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Let’s get this out of the way immediately: I have a Ph.D. in English, more specifically, in rhetoric and composition. My decades of academic life have been occupied by the study and teaching of writing. I have run many a writing program and been tasked with training teaching assistants and faculty, making curricular choices, placing students into the appropriate courses, and so on.
I think it is time to eliminate the required first-year composition (FYC) course.
To be honest, I have had serious questions about the efficacy of this requirement for a long while now, but the advent of generative artificial intelligence is the final nail in the coffin. Required FYC started in the late 19th century at elite colleges, like Harvard (it was called something else then, but the idea was the same). Today, it is almost universally required, one of the only courses—possibly the only—for which that is the case.
In its 125-plus-year history, the purpose of requiring students to take this course has been to ensure that they have the “proper” writing skills to write well (read: to reproduce standard edited English) in their other subjects. In many, certainly not all, FYC courses, this has meant that students write multiple drafts of three to four essays while being introduced to academic research and citation systems. In the last 30 years or so, a reflective component has been added to many courses that is meant to make students aware of their own learning.
For just as long as this requirement has been around, professors outside FYC have questioned what we do in FYC, because when students are asked to write papers in their other classes, “they can’t write.” Of course college students can write. What these faculty usually mean is students can’t write in a specific genre (e.g., a lab report) or their style isn’t discipline-specific (egads … they use passive voice!) or the writing is riddled with grammatical errors (the horror!).
The great news is that AI can now take these concerns off everyone’s plate. AI can generate genre-specific text, approximate discipline-specific prose and create content that is free of grammatical mistakes.
Why do we need a required writing course if AI can do everything outside stakeholders want such a course to teach? Won’t it be easier to have AI take care of students’ biggest writing problems so that professors can focus on content? After all, these same professors often claim that they don’t have time to teach writing because they have too much content to teach.
The simple answer to these questions is: no, students don’t need a required first-year writing course anymore, and yes, AI will take care of students’ biggest writing problems so professors can spend all their time on disciplinary content.
This brings the conversation back around to the purpose of required FYC. Most FYC courses, as I mention above, share a basic structure: multiple drafts of three to four essays, peer review, reflection, research, citation. For good measure, many FYC courses also now teach information literacy and “college skills” like time management. We claim that we are teaching students to find their voices and be critical thinkers, but we ask them to produce a kind of writing that they will most likely never encounter again (unless they go to graduate school in the humanities).
When my youngest started high school, he was dismayed that his teachers were requiring the same five-paragraph essay that he had learned in middle school. He had been hoping that writing in high school would be less formulaic. I tried to reassure him that when he got to college, he would no longer have to write using a formula, but that is not true. Sure, we tell students they no longer need to write five paragraphs, but we teach formulas just the same: the thesis statement should be the last sentence of the first paragraph, use “quote sandwiches,” have eight to 10 academic sources, use a formal citation system, etc.
It seems to me that AI can apply these formulas pretty well, and it is creating ontological and existential crises for many in my field. And I am glad. While we have lots of anecdotal evidence that some students have life-changing experiences in FYC, there are not many data-driven studies that demonstrate that what happens in FYC transfers to other courses. In other words, we have limited scientific data showing that FYC, as it is currently configured, does what it purports to do. And while the anecdotal evidence might be compelling (although I suspect it represents a grain of sand on a Hawaiian beach), I also suspect that what was life-changing for these students was not learning quote sandwiches or how to find peer-reviewed articles but something more human like having a professor who actually cared about them and their progress or hearing for the first time that their ideas mattered. Or even about something as simple as having a small(ish) class their first semester of college while also taking 500-person mega lectures.
AI is forcing us to confront a reality that many in my field have been reluctant to admit: we need to change. While there is much ink spilled about the fate of the traditional, literary English major, there hasn’t been nearly as much said about the fate of the required FYC course. But composition is not immune from the changing tides in higher education, and we need to be willing to adapt and change—and that includes adapting to technology like AI.
Where this leads me is to suggest that required FYC has outlived its usefulness (much like the period-based literature major), and it is time to embrace technology and move on. But rather than mourn this situation or wring our hands about it, we should see this moment as one where we can correct course and reimagine what it means to teach writing.
Most composition instructors believe down to their toes that writing is a mode of learning, but we are so hemmed in by the constraints and requirements of FYC that there is little room to allow for the messiness of that kind of writing. (Reader, think of some of your first drafts of essays when you were figuring out what you wanted to learn. I bet these were not drafts you would be excited to have evaluated.) Learning to write and writing to learn are two distinct things. FYC is largely about learning to write, but AI can now do this for us. Writing to learn is much more complicated and is something that can only be done by the human mind.
What I envision for the future is the elimination of the required FYC course, but not the elimination of writing to learn. I would love to see our thinking about writing evolve with the technology.