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The Daily Tar Heel

We need to place a premium on writing

There are few things I dread more than group papers. Even in classes where every assignment feels like a punishment, being asked to write a paper with other people is nothing short of cruel and unusual.

It isn’t the logistical nightmare of coordinating four randomly selected college students’ schedules that makes the process so frustrating. It isn’t even the awkwardness of trying to make four different writing styles feel cohesive.

Instead, the problem with group papers is the inevitable 4 a.m. moment when I find myself scrawling all over a supposedly final draft in red ink wondering how my group members managed to get into this college without knowing the difference between “your” and “you’re” (or why they’re using the second person in this research paper to begin with).

The problem, in short, is the writing. Though I admit my evidence is anecdotal, I feel like I’ve peer-edited enough papers and read enough of my classmates’ emails to safely say that most of the students I interact with here were never taught how to write.

I do not mean to imply that this is my classmates’ fault. Quite the contrary. I see this as a failure on the part of the University. Grammatical quibbles aside, the consequences of this widespread incompetence are serious. It is unfair — not to mention hugely inefficient — to fail to ensure that students have the tools they need to make full use of their intellect.

I’m always amazed when I read a classmate’s paper and come across a genuinely good idea buried under baffling mixed metaphors and botched syntax. I can only imagine that for a professor with a stack of these essays to grade, this amazement would quickly turn to irritation.

After all, it is not the responsibility of, say, an economics professor to teach his or her students how to structure an argument. Some students were lucky enough to learn this stuff in high school, but even if they didn’t, that’s what English 101 is for, right?

Perhaps not. Given the number of students allowed to place out of English 101 and 102, and the inadequacy of the average freshman’s writing skills, it seems that standardized test-based placement has failed.

UNC must work harder to ensure that its students are prepared for the work they’re asked to do. Unfortunately, the Faculty Council’s latest solution probably won’t do the trick.

The council’s proposed class, English 105, would teach basic writing skills and would be mandatory for all freshmen. In theory, this is great. But in practice, forcing students with such a wide range of capabilities into the same classroom seems sure to end in frustration.

I’m sure that, as a student, I don’t fully appreciate how complex this problem is, and I don’t purport to have an answer. But it would be heartening if those who claim to have the answer could come up with a more convincing one. Whatever form the solution takes, it needs to have teeth and it must be something students will be able to take seriously. This is, after all, a very serious problem.

Maggie Zellner is a columnist for The Daily Tar Heel. She is a sophomore comparative literature major from Lynchburg, Va. Contact her at

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