Hail to thee, alma mater
The Rocky Mountain Collegian, esteemed newspaper of Colorado State University, greeted Monday’s students, staff, and faculty with this article. As CSU is generally not known for anything aside from its vet med school, the enthusiasm around this announcement (finding?) is understandable. The conclusion came by way of collecting the opinions of high-level administrators (presidents, deans, etc) from 1,500 different schools on which schools “typically make the writing process a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum.” That CSU even came up at all in this discussion was a surprise to me, much less that it was mentioned alongside pearlescent (fuck you, WordPress, that is too a word) monoliths of academia like Harvard, Duke, Princeton, and the University of Iowa. Good press for the green and gold by any measure, and a welcome reprieve from news of the football team’s outstanding failure to “tear the Buffaloes’ line asunder as down the field [they] thunder.”
However, as a graduate of CSU’s English program, I feel both entitled and inclined to greet this news with a cruel chuckle and a knowing smirk. Somewhat predictably, the majority of my classes used essay, story, or poem assignments to evaluate student competence and progress. From the 2012 U.S. News and World Report, this seems to be a common trend across most undergraduate majors, although whatever lingering pride I have as an English major likes to think our department did it harder and better. Long after the pride and fervor over this announcement fades (trends predict next Friday), the English program spawn will still walk tall, confident in our ability to swap lenses and deconstruct like motherfuckers.
What amuses me most about this ranking, however, is the methodology used to achieve it. The respondents weren’t asked which schools produce the best writers or highest-quality essays. Universities didn’t submit examples of student writing that crammed ten pounds of crackling brilliance into a five-pound Maserati of delivery. Rather, we ranked nationally among those who place emphasis on writing, and the CSU marketing team is more than willing to equate emphasis with excellence in this case. As any topical foray into the nethers of fan fiction will tell you, however, being emphatic about something doesn’t mean you’re excellent at it.
To illustrate: I tend toward high levels of emphasis when playing computer strategy games (both real-time and turn-based). However, I have a well-founded suspicion that I’m not very good at them. I’m certain my ass would resemble creamed corn after a single round of online competitive play, and yet I persist in playing single-player campaigns or co-ops. They entertain me, but I am not concerned with improving my skill at playing them.
Similarly, the emphasis placed on writing at CSU is meaningless without the vital component of a student’s desire to improve. Most undergraduates I knew (in the English department, mind you) viewed essays as lumpy masses of wasted time to be squeezed out so they could get their degree. Interest in the subject matter was rare, interest in creating an MLA-approved comment on the subject matter rarer. In one class, I toyed with the idea of turning in a bag of trash in lieu of a final essay at the end of the semester. Not only was I aware that my “contributions to an ongoing academic discussion” of Foucault were worthless, but I didn’t care about improving them.
Now add the logistical impossibility of paying enough instructors and graduate students to facilitate meaningful commentary on each essay submitted in every section of every course. Odds are, the resulting degree casserole will taste less like good writing and more like good beer no matter how many times the student wrote about application of theory to a text or practice.
So congratulations, Colorado State! Your emphasis has been nationally ranked.