College Readiness: A Whimsical Buzzword Vocabulary Study

Rachel Johnson, Writing Center Director and Writing Instructor, University of Mississippi Tupelo

I’ll go ahead and put this out there. I am a total nerd. That’s right: Star Trek, gadgetry, ironic vintage décor, a pencil sharpener collection… the whole shebang. But, not all of my geekery turns to frivolous pursuits; I do have some marketable hobbies. One of those has always been word history and origins. This started as games I played in the car with my dad on road trips (read: “Whoever gets the most words with the same root gets sour gummy worms at the next exit!”), led to my mild success with the GRE verbal section (read: VERY mild), and grew into a fascination with language and cultural studies in graduate school.

Recently, through a tangled web of Facebook and Twitter recommendations, I stumbled upon John Patrick Leary’s cool blog series called Keywords for the Age of Austerity in which he examines “vocabulary words” of inequality, and, you guessed it, I’ve been nerding out ever since. In his series, he chooses one word, generally a buzz word of some kind (e.g. innovation), and examines it closely for both its productive and sinister qualities in current and former usage. Leary focuses mostly on the language of politics and the economy, but, as I explored his blogs, I couldn’t help thinking about all of our composition/writing buzzwords.

When I started planning my involvement in the “Transitioning to College Writing Symposium,” I kept encountering “vocabulary words.” They are words we all know: assessment, evaluation, writing skills, literacy, numeracy…

*pauses to take a breath*

…teacher-student relationships, intervention(s), readiness, cognitive skills and habits, learning styles, and on and on.

Straying from the task at hand, I got a little curious about the longevity and usage of these words and used a cool little gadget that Leary recommends called the Google “Ngram Viewer” to learn more about them. The Ngram Viewer is a search engine that searches for a particular word or phrase in a database of millions of books from the year 1500 to the present. Basically, it helps you see when a particular word or phrase gained some traction in publication by plotting that information on a nifty little graph.

Here are just a few charts of our buzz words:

Writing Across the Curriculum

College Readiness



Educational Interventions

Writing Instruction

There are a number of notable observations one could make here, ahem… ASSESSMENT… *cough*, but the term I feel particularly connected to as an instructor and a presenter/attendee of the symposium is “college readiness.” According to the almighty Google, college readiness didn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention until the mid-1960s, saw a mild decline, and has since had a resurgence of popularity. Like all buzz words/phrases, the meaning of “college readiness” seems at once both easy to grasp (ready for college) and very difficult to quantify (insert list of a thousand different academic, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills/practices).

In an effort to solve the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is the term “college readiness,” I thought I would do a brief vocabulary study of my own. So, I went to the mother of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary. This didn’t immediately help because the OED has four different definitions for “readiness,” two of which have sub-definitions. But, after examining these definitions a bit closer, I decided there is something to learn (or more appropriately, questions to be asked) from the evolution of the word’s meaning.

The first and most current set of meanings is what I and, I suspect, most of you associate with readiness: “the condition or fact of being ready or fully prepared” and “the condition of being able or prepared to learn.” The second of these really caught my attention. Readiness is a state of being? A condition? A frame of mind? Not just a set of skills? This certainly matches up with my classroom experience. The students that I see succeeding with college writing tend to be motivated and driven even if they aren’t necessarily prepared skill-wise for my class. Sometimes the students coming from the best schools with the best background lack the frame of mind to stay on top of their work. Then again, it is just as likely that those who are prepared with the right set of skills are less likely to struggle with issues of motivation in the face of failure.

Readiness hasn’t always been synonymous with preparedness. Nope. In fact, its older and more rare meanings interestingly relate to speed: “the quality of being prompt or quick in action, performance, expression” and “the quickness or ease with which something occurs or is done.” Has our version of readiness retained any echo of this emphasis on speed and quickness? Do we want students to not only be prepared, but also quick to adapt? Quick to learn or grow? If so, how do we teach this? Adaptability seems more like a personality trait or perhaps something that is perfected over a long period of time. Does this mean that college readiness training starts in elementary education? Is it more of a social or intellectual matter?

Quickness aside, a third meaning takes the form of “prompt compliance, willingness.” I can certainly find positivity and relevance in this definition in that students who are willing to try new things and take a few leaps seem to do well at the college level. Those that spend a lot of time focused on the rules, formatting, or safe formulaic answers for writing that they’ve relied on in the past are at a disadvantage in the college classroom. I’ll say though, that the word “compliance” troubled me. Doesn’t compliance suggest bending to the will of another? Performing something as a function of the rules or norms of a system? Is college readiness just about doing what we as instructors say? I’ll be the first to admit that I structure my class around my own training and ideas related to teaching and writing. These ideas and training surely dictate my evaluation criteria. Are we sending students conflicting messages about thinking outside of the box and simultaneously following the rules?

*Sigh* To be honest, I’m not sure that my vocabulary study has left me with any answers about what college readiness actually means or should mean. But, I, like many of you, teach my students that the best place to start with research, writing, and ideas that matter is with a question. So… since I’ve asked, I don’t know, eighteen… maybe we are in a good place. I hope the symposium gives us the space to consider these questions, nerd out together, and find what “Transitioning to College Writing” and all its many buzzwords mean for our students and ourselves.


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