed to produce high-quality essays.

I rather doubt that all the techno-nerds at MIT managed to get accepted to a college like this one without doing well in the upper-level English classes in high school. They must have produced much better prose before arriving at MIT. But once they get here, the quality of their writing plummets precipitously.

The MIT administration recently recognized that the paltry writing requirements at the Institute don't suffice and that graduates lack the ability to communicate effectively. What they fail to grasp is that the vapid and effete academic prose typical of MIT students is a creation of MIT itself. Throwing more writing assignments in the faces of students serves no purpose unless professors hold those assignments to a much higher standard than they currently do.

For a start, papers shouldn't be graded by people who can't write themselves. Perhaps MIT should put a little more effort into finding faculty who can communicate without resorting to a maze of field-specific jargon all the time. Or maybe the faculty members should put a little more effort into finding literate teaching assistants for their classes rather than ones who just count the number of buzzwords used in an essay and base grades on that.

If the administration and the faculty recognize these facts and take steps to remedy the problem, the extra writing classes that have been proposed will become superfluous. The amount of writing that students are now required to produce would fully suffice if the real issues were addressed.

The basic ineptitude of MIT students' writing is a creation of MIT, with its lax attitude toward the ability to write. That attitude breeds procrastination and leads to the poor quality of writing that characterizes students and graduates of MIT.

Copyright 19,95, The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was published on Tuesday.
Volume 116, Number 54.
This story appeared on page 5 .

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