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Taking the Long View with First Year Writers
March 29, 2012 - 8:53pm

Last week I was so inspired by John Duffy’s essay, “Virtuous Arguments,” that I sent it to the director of our first term seminar program, thinking it would be worth discussion among the faculty who teach this course. I try not to do this too often; the poor man is busy, and I could easily fill his inbox regularly with advice he doesn’t need. But I was particularly taken with Duffy’s notion that what we really are teaching when we teach first semester writers is how to make an ethical argument. This idea resonated with me because I think the most important thing students can learn by using a library is how to go about making up their minds - or changing the minds of other people - in an ethical manner.  And yet, I’m not sure how well we actually convey that when we help students learn research skills.

“Argument,” Duffy writes, “is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.”

Yes . . . and that is exactly where the problem lies. In that first semester, we’re teaching college writing. The purest kind of college writing – reasoning from evidence, weighing ideas on their merits, being fair but not shirking the job of making judgments and taking sides - is also good practice for the best kind of public discourse. In fact, when we teach anything in college, what we hope to teach (at least in an undergraduate setting) is how to approach the world through reasoned and thoughtful analysis of the issues. But students new to college, grappling with unfamiliar demands and completely new kinds of reading and writing tasks, aren’t always ready to take the long view. They have too much to do.

At the Little College on the Prairie, we don’t have a first year composition course taught by people who mostly teach writing. We have a first semester course taught by faculty from across the curriculum that focuses on writing, speaking, values, and widely varied course content chosen by the teacher. (I should give credit to our English department, which disproportionately supports this program.) It’s also very much an introduction to college, and the academic advising piece of the teacher’s role is quite intensive.

At this stage, students are often very interested in questions of ethics, though they aren't always equipped to take sophisticated approaches to complex problems. They are also very focused on success, or at least survival, and that makes them often myopic. A paper isn’t a chance to engage ideas, it’s a five-page obstacle course. Sources aren’t something you use to understand issues and build an ethical argument, they are tokens that you have to collect to win the game and move to the next level.

The warm glow I felt thinking about the millions of students who are learning how to grapple with issues using ethical rhetorical strategies evaporated when I read another dispiriting dispatch from the Citation Project (subscription required). An analysis of first year writing samples of that peculiar genre called the “research paper” has found that students grab a few lines to cite while rarely reading the source in its entirety or understanding its argument. This hasty approach to getting an assignment done as quickly as possible is not anything new. Barbara Valentine heard students describe ways to get through research assignments efficiently back in 1993.  Jennie Nelson and John Hayes saw the same strategies used in the 1980s.This approach is the enemy of nuanced understanding. It also mostly works.

When we teach argument from sources, we tend to get hung up on the fiddly bits: how the library works and how to cite sources correctly and avoid plagiarism. When we focus on what kind and how many sources must be included, we forget that our students may not have the patience and skill required to read and understand much of what they find. I was discouraged to see a small spat break out in the comments in which librarians insisted they take care to steer student to the right sources - peer reviewed articles. I suspect this is largely because faculty say that’s what they want students to use – but very few first semester college students are ready to write arguments based on lengthy and technical peer reviewed articles on topics they know nothing about. They can barely figure out the main point of a scholarly article, if they take the time to read it in its entirety, which mostly they don’t. When we insist novices use sources written for experts, we’re inviting them to fake it.  And they get pretty good at that. They get so good, in fact, that the habits they learn early on become part of their writing toolkit. Many of the students Barbara Valentine interviewed were taking the same shortcuts in their senior year.

In an election year, I am a sucker for arguments that, as Duffy says, the first year writing course “is the closest thing we have in American public life to a National Academy of Reasoned Rhetoric, a venue in which students can rehearse the virtues of argument so conspicuously lacking in our current political debates.” Unfortunately, this is an opportunity that isn’t well served, at least when we teach the “research paper.” We end up fetishizing a particular kind of publishing format while encouraging students to believe a researched argument is the stitching together of a certain number of randomly selected quotes. That’s not much more ethical or informative than the hurling of insults and taken-out-of-context quotes that has taken the place of political debate.

But I have to believe that Duffy has a point, that we have great opportunity. The people who teach these courses are smart and incredibly hard-working. The students for the most part want to succeed and dutifully follow our cues (while cutting every possible corner for the sake of efficiency). We can do better if we bear in mind that this isn't just preparation for college, but for life.

 

 

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