Ideas on how to confront Professor Writewrong. (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Today’s question is from an academic who’s being forced to use a colleague’s terrible materials in his course. I’ve got six ideas on how to fix the handiwork of Professor Writewrong. Can you do better?

Here’s the note I got:

Dear Dr. Wobs

I’m a college professor and I like to think a decent writer. One of my colleagues creates materials rife with grammatical errors, errant punctuation, the passive voice, run-on sentences, extraneous quotations and parentheses, PASSAGES IN ALL CAPS, and generally confusing verbiage. He’s a smart person but writing clearly isn’t one of his strong suits. 

Also, I don’t know if this in important, but he’s an American citizen and English is his first language. I would be more tolerant if this weren’t the case. 

I wouldn’t mind so much but I’m supposed to use his materials for one of my courses. I’ve tried to gently correct his language in the past but he doesn’t like it. 

Here’s my conundrum: I don’t want to make an enemy in my department. At the same time, though, his poor writing offends my sensibilities. I should be setting an example. After all, I’m a college professor. 

I’d love some advice. 

— Flummoxed Faculty

Forced to endorse crap? Your choices are standards, alternatives, or therapy.

Dear Flummoxed.

First off, I feel for you. And while this problem may be worse in academia, it’s not an academic problem. Anyone working in an organization of any size must deal with materials that don’t match up to our standards. Even freelancers like me have to put up with questionable materials that our clients foist on us. Whether it’s people who can’t tell your from you’re or emoji-crazy “helpers” , it can sometimes feel like it’s too much to bear.

This is a great example of how writing problems are cultural problems, too. You can’t just fix things unless it’s your job to edit them, because it’s not your role. And as you suggested, it might create unrest. But the alternative is to foist this crappy text on your students, which seems worse.

Here’s what you can’t do: whine to somebody else and ask them to fix it. That’s the worst of both worlds — nothing will get fixed, but Professor Writewrong will probably hear about it and blame you. Unfortunately, every potential solution involves actual work on your part.

The direct approach — confronting Professor Writewrong with the problem — is more likely to create defensiveness than to solve the problem. And bringing it up in a public setting like a faculty meeting will get you an enemy for life.

Here are some more subtle ideas for you.

  1. Solve the problem in your class only. Get a soft copy of the material and revise it, rewriting only the grammatical and writing problems without changing the content. (Even if you only have a printout, you can easily scan it and edit it.) Then use the new material with your classes only. After a semester or two, you could see if some of your peers might also like to use your copy. If Prof. Writewrong gets wind of what you did, they haven’t really got a leg to stand on: your version is exactly the same except with correct grammar and style, so it is fulfilling the same function.
  2. Start a committee to revise and improve the material. Committees are how things get done in academia (and other organizations, too). At some point, the handout is going to become out of date due to changes in the content — if it’s in computer science, for example, languages and conventions change all the time. Find a reason other than grammar and writing to update the material, volunteer to lead a committee to do it, and recruit a colleague whose ideas about writing are similar to yours. Even if Prof. Writewrong is also on the committee, the three of you can go over it and identify things LIKE THE ALL CAPS or the greengrocer’s apostrophe’s that could use fixing. It’s a lot harder to defend silly stuff like that when two reasonable colleagues are pointing out that it might be better without the (extraneous) parentheses.
  3. Deploy an expert third party. Do you have a friend in the English department? A colleague who teaches business writing? A department secretary who’s a steely-eyed grammar stickler? Get this third party to mark up the text. Then quietly show it to Prof. Writewrong. “Hey, Wrongy, I asked Evelyn Steeleye to have a look at the handout we’re using for the level 101 class. She’s so good on language I always run my stuff by her. She had a bunch of interesting suggestions. What do you think?” Once your colleague has had a chance to look it over, you might be able to have a more rational discussion — especially if you or Ms. Steeleye are willing to make the edits and let your colleague approve them. The point here is that Prof. Writewrong will find it a lot easier to work with you to solve the problems an “expert” has identified, rather than fighting with you about who’s right.
  4. Sneak your colleague a copy of Writing Without Bullshit or something similar. My book — or Ann Handley’s for example — have the virtue that they’re not a frontal assault. If you can get Prof. Writewrong to read something like this, they may recognize some of their bad habits and start changing them on their own. You and Prof W. can chuckle over the really bad examples in the book and feel superior — but you might be amazed how your colleague suddenly starts avoiding passive voice in the future.
  5. Change the culture. This is a much harder pull, but if you were feeling ambitious, you could ask the department head or dean about starting a movement to get better, clearer materials for classroom use. You might even tap into the writing center that I hope your university has. Have a look at this Harvard Business Review article about the amazing work Jessica Weber did to improve the writing culture at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
  6. Deal with it. We all have to put up with crap. Go home and kick the (stuffed) dog. Tell your therapist. Create some well written materials and take pride in them. Tell your students that you know the handout is full of grammar errors, but the content is still useful. Find a way to move on.

I’m sure there are other strategies I haven’t thought of here. Do you readers have any ideas for Flummoxed?

I also encourage you to send Dr. Wobs your own writing posers and see if we can help you. If I post your question, I’ll send you a signed copy of Writing Without Bullshit.

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One Comment

  1. I don’t know the ins and outs of academia, but “supposed to use” someone else’s course materials sounds strange. Is there a way to push back on this requirement? You were hired to teach (and research), and to add your independent thoughts to the curriculum–even if the outline of the curriculum is already defined. Is this a “you’re a newcomer, so take the first year easy” kind of arrangement, or forever? I can understand a department wanting certain topics covered in order to prepare students for the next level of study, but the degree of detail here feels intrusive, signaling a lack of trust and collegiality.

    That, to me, sounds like a bigger work environment issue. Best wishes.