Why Take Composition Courses?

The brouhaha about automated grading of essay exams came to mind the other day when I was asked, as an English teacher, to comment on whether or not a student might be able to submit a series of lab reports to fulfill a composition requirement. If automated grading catches on, we are going to see more of this, and may eventually see this leading to the end of composition-as-we-know-it. Perhaps that is not completely a bad thing (I am not really fond of how we teach writing or even of  how it is integrated into the curriculum), though it would be a set-back for our students. Of course, that’s a pendulum that would, of necessity, swing back once we see a generation of writers coming out of college even more incompetent to communicate in writing than those graduating now. Here’s a part of how I responded:

As you have requested, I have examined the lab reports. Unfortunately, I do not see how they can possibly be construed as meeting the requirements of a writing course, be it the basic composition course all students must take or even Advanced Technical Writing, the course covering material closest to the lab-report writing of the sort provided. Both of these are courses I teach, and I would not accept these lab reports as fulfilling anything more than a small part of what I expect of my students.

There are quite a number of problems with any consideration of this type of work as substitution for a writing course in English, but I will focus on only two as prime examples of why these lab reports do not show the type of work required in an English writing course. Either problem would be a sufficient basis for rejecting a request to use these reports in place of doing the much more extensive and nuanced work of a real composition course.

First, the lab reports follow what is, basically, a single formula. As a result, they indicate no command of the variety of written communication covered within any English writing course. In addition, the nature of the formula is not one that necessitates the types of revision and reworking that are part of the process of writing that can be required of a college graduate. Nor does use of the formula allow the student to face and overcome critical questions of audience and effectiveness, areas of importance in any writing class–and in writing in the world one enters on graduation. Finally, the use of a report formula allows for the completion of a document without the student ever having to deal with questions of transition, tone, or style–all significant elements of writing as taught in an English writing course. For these reasons and more, no English composition class teacher would ever accept such lab reports as fulfilling more than one assignment–if they (or one of them) would even be accepted for that.

Second, the actual writing by the student in these reports is quite slim. Because of their structure, lab reports require little original composition, allowing boilerplate prose to carry most of the burden. At most, there is but a paragraph or two of what an English professor would accept as original writing in any of these lab reports. Writing is an attempt at communication, not simply filling in categories or listing results. Students learn to do that by concentrating on writing as the primary activity in a composition class. Here, the writing is simply a coda to another process and another learning exercise.

As a result, I cannot recommend that these lab reports be considered in any way as the equivalent of what a student is expected to do and learn in a college English composition course.

My objections would be rendered meaningless, were automated grading to move first into standardized testing and then (by logical extension) into the classroom. We would no longer be able to teach writing, but would be teaching the filling of forms, the establishment of a formula, and the arrangement of squiggles on a page or screen. No one really needs to learn all of that for any purpose but passing a test. Eventually, schools and colleges would realize this and would dispense with composition courses altogether.

They would dispense with them… until the day would come, necessarily, when someone would point out that new graduates were emerging with no ability to communicate in writing about anything they had learned or that they might discover.

One thought on “Why Take Composition Courses?

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