Friday, October 19, 2007

The Purpose of First-Year Writing: Discuss

So I was over at Dr. Crazy's and in passing she mentioned composition and its purpose of preparing students for college-level writing. I have no beef with her that this is the ostensible purpose of the first-year writing requirement, but it got me thinking about an issue I've always wondered about and want now to put out into the blogoverse for your consideration.

Does the idea of first-year writing preparing students for college-level writing make sense? Many of us in English Studies find ourselves teaching first-year writing; teaching first-year writing is not confined to those who specialize in Rhetoric and Composition, however much maybe it should be or not. (This argument is not my point.) The idea of a first-year writing course that prepares students for college-level writing assumes that college-level writing across disciplines has certain things in common. And I think many of us agree that many of the academic discourses do have important things in common, like critical thinking. (Critical thinking may come out in analysis in the humanities and problem-solving in the sciences, but not taking the surface explanation for granted and learning to dig deeper in discipline-specific ways is, I think, common to most academic disciplines. I think.) But are we in English really preparing students for the range of academic discourses students will need to access across disciplines? Do I really prepare my students to write biology lab reports? Do I even know the entire range of discourses that students will need to access? Am I even qualified to prepare students to enter discourses in which I am not fluent, or even at this point literate, and haven't had to write in for blessed twelve years (the scary number of years since I graduated from college myself)? Am I prepared to teach a class in which I am expected to help students access discourses across the university? How do I do that? (Of course, the way I teach -- and anyone's teaching of first-year writing -- is implicitly an answer to these questions. But how often do we think about how our first-year writing class prepares fledgling engineering, physics, anthropology, and literature majors equally? Can it? Do we just prepare students to write in the liberal arts?)

I realize this is what writing in the disciplines (WID) is all about -- helping students to access specific disciplinary discourses. But that is not first-year writing and does not have that objective of "helping students write for college" objective tied to it. I just want all y'all's take on whether we who teach first-year writing can prepare students for all or most college-level writing and, if so, which features of the various academic discourses we take to be common across disciplines? Of course, this assumes that first-year writing has no other objectives besides making the transition and preparing students for college-level writing. What other objectives do teachers have for first-year writing? And assuming other goals, what about that important issue: do professors and administrators across the university know that we may have other goals besides "preparing students for college-level writing"? I know I have other goals in my first-year writing courses, but when I'm sitting in the faculty lounge, the colleague complaining about how "students can't write" isn't thinking about how I might want my students to think about writing as a way of thinking, seeing how writing is tied to identity issues, or writing for a range of personal, professional, and, oh yeah, academic situations. He's talking about their ability to access his notion of academic discourse. What d'y'all think? Everyone is welcome to weigh in here, not just teachers of first-year writing. I think this is an issue that affects most of us who teach at the college-level.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Wanted: The Department of Love

The fabulous Maude Lebowski had the inspired idea of reversing the job market process. Instead of departments putting up totally impossible ads of people who do half-a-dozen totally unrelated administrative things, conduct field-boggling research, and are happy with a 4/4 load (only Dr. Crazy can do all that and she's. . .well, crazy -- lovely, but totally exceptional), we should put up our want ads.

So here's mine:

Wanted a supportive department that has a strict policy of never sending emails to the faculty list on weekends. No more than a 3/3 load with the MLA-recommended class size -- and the balls to refuse enlarging class size to the dean and university. A department that encourages faculty involvement in service and outreach programs -- and looks at them as purposeful scholarship since, let's face it, it's often far more productive to make one's work useful in the community than to have some boring article (yes, mine!) published that will only affect the half-dozen people who will really read it -- and then maybe only two out of those who read it without a critical pen in hand and the doubting game in their heart. A department who pays for conferences and research travel. A collegial (pronounced callejial, by the way) department that understands that at the end of the day work is just work -- that drudge you do for dollars so that you can raise your children and love your husband without living on the streets. A department that consists of cool people that anyone would actually want to hang out with, chatting and drinking wine with on the weekend, talking about everything from the latest scholarship to film adaptations to video games to sports at least a few of whom actually keep current on research. A department that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to accepting difference and engaging in useful self-questioning about issues like academic discourse, the canon, standard English -- and all the ideologies, viewpoints, and people that such choices marginalize and silence. A department that refuses to prolong a dull meeting by nit-picking at the lint on a document in process. A university that takes seriously its mission to serve and educate students, rather than see teaching as the thing we have to do in order to be able to close our office doors and get back to our research. A place where I can teach all the facets of English Studies, rather than being pigeon-holed as the person who does X. A place, preferably in the Western half of the United States, where my fiance and I can find a farm on the outskirts of town and live and just be happy.