Not all students prepared for writing portfolio

WSU does not readily recognize students who are weaker at writing



Many students who are weaker at academic English, struggle with the requirements of the writing portfolio.

MORGAN HOSTETTLER, Evergreen Columnist

No matter your major, you have and will write a noticeable number of essays while at WSU. Even if you hate everything about writing and you figure out a schedule where you have a minimal amount of work, at least five papers are required before you walk across the stage like our most recent graduates.

These five academic essays are what is required for the university’s Junior Writing Portfolio. What this portfolio does is “determine if students’ writing abilities have advanced in ways that can handle the writing demands of upper-division courses and courses in their major,” according to their website. This is done by having the student turn in three of their best pieces of writing done during their college career.

Yet, this a completely subjective barometer. If a student does little to no writing, is an international student, or simply struggles with academic English, the likelihood of their “best” writing being “good enough” is reduced. This struggle to pass is only worsened when the instructions and feedback from professors and teaching assistants are unclear and vague.

During the school year I work in the Undergraduate Writing Center. My job there is to help fellow students with every level of a paper – from planning to proof-reading – and international students make up a large percentage of those who come in.

Brooklyn Walter, the director of the writing center, said roughly 20 percent of the students who come in for help are international students, and that she “only expects international numbers to go up.” This is indicative of the fact that WSU has a international student population around 1,000 and is actively trying to get more international students to come to Pullman.

The reason these students come in for help is not because they are “bad” writers, but rather because academic English is not built to be inclusive.

This is not solely a problem for international students. If you grew-up speaking two languages in your home, came from an area of the country with its own dialect, or were never taught “the proper way of writing” then it may be a common problem. Many of us struggle with this seemingly impossible to master and almost foreign-sounding way of writing. It is in itself a second language separate from conversational, or even professional, English.

The Junior Writing Portfolio is not something that should be taken lightly. If you do well, you can get a distinction in your transcripts saying you are a quality writer. If you do poorly, however, you will have to take another English class facilitated by those in the Writing Center. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, if writing papers is something you only started doing in college, it becomes one.

This leads to a problem. The student writing the paper could have been born and raised in the U.S., only ever spoken English and still fail on an academic paper because it was unclear, lacked flow or had grammatical errors.

Now take a student who has spent the first 18 or so years of their life speaking a language with a completely different alphabetical and grammatical structure, then toss them into a college class with the expectation of knowing how to write English at a college level. This only leads to more unclear comments because the student doesn’t know the expectations, nor what should be changed based on feedback.

If professors and TAs would make their prompts or rubrics clearer, as well as being more in-depth with their feedback, it would not only help students do better in classes and help everyone feel more at home in the academic community, but also increase the passage rate for the Junior Writing Portfolio. However, this can only be done if instructors know the cultural makeup of their classes and understand that for many, writing academically is another language, not expect students to know every aspect of academic English.

Many students don’t know exactly what is expected of them, but by providing feedback and rubrics that take into account students’ backgrounds, professors will receive more quality papers and better help their students long-term.

“It’s a collective endeavor to help and provide the vocabulary needed,” Walters said.

As a university and a community, we need to look at our expectations when it comes to academic essays.

We do not need to get rid of academic English altogether and write dissertations in conversational English, but the need for a distinct form of academic writing is valid and important. Expecting students who have only ever written five-paragraph essays, are international, or those who simply struggle with writing papers at a college level without clear instructions and feedback not only hurts GPAs, but the likelihood of passing the Junior Writing Portfolio.