We both had to take an introductory literature or composition course in college, even though we had not planned on doing so. We had both taken AP English in high school from an amazing teacher, Dr. Doug Collar, who now teaches at Heidelberg University in Ohio, and done well on the exam (Aneil, my husband, still remembers getting a “5”), and so we thought we knew everything we needed to know about literature and good writing.
The writing tests we had to take during our first week of college, however, placed us in the mainstream introductory literature or composition courses, which the vast majority of freshmen were required to take, regardless of their writing performance in high school. In retrospect, that was the best decision that could have been made for us, because the constant practice in writing we both received in college prepared us for a lifetime of work, which has always required lots of reading and writing.
Indeed, we have regularly been given feedback to improve upon writing, as we transitioned from college to full-time work, then to graduate school, and then to apply our writing skills for a wide variety of audiences, whether it is our students, our peers for academic journals, and our consulting clients. Each audience has different needs, requires different styles, and has provided different kinds of feedback to us. Thus, only from constant feedback and practice have we been able to meet these different needs: which is ultimately to communicate our ideas, analysis, and recommendations in a compelling fashion. For example, Mike Gannon, who was our first boss at General Motors, carefully took the time to teach us how to craft memos that would smoothly go up the chain of command, and then often were sent back to us with questions and actions noted by executives.
As we now read case studies, group projects, and reflection papers from our students, we know that the most important course that students can take before one of ours is a course which is writing-intensive, and which provides lots of opportunity for feedback from professors. For example, here is the course description for the course at Meredith College, where Karen is a business school professor:
Instruction and practice in writing well-organized compositions with a review of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.
It is difficult to express yourself adequately unless you have learned the fine art of how to compose a simple, yet elegant sentence. We can’t tell you how many faculty meetings we have sat through where we have talked about additional ways we can improve our students’ writing abilities. We know that it is important, not just for our classes, but for their life beyond college.
Our students will write memos to a boss and must be clear and succinct. They will compose a letter to an elderly relative and must be able to express themselves clearly and kindly. They will write letters of application for graduate school and must be able to declare their fondness for a specific subject and school. They might even write articles or books one day, and want to be sure their words are understood and easily interpreted.
So, for us, the most important course you can take in college is your introductory writing class. Don’t try to get out of it, thinking you have done enough in high school. Take the opportunity to learn more, practice more, and get more out of your entire college experience because you have invested in the best course first.
Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012) and Trust is Everything (2008).