Thursday, June 23, 2005

A murder of crows

It was just about a year ago this week that I began working on the quiz that our department wanted to give incoming majors. Over in the journalism department they make every prospective major take a comprehensive vocabulary/spelling/grammar/punctuation test. It takes several hours to complete and provides tangible proof that there are students who clearly have no business heading for a career in written communications. It reinforces the skills of the ones who are ready for it.

Our department chair and the other writing profs decided our major needed an admissions quiz that would weed out the truly hopeless before they signed up for classes. I volunteered to write it, not because I needed any brownie points but because I knew I could trust my own skills. Can I tell you how many times I received emails from my tenured colleagues that said "between you and I" and "we will consider there proposal"? Shocking to a word-snob like me.

I've ranted before about the ridiculously remedial nature of many of the courses I taught. As the years piled up, I noted that each new crop of sophomores in the beginning media writing class seemed to know less about basics than the one before. Sure, they're hopeless with commas, unfamiliar with the "punctuation inside the quotation mark" rule and given to spelling "definitely" with an -a- in place of the second -i-. They're also ignorant of all those great mnemonic devices we Boomers were taught when we were knee-high to a Ringo.

"I before E except after C, or when sounding like A, as in neighbor and weigh."

"There is `a rat' in `separate.'"

I got a million of 'em thanks to the fine work of Miss McMillan and Mrs. Probst at Stonewall Jackson Elementary.

So I set to work on the writing proficiency test, page after page of fill-in-the-blanks, multi-choices and "circle the misspelled word." At the end I added some common knowledge questions. "What does the phrase `as the crow flies' mean?" "If you `put the kibosh' on something, what are you doing?" "What is `the whole kit and kaboodle'?" "What is the collective noun for a group of geese?" "How is the date of Easter determined?"

Some idiomatic sayings go back to the American Revolution, many are even older, dating back to the beginning of our native tongue. You need to know such things, not just for a career in media, but to sound like an educated human being. A friend tells of the time a young copy editor at a top 10 daily newspaper was flummoxed by "he lost his shirt in Vegas." "You mean he took his shirt off?" asked the young rim-rat. He'd never heard that phrase before.

I finished the sample test and emailed it to the two other writing teachers who also would be giving the test to sophomores trying to declare the major. Within the hour, their responses bounced back. "Too hard." "They'll never pass this." "Who needs to know pop culture references like how to spell Muhammad Ali?" "The grammar and punctuation sections are too difficult." "Isn't Easter always the same date every year?"

OK. I rewrote. I rewrote again. And again the responses from the full-timers indicated that I was expecting waaaaay too much from college sophomores. "Your standards are too high," they said. I've been accused of that on nearly every job I've ever had.

So here's what I did. I got my hands on an old fourth-grade language workbook. I took questions and exercises out of it and with only a few tweaks, I used those for the writing proficiency test.

Insert the proper punctuation into the following sentence: Mr and Mrs OHara brought their kids Jane John and Juniper to the picnic

In the "circle the misspellings" list: embarrass, harrass, finally, Wednesday, Febuary, cheddar.
(The bloopers are the second and fifth words.)

The entire test was pretty much dumbed down to the language skill level of 10- and 11-year-olds.

They loved it.

And when I gave it to 40 new prospective majors in the fall, the average score out of 100 was 53.


Anonymous littlem said...


Are other folks just in too much denial to comment on this, or am I just a snob because I'm the daughter of two educators and had to earn academic scholarships for all my degrees because they couldn't afford to send me to the Ivy League schools (4 of them) to which I'd been accepted?

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