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Freshman Composition as a Window into College Prep

Freshman composition evolved from Harvard’s English 8—a course in which students read “great literature” and applied New Critical methods to analyze it.

The course focused on close reading, Literature appreciation, and argument—though the last in only a very narrow sense, since it was argument restricted to the terms set forth in the piece of literature. The story of how it evolved from that to what it is now could be instructive for k-12 educators who are interested in getting students to and through a 4-year college.

In the post-WWII to 1960’s timeframe, two important developments forced freshman composition to change. First, as more students entered university (via GI bill and expansion), other departments began complaining that “the students can’t write.” The English 8 orthodoxy began to be called into question. History, nursing, and engineering professors asked: how exactly does a close reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” help my student write a better analysis/lab report/technical spec?

The other development was more explicitly political. As the student population became more female and more racially and ethnically diverse, teaching strictly canonical Literature using narrow critical techniques became considered not merely ineffective but irresponsible and oppressive.

Today there are a wide variety of “comp theories” — ideas about how to approach teaching freshman composition. There are those who believe it should provide a hands-on introduction to “academic writing.” These theorists (such as David Bartholomae) are interested in helping students participate in “discourse communities,” which essentially means helping students learn how to talk (in writing) to people in their (the students’) proposed field. (Your local library might have a copy of Bartholomae’s Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts.)

On another hand are the Elbovians, acolytes of the fearless Peter Elbow, who suggest that good writing comes from within and that fostering natural instincts to creatively question one’s own experience will develop a student’s attachment to a process that works. (Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers is a great read.)

On a third–yet no less important–hand is a group that could be considered the working conscience of freshman composition, with perhaps bell hooks as avatar. These folks view freshman composition as an opportunity for students to study the power imbalances that inhere inside and outside of the academy, with an eye on working toward liberation through education (c.f. for example hooks’ excellent 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom).

Believe it or not, these factions get along nicely, as evidenced by the killer parties at the CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication). And that’s great, because my own humble opinion is that each of them has contributed significantly to the improvement of college writing classes, which have the reputation of thoroughly destroying the dreams of more than a few hopeful first year students, especially students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

If the factions have anything in common, it is this: one way or another, a composition class has as one of its goals to welcome students into the Burkean parlor which is a contemporary scholarly community. The hooksians are interested, at least in part, in interrogating the extent to which the parlor’s discourse might be pathological; the prescriptivists want to know how to participate in parlor-type discussions; the descriptivists want students to bring to the parlor their own unique voices.

This overlap has led to a shift in freshman composition toward rhetoric–the study of discourse itself. San Diego State’s Rhetoric and Writing Studies Department defines the term as “the study, uses, and effects of written, spoken, and visual language”—which I know what you’re thinking: how is such a broad definition even remotely useful?

I think the definition is useful, insofar as it has framed what goes on in Freshman composition, which is a far cry from “read and analyze poems written by dead white guys.”

I’ve taught Freshman Composition (admittedly, it is rarely called this nowadays) at three different universities and the course has evolved into having at its core accessible and transferable processes for reading, writing, and speaking, encompassing skills such as skimming, drafting, revising, questioning, editing, debating, ordering, sorting, evaluating, and so forth.

Interestingly enough, the focus on activities is what allows a good first year composition course and program to become precisely not what other departments want it to be: a place where students can learn good reading and writing skills so they can move on to their real and more serious studies. Good first year composition programs create spaces where students engage in serious and meaningful critical inquiry unfettered by the jargon, history, and factions of other departments. Students can give shape to their own stories, respond to ideas and create their own, and talk back to powerful forces with energy, dignity, and even anger. The designers of freshman composition programs seem to harbor the radical notion that students do not merely resemble human beings, they actually are them. What a clever trick Bartholomae and Elbow and hooks have played!

How might we do the same with the “college prep” high school? How might we act with fidelity on the notion that what students do is much more important than preparing them for somewhere else? And how might we also have faith (and evidence) that we are, paradoxically, preparing students for their futures?