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.


k8 said...

This is one of the discussions we have in comp-rhet. One of the main issues is that it is impossible to expect anyone to be an expert in a discipline after just 15 weeks. We wouldn't expect the same level of competence from those who took one semester of math or biology or some other introductory course. Writing instruction needs to be more pervasive throughout the curriculum for it to have long term effects.

It really does frustrate me that so many people (not you) expect students to be perfect writers after just one class and, when they aren't, blame the English department.

Earnest English said...

K8, I agree with you -- it IS frustrating to be blamed with that "students can't write" critique, with its associated but oft-unspoken attack "so what are you doing over there in those writing classes?" I've been at the faculty lounge when it was lobbed at me. I also agree with you that writing is something that needs to be worked on across the curriculum. That said though, are we teaching academic discourses in first-year writing -- or are we preparing students for a lifetime of writing situations -- or are we giving students an introduction to the university?

And then, which is why I wanted to discuss it on the blog where I know that some readers are Rhet-Comp, some are in English, and some are in totally different disciplines altogether, what do people in other disciplines expect us to be doing in first-year writing?

What astonishes me is how little it seems that people in other disciplines don't know what we're doing in first-year writing. I again had a discussion with a colleague the other day who asked me: "So what is it that you DO in there? Just mark grammar and check for topic sentences?" OY! Because I feel we talk about this a lot in Rhet-Comp but not with people in other disciplines, I thought I'd invite people to talk about this on the ole blog. Thanks for weighing in K8!

Meagan said...

Very cool post-- my response would be to complicate what you mean by "prepare"-- b/c *of course* we can't (in a general first year comp class) teach all the students all the nuances of all the discourses in which they might engage in college. Let alone beyond college.

But what we can do, I think, is "prepare" students by teaching them how to be more rhetorically agile-- teaching them the tools they'll need to be able to quickly assess the demands of the writing situation-- and giving them practice doing this.

Alex Reid has a post that really helped me solidify my belief about what a comp class can and should do-- linky-link:

Meagan said...

Crap. Link address is cut off. You an also go here:

and search for the July 24, 2007 post.

Sisyphus said...

I always hated teaching in WAC for the simple reason that I never had to write a social sciences or hard science paper as an undergrad --- my GEs were massive scantron and midterm cattle call classes. To expect me to teach well (after a semester of a pedagogy class) something I myself never had to do or had, really, any experience in is ridiculous.

I tend to see my froshcomp classes as more general "wake up and smell the college responsibilities" courses --- I teach them important skills like taking their assignments seriously, doing the reading more closely than they had assumed they should, turning things in on time and in a professional manner, learning when to ask for clarification and when to realize you are/aren't stuck --- these, I'm sure, will help them no matter what department they move into next. And I repeatedly bring up how what I expect is often different from what teacher X or Z expects and that the biggest thing they need to learn is that they must tailor their work to the specific requirements and assumptions of each class.

It is frustrating to hear people in other depts. refuse to deal with questions of writing. "I don't do that. That's your job" one sociology grad student told me. Argh! If he'd repeat and reinforce what I taught in my classes, it would stick better --- they'd get better.

On the other hand, it always helps to sit down and define what exactly "writing" is --- I don't spend much time on grammar or spelling (topic sentences, yes, because I never learned about them myself). But this same obnoxious soc grad student is consistently hellishly rigorous on his students' pronouns and nouns: what "this"? what "they"? What kind of bullshit vague word is "society" or "those in power"? ---- so in a way (probably very specific and important to sociology) he _is_ working on their writing and their thinking. But he doesn't see it that way ---- he sees it as he's getting them to think like sociologists.

Anonymous said...

My background is in English studies but I now (at the PhD level) teach and study in another discipline. The questions you raise here are eye-opening, EE: I have been one of those to critique the English Department (despite my many friends over there), but I'm also an instructor who will take a day out to talk about how to write within the discupline. I encourage students to model their writing after the more accessible critical and theoretical work they read. Students have some trepidation that I "grade like an English teacher" because I look at their grammar, sentence structure, and how they develop arguments. As if that only matters in English classes.

It would be useful for students and faculty alike if we could shift responsibility for "learning how to write" away from freshman comp courses and onto the entire university. But that's a staggeringly huge paradigm shift...

cero said...

I'm not in English. Where I went to college freshman composition was taught in English, Rhetoric, Dramatic Art, Comp Lit, Ethnic Studies, and probably elsewhere. But in all you had to do expository writing, critical thinking and so on, and you could teach it with topics like writing and identity, etc., and assign readings on that.
It was cool.

The remedial course was the one that dealt with writing mechanics
and the fact that "students can't write." Where I teach now, freshman comp is more like that course. It has to be because of the skill levels of students coming in. More advanced skills have to be taught in subsequent courses.

But what made writing click for me was high school math - algebra and geometry. I learned by doing proofs that you had to start somewhere and by the end, be somewhere new, and to pay attention to detail along the way so that everything fit.

Earnest English said...


I totally stole that geometry proof analogy. Thanks!