• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


English 101 vs. English 102

What should be taught and when?

February 15, 2015

This shouldn’t get anyone worked up at all…

Let’s say that a community college has a two-semester composition sequence as a general education requirement. Which tasks and skills should go where?  

You’d think there would be general agreement by now, but I’ve seen several variations. And let me say for the record that this isn’t about a secret agenda to single-handedly remake a curriculum. It’s about trying to understand different alternatives, in order to have more informed discussions of them. If I had a secret agenda, I wouldn’t write about it.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most grammar instruction has been delegated to the K-12 system -- elementary schools were once called “grammar schools” for a reason -- with developmental courses available for the many students who still need to work on that. 101 is intended to address college-level skills. That’s not to say that the finer points of grammar never come up, but that they’re certainly not the focus of the course. And let’s assume that these are “composition” courses, as opposed to literature courses. These are the classes that everyone has to take, whether majoring in liberal arts, business, or engineering.  English majors will, of course, go on to take courses in literature specifically. This is about the classes that everyone has to take.

One version has 101 devoted to response essays, and 102 devoted to research papers. The idea is to develop the skills of structure and exposition, and then to learn to include evidence systematically. The response essays in 101 can draw upon personal experience, fiction, or nonfiction; the research papers in 102 are typically devoted to nonfiction, even if they’re about lives of fiction authors.

Even within this version, I’ve seen variations. One popular version has students in 101 write four different genres of paper: usually a personal narrative, a summary, an argument, and a critique. Another has students in 101 attack the same genre repeatedly. Personally, I prefer the second approach to the first, for two reasons. First, I don’t think you get good at something by doing it once; it takes repeated practice.  Second, in my observation, the last thing that students entering college-level discourse need is more autobiography. If anything, they need practice at getting beyond themselves; starting with a personal narrative can reinforce bad habits. That said, fans of the fourfold approach are legion.

Another variation has 101 devoted to research papers, and 102 to literature. The idea here is to develop the skills of argumentation first, and then to make arguments about literature in the second course. The reading material is basically split into nonfiction for 101 and fiction for 102.  

Some very smart people swear by this model, though I can’t help but think that it’s asking too much of 101. If you’re starting with students who have never been asked to write at a college level before, and you’re trying to get them beyond the five-paragraph essay, wrestling with multiple points of view, and dealing with citations, that’s a lot to do in one semester. A single course trying to do all of that seems overstuffed. If I were a cynical sort, I’d wonder if the goal of that was really to turn 102 into a quasi-literature course because that’s what many faculty would rather teach. But I’m not, so I won’t go there.

Alternately, I’ve seen 101 devoted to literature, and 102 to nonfiction and research. In this model, 101 is devoted to structure and argument, with the skills of citation and point of view reserved for 102.

I’ve been struck for years that a two-semester composition sequence is virtually universal among community colleges, and yet there’s relatively little agreement about the content and structure of that sequence. Many selective four-year colleges require only one semester of composition, on the theory that students have been pre-screened for basic writing ability. Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know. But among open-admissions two-year colleges, the two-course sequence is widely accepted, even if often treated as a black box.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have a strong sense of what should be done in 101 as opposed to 102?


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