Employers in Colorado, I need your help. Answer this question: “In a difficult job market, will the ability to write clearly and effectively provide a competitive advantage for a young job-seeker?”
I think the answer is “yes.” But if your response is “no,” don’t try to protect me. Be blunt. If I am paying too little attention to the dramatic changes in communication technology, and if I am dumping hours and hours into teaching a skill that has lost its value, I need to face up to this.
And if your answer is “yes,” then I need your advice and help.
In the last few weeks, my team-teachers and I have worked ourselves silly, writing extensive comments on student papers. When we see a problem, we write a number in the margin of the paper, and we then type a numbered comment identifying what the problem is and how to correct it. This process, I will say with only modest exaggeration, takes forever.
When the students get these comments back, they get to rewrite the paper, and only the second grade counts.
Our comments range from matters of punctuation to accuracy. Apostrophes, for instance, have gone mad. Many students indicate that nouns are plural by giving them apostrophes. The distracting results of failed proofreading leave a reader of a certain background unable to stick with and track the meaning of a sentence.
Does this matter? Is it worth investing our time in correcting this habit?
The practice called “doing research” has declined to a brief exercise in consulting one or two online resources and then writing statements that convey complete certainty. This custom no doubt saves time. It also increases the likelihood that the student will put forward declarations (or, rather, “declaration’s”) of “fact” that are questionable, only marginally accurate, or downright wrong.
Twenty years ago, in a period when I traveled too much, I plagued the businesspeople seated next to me on planes with paired questions: “What business are you in?” and “When you are hiring a young employee, does his ability to speak and write play a part in your final selection?”
Without exception, I got the answer I wanted: The ability to communicate matters, and it is often the determining factor.
Maybe my expression demonstrated such intense yearning that my informants gave me the answer they knew I was desperate to hear. Or maybe the world of digital communications has made the whole idea of making a favorable impression through one’s skill in writing into a relic of a vanished world.
So I am not kidding when I ask for your help. If you are a person who hires young people in businesses, non-profits, governmental agencies, or professional offices, please give me the benefit of your experience.
For my current course in Western American Studies, my syllabus declares the ambitious hope that students will acquire or enhance their ability to speak and write in a way that future employers will find impressive and persuasive.
So, employers of Colorado, I await your guidance. Should the statement drawing a connection between good writing and the positive reaction of employers hold onto its place in the next version of this course syllabus? Does it still have relevance?
Here is one data point to consider as you frame your answer: Last year, our enterprise in close commentary on over 200 papers produced significant improvement in 70 percent of the revised papers. Those were gratifying results. But will they actually make a difference in the careers of the young people of the 21st century?
Please send your (well-written or not!) responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.