I love English departments. I love the teachers who labor in the freshman-comp salt mines. But I don’t always like how they teach freshman composition. Usually I don’t like it. (Of course I can’t know every department’s approach to this class, but much of what I see bothers me greatly.)
I don’t see that freshman comp classes are giving students the strong writing skills they’ll need to do well at work. In fact, many students turn against writing after they take freshman comp. So let me make my case.
“Writing” is a wide concept. At one end there’s very practical writing. At the other end is very aesthetic writing. Almost all students will need to know how to do practical writing when they go to work. But the freshman comp courses I see are taking a less-practical or more aesthetic approach to writing.
Let me divide present freshman writing classes into very roughly two camps: find your voice (FYV) camp and learn to argue (LTA). This a huge over-simplification, but I think there’s more than a grain of truth in this division.
The find-your-voice approach leans toward the aesthetic, certainly more personal kinds of writing—more focused on self-expression. It asks students to journal and blog and write as much as possible in order for the writer to become comfortable with the written word beyond texting and tweeting. One new freshman comp teacher recently boasted that she’s making breakthroughs with her class by having them write rap lyrics. Another boasted about having students tell their family history. Another compositionist swears by “free writing”—just have students write whatever they want for 15 minutes every class.
In such courses, there’s usually lots of sharing—peer-group “workshops.” It can be a lot of fun if you’re a student who likes that kind of thing. Getting in touch with your writing voice is an interesting pursuit. Also, there are usually “readings” that feature books or articles by authors with strong voices: the great Annie Dillard springs to mind.
How do you measure success in such classes? Maybe you ask students before the class how much they like writing. Then you ask them after the class. If the trend is up, then the class has succeeded.
You might consider the other approach, the learn-to-argue approach, more serious. I’d say it’s trying to be more practical, less aesthetic. Students are told that writing is a process of PLAN, DRAFT, and REVISE. They are taught the need to focus on (if not the tools to master) invention, arrangement, and style. They are also taught some rudiments of argumentation: thesis, support, conclusion. Somewhere in the mix, students are asked to do research and cite their sources using MLA style (or some other style guide). Some old-timers might superimpose the so-called classic rhetorical modes: narration, description, exposition, argumentation.
These days, in such classes, students are asked to tackle complex issues of the day, as though they were writing editorials. And such classes usually require a textbook full of essays by great writers, whom they can emulate. And there will be peer workshops. But more serious ones. There will be a rubric. The workshops proceed by having fellow students check the “draft” to see if it meets the rubric standards.
Evidently, these two approaches aren’t improving student’s ability to write very much. Professors complain, “My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives, and I’ve had it” (Joseph R. Teller in The Chronicle of Higher Education). More importantly, employers complain, “…managers said new grads were most lacking in writing proficiency” (Forbes article by K. Strauss). These two quotes speak for a huge chorus of critics who are chagrined by the poor writing skills they see from new hires.
You know my rant. We should teach practical writing first. Aesthetic writing should be a more advanced class for those students who wish to pursue it. But neither of these approaches is truly focused on practical writing.
You see, to have practical writing, you must have one essential ingredient: A REAL READER WHO REALLY NEEDS THE INFORMATION THE STUDENT IS WRITING ABOUT. If you don’t have a REAL READER, it isn’t “practical writing.” This ingredient can’t be faked.
The composition class nomenclature for this is AUDIENCE. But AUDIENCE is FRAUDULENT! It’s an abstract concept that stands in for the real thing. Yes, every single freshman writing teacher stands on their desk and howls to the students, “You must always consider your AUDIENCE.” But, sadly, there really isn’t one when students write. There’s the idea of one. But there isn’t a REAL one.
Without a REAL READER you can’t have real practical writing.
How can you have invention (generating useful content) without somebody who needs specific information? Practical writing = USEFUL writing.
A REAL READER must be concerned with an issue (positive, negative, or neutral). The practical writer must understand that issue as it pertains to the REAL READER. The practical writer must understand all the questions the REAL READER has about that issue in order to generate truly USEFUL CONTENT.
The practical writer must know how much support the REAL READER requires and what methodology can best secure that useful support.
How can you have arrangement (organizing the information and designing how it will look on the screen/page) without somebody who needs to read the words? Practical writing = writing DESIGNED for the REAL READER.
A REAL READER is probably busy and distracted. The writer needs to know how to cut through the noise to deliver the needed information and to design the information so that it meets the reader’s needs. There are many techniques students can be taught so they master “arrangement.”
How can you master style when you don’t know the real person to whom you’re writing? Practical writing = addressing the REAL READER appropriately, given the relationship the writer has with the REAL READER and the nature of the useful information being delivered.
Yes, at this level, there are many very specific stylistic techniques students can master to make sure their writing is dressed appropriately and is doing the right dance steps for the occasion. But only the REAL READER who needs REAL information about a REAL issue can determine this dance.
Finally, how in the world can a student revise a draft without the input of a REAL READER? Practical REVISION = having feedback from a REAL READER to tell you what content is necessary/unnecessary, logical/illogical, easy to use/not easy to use, clear/unclear? Composition teachers wail about how impoverished the revisions of student drafts are. But without a REAL READER, what should the student writer change—and why?
The REAL READER is the objective evaluative criteria that general rubrics lack. Only the REAL READER can tell you what’s actually right or wrong. At work, that’s what students will be doing all day long—writing to REAL READERS!
What if, in the working world, writing were the game of golf?
If you liked the more aesthetic, find-your-voice approach, you might assign the new 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventure for X-Box. If you liked the more serious, learn-to-argue approach, you might assign Tiger Woods PGA2019 for X-Box. Your students could learn to master video golf.
But what would happen to either group when they got hired and had to start working on the actual golf course with actual golf clubs and golf balls and fairways and sand traps and putting greens, and real, live golf holes where the ball needed to end up?
It seems to me that almost all of the college composition courses are teaching the equivalent of golf-as-computer game. It’s all simulated.
So GET REAL. KEEP IT REAL.
If you have a REAL READER with a REAL ISSUE, you can teach students, step by step, very specific critical-thinking and writing tools for
developing CONTENT that’s useful to the REAL READER,
creating ORGANIZATION that’s helpful for the REAL READER,
building a DOCUMENT DESIGN that’s easy for the REAL READER,
forging PARAGRAPHS that are focused and coherent for the REAL READER,
framing SENTENCES that are clear and appropriately rhythmic for the REAL READER,
selecting WORDS that are precise for the REAL READER, and
managing MECHANICS throughout so everything is correct for the REAL READER.
That’s my dream. That’s my battle.
I recently presented a paper at a conference of composition teachers. They all applauded at the end. Many came up afterwords and assured me that they were already doing all of this. PLUS, they were helping student’s find their voices and ensuring that they could develop a cogent argument.
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