"Correcting" Freshman Composition

As any teacher does, I’m always looking for ways to improve my pedagogy, especially in the areas that interest me most–including freshman composition. So I was interested to read a “study” called “English 101: Prologue to Literacy or Postmodern Moonshine” and produced by Nan Miller for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education–even though I had never heard of this center. The first thing I looked for was suggestion for improvement. Sure enough, ‘corrective’ measures’ are provided (I’ll save the “fallacies” Miller identifies and says need correcting for another time):

Miller writes (my comments in italics):

Only a college administrator can ask a writing program director to put freshman composition back on track by

1. leaving the “discourse methodology” of the sciences and social sciences to experts in the sciences and social sciences, As writing is a means of discourse, this makes no sense. That’s even worse than asking a mechanic to leave automotive theory to the engineers and just stick to fixing cars. Theory and practice are inextricably linked; “methodology” and practice are even more so.
2. granting instructors latitude to select texts that suit their particular gifts, Yes and no. Most places do allow instructors that choice, merely offering a standard. Thing is, with so many adjuncts and other contingent hires teaching (and with little chance of providing close supervision, given the dearth of permanent faculty), anything that can help produce a standard outcome needs to be used. The question isn’t one of allowing instructors latitude but of increasing tenured and tenure-track faculty who can be more carefully embedded into the particular university’s system.
3. insisting that instructors use class time teaching writing strategies and pointing out how professional writers employ them, rather than having students work in groups, I must have missed something: I did not understand it was an either/or. Though I am not a big one for small groups, I understand their value and utilize them towards a number of ends, including development of an understanding of audience (by writing to each other), learning copyediting skills, and building a tool chest of “pre-writing” strategies. Also, writing itself isn’t a matter of “strategies”—they as simply individual tools to help the writer get to the main task of communicating with an audience. When we talk of “writing strategies” alone, we are removing the act of writing from its conversational dynamic. This is appropriate for professional writers and more advanced student writers, but it does little for “freshman composition” students, most of whom need to learn, first, that writing is much more than words on a page.
4. reminding instructors that using technology in class is no substitute for lively instruction, Technology is no bar to lively instruction, either. There’s no either/or here, so what’s the point of the comment?
5. urging instructors to incorporate daily quizzes or online postings that hold students accountable for the assigned reading, When the class is larger than it really should be—perhaps 12 to 14 students—it certainly is often necessary to use some device or another to make sure students keep current with their reading. It would make more sense to try to reduce class sizes, however, than concentrating on stop-gap methods like these.
6. endowing instructors with absolute authority and providing strong backup when students challenge that authority, Sorry, but I want my students to challenge my authority. Writing is a process of struggle to get one’s own point across, not to parrot that of another.
7. requiring instructors to schedule at least two conferences with each student during the course of the semester and encouraging them to meet with students on a regular basis, Here, again, it would be better to lobby for smaller classes. Individual conferences, for the most part, are simply an attempt to find a substitute for the close instruction possible in a small class. As most every writing teacher does meet individually with her or his students, this isn’t even much of a suggestion.
8. assigning instructors no more than two sections of freshman English per semester, so that they can make time to grade papers carefully and meet with students outside of class, Though I know there are a few places that have people teaching heavier loads of freshman English, I have no experience of them. The places where I have taught do keep it to two or fewer. Again, this doesn’t go even one step beyond what is now done in most cases.
9. requiring that essays be graded by instructors whose comments address an identifiable writer—not an anonymous piece of writing—and who routinely hand papers back during the next class period. Here, again, the “college administrator” would better spend his or her time fighting to reduce class size. Like many of the other suggestions here, this addresses a problem that will never be completely resolved until the financial constrictions leading to over-large classes are eased. Until such a time, all such suggestions, however effective they may be, and how needed in the short term, are merely stop-gap.
10. requiring instructors to design a systematic review of grammar—making use of handbook exercises, online tutorials, and writing center workshops in preparation for a departmental test that all students must pass at mid-semester, I have yet to see a grammar test that makes students better writers. It makes much more sense to teach grammar through the revision and copy-editing process, when the communicative aspect of writing is still evident. As we often see with ESL students, grasp of grammar rules (and the ability to complete grammar exercises) has little relationship to the quality of a student’s writing.
11. administering a departmental writing test at semester’s end (departmental tests provide an excellent measure of teacher competence as well), I have no problem with a test general to the department, but using the results of those tests to judge teacher competence scares me. The assumption is that all students start at the same place and with the same skills is unwarranted—and teachers who know they are going to be judged on the success of their students will, consciously or not, weed out their weaker students. Here again, though, smaller class size would be a preferred solution.
12. reinstating essay assignments that pique the imagination, e.g., narrative and descriptive essays, At the basic level of freshman English, concentration needs to be on communication, on developing something to say to someone else, and not so much on imagination. That will come, but the ability to communicate precedes it. We need to start where the students are, find what is already in them that they wish to say, and teach them how to say it through writing. This process can lead to flights of imagination and to narrative and descriptive essays—but communication is the goal.
13. suggesting that faculty who write or talk about composition read what Aristotle said about clarity—in Book III, Chapter 2 of On Rhetoric:
A writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking
naturally and not artificially…. Strange words, compound words, and
invented words must be used sparingly and on few occasions…. A good
writer can produce a style that is distinguished without being obtrusive
and is at the same time clear.
Clarity is, of course, what students aim for when they finally realize that what they are doing is attempting to communicate. We don’t need Miller—or even Aristotle—to tell us that.
14. requiring a two-semester sequence in freshman composition and allowing instructors to include some literature in the introductory course if they wish. For example, instructors could choose an all-essay text like the Norton Anthology, which is organized around themes, but also assign fiction and poetry that treat the same themes. Or instructors could choose a freshman text such as Literature and Ourselves, which organizes both fiction and nonfiction around themes. Am I beginning to detect some padding here? Like many of Miller’s suggestions, this is pretty much what most of us do right now. And I don’t know anyone who would argue against expanding freshman composition to two semesters in those places where it hasn’t already happened.
15. designing a second semester course around great works. Ideally, the course would resemble David Denby’s Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, better known as the 1996 New York Times best seller Great Books. But program directors could design a far less ambitious course that would engage students in challenging reading, lively class discussion, and perceptive writing. Shoot, I could (and have) design a second-semester course around books that became movies. Others do it around philosophies. The possibilities, as they say, are endless. The point is to have a topic that enthuses the instructor, so that the instructor can show genuine passion and, perhaps, pass it on to the students.

‘Nuff said. There’s little weight and nothing new in any of this. I was disappointed when I finished the list.

This study, by the way, seems to be another of those “studies,” like the ones conducted by David Horowitz or the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, that relies primarily on syllabi, positing that the syllabus is an accurate encapsulation of the course. A good portion of the sixty pages is given over to reproductions of syllabi, at least.

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