Teaching Freshman Composition

William Major had a good column at Inside Higher Ed last week & surprisingly the comment thread generated by Major's essay is intelligent & civil. (IHE has the most persistent anti-intellectual right-wing trolls on the internet -- interesting as an anthropological study, but deeply dispiriting for regular reading.) Major's main contention is that more full profs ought to be teaching comp & since I'm a full prof who regularly teaches comp I find it difficult to disagree. He also notes that the exploitation of adjuncts cannot be a good thing for writing instruction even though most adjuncts teaching comp do an heroic job under impossible working conditions. I've been teaching freshmen to write since 1979 & have developed a few theses on the subject -- from the philosophical to the pedestrian -- that I will now nail to the classroom door:
  1. The purpose of all education in the humanities is to disrupt students' preconceptions about the world they live in. (Disruption is only the first step, but it is necessary.) Critical thinking is disruption of received ideas & conventional wisdom.
  2. Writing cannot be taught outside of a context of reading & responding to a variety of tests. The texts themselves ought to mix high & low culture, the familiar & the strange. Students often respond effectively to the strangeness at the margins of genre.
  3. Form follows function: students must have a reason to write before they will learn to write well. Among the writing teacher's most important tasks is to help students discover the full implications of their particular rhetorical situation:who are they writing to? About what? Why is it important?
  4. In a typical composition class ten percent of the students will easily master the basics of style & usage, moving quickly on to considerations of paragraph structure, transitions & logical development. At the other end of the scale, ten percent will never master these things -- at best, they will "aspire to the semicolon," as Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate, said of her developmental writing students. The eighty percent of students in between these extreems are the main concern of the composition instructor.
  5. The five-paragraph essay is a blight upon the intellectual life of the nation.
  6. Writing teachers ought to be, in however modest a sense, writers themselves. They must share the struggle for high-level literacy with their students.
  7. Writing teachers ought to be sophisticated & curious readers both inside & outside their narrow disciplines. (When institutionally feasible, faculty from different departments ought to enter the Composition classroom, as visitors or full-fledged participants.
  8. Too many students are tracked into four-year institutions not designed to serve their needs.
  9. Conventions are important, but not a goal in themselves. Expectations need to be explicit, especially for the conventions of academic writing: If you want precise manuscript mechanics, fonts, etc., put it in writing. If you deduct a point for each spelling error, make that explicit. (These are really forms of social behavior, like learning to dress appropriately for different situations.)
  10. Tell students how you will evaluate them. If you are a stickler for deadlines, make them explicit.
  11. The five-paragraph essay is the enemy of deep literacy. It promotes the idea that thought amounts to a loose accumulation of examples rather than as a structure built for a purpose in which the parts depend upon one another to create an argument. (An argument is not a debate.)
  12. Colleges must recognize & justly compensate writing teachers, recognizing the labor-intensive nature of the work. The opposite situation prevails mostly under current practice, with writing teachers being at the bottom of the academic class system.
  13. The purpose of the enterprise -- beyond turning out employable workers -- is to contribute to the development of students as persons who are sufficiently connected to their world & to themselves that they can act successfully as free agents within our quasi-democracy. Perhaps as reagents. Which will no doubt make them less suitable as workers -- we end in paradox, as usual.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Freshman Composition”

  1. joseph, youre thoughtfully & parthian-like a pleasant polemicist.

    agree w/point 3 that persons who have a reason to write can learn to write well,& other points ok.

    but ive written for no reason i can think of:

    not completion nor expiation not contemplation nor publication, education, explanation;

    not cared;

    ending here toothlessly masticating at the pierian spring.

    id think idve believed id wasted my life should idve had faith in some agenda or program–

    not even a wide world–lucky a pillow n bed.

    a provident rancor at least would have justified expression.

    too easy for me to do the miles coverdale and morph into the wallpaper that changed on me emerging from my autonomous magic finger.

    edward mycue

  2. Well, Ed, I have a professional interest in such things. You, on the other hand, are the purest poet I know — all poetry all the time & why not? I find your stance deeply admirable. For all kinds of reasons, I’ve adopted a professional stance despite the fact it sometimes feels like a straitjacket.

  3. WHEEL

    When it’s dusk, sometimes
    the sun sets into channels
    first red, then
    into yellow, pink.

    I am doing, I am done
    and I stay here. I made
    the emotional choices,

    never guessed
    that ink could feel
    this way, desire
    to turn the wheel.

    Edward Mycue

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