Infographic | Writing (and students) throughout history: A timeline of complaints about students and their ills

Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR
Vol. 2, No. 3 (Fall 2020)

Click to access the infographic.

GIF featuring historical complaints about writing technologies.Robert Zaretsky’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Our students can’t write. We have ourselves to blame, still rubs me the wrong way, and it was published in 2019. Not only does he belittle his students who are learning to write, but he also quotes from one of their papers, outing the student and their work as “a tad less coherent than others.” It may be safe to assume he’s quoting the student without consent and breaking confidentiality rules (as they are in most HE institutions in Canada). It’s also in the literature and the media that making fun of students leads to humiliation, shame, poor grades, and dropouts (see here, here, and here).

It’s not a surprise then that Zaretsky admits in the piece, “When I was a graduate student in European history, I was not trained to teach this subject [composition]. (In fact, I was not trained to teach at all, but that is another story.)” He doubts the “effectiveness” WID programs, and then a couple paragraphs later suggests a program that “reward[s] tenured professors who retooled as composition teachers and reassure tenure-line professors that teaching writing is as important as writing monographs.” Sounds like a grand-parented WID program. He does know that he’s teaching writing…

Complaints about students are not new–they are as old writing itself–to at least as far back as 1700 BCE Sumeria: “Go to school, stand before your ‘school-father,’ recite your assignment, open your schoolbag, write your tablet…do not wander about in the street. Come now, do you know what I said?”  Jump ahead to 2016: “The tragic truth is that America’s millennials are a bunch of phone-addicted, selfie-obsessed, hashtagging, snapchatting, kale-munching, twerking, lazy, whining, ill-informed, politically correct, cossetted narcissists who find absolutely everything mortally offensive…” And, everything in between.

I decided to put together a list of these in a timeline, and I added a column on all the things that are ruining kids these days, from 925 BCE (books), to 370 BCE (writing), to 1450 (printing press), to 1883 (school and books), to 1889 (electricity), to 1936 (radio), and 2020 (smartwatches).

Here’s what George Orwell has to say about the whole thing: “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” That’s from a person who could tell the future.

You can find the timeline infographic here.