By Lynn Moncus: QCS columnist
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to read a set of essays written by college freshmen and was a bit taken aback by the differences between what professors accept today and what we accepted last century. Standards have most definitely changed.
The assignment had been to write a humorous essay about an incident that had happened in high school. Although that may sound simple, it really is one of the more difficult assignments because few students have the ability to write humor and usually wind up with a low grade on content even if they have a fairly high grade on form. Many years ago, I finally learned that I couldn’t begin to teach students how to write humorous papers, perhaps because I could not write humorously myself, but also because the writing thereof is a natural ability that seems to be missing in most of us. I might find two or three students a semester who had the natural ability and who could entertain all of us with their writings, but the rest couldn’t begin to cause smiles, much less laughter.
As I browsed through the recent essays, I found one that contained real humor and that was written correctly — no grammatical errors or spelling errors, no crude words, no sentence fragments, run-ons, or comma splices.
I could almost feel the ease with which that student wrote because his thoughts flowed very smoothly, his paragraphs were well developed, and his subject was maintained throughout the ten pages. Obviously, he had as much fun while writing his essay as his reader had in reading it. In fact, that was the only real “A” paper in the stack although the professor had given “A’s” and “B’s” to all except three of the 30.
I would have spilled red ink on most of those essays because of the crude language and the many errors; that professor seemed to have ignored most errors and must have appreciated the limited vocabulary composed mainly of obscenities. Even during the last century, freshman would try to use such vocabulary at least once in my classes but would usually break that habit after receiving their first graded paper and finding many suggestions about improving their vocabulary in order to use polite English and to avoid embarrassing themselves. They learned rather quickly to act like ladies and gentlemen if they didn’t want to major in Freshman Composition, and we had no further problems as they settled into concentrating on improving their manners while writing to an audience that preferred to see a little culture rather than a lot of clutter in their writing. They alsolearned a little self-respect while respecting their readers. Some even learned to incorporate a modicum of humor after having read a few essays by great writers who had mastered the art of writing humor.
After having read that set of essays recently, I knew more than ever that I could no longer be a member of the teaching profession if I couldn’t have the opportunity to demand excellence. ‘Tis little wonder the media is cluttered with such careless use of the English language. Just listen to the commentators and read some of the well-known columnists so you can hear and see the lack of concentration on the use of our language. Yes, standards have changed!