From Crisis to Composition

Jessica Yood went back to school to take a class on first-year writing and came away with a new take on the reform of general-composition courses.

March 11, 2016

Extravagant cars, illicit affairs, eliminating gluten -- I’ve heard these are good ways to cope with a midlife crisis. But I’m an academic. So I chose to go back to school.

After a decade teaching college composition, I decided to take the course myself. I attended and did all the work for English 111, the first of a two-semester writing requirement at the college where I teach. I completed assignments just like the other students, participated in class activities, took the final and got a grade. I recorded my experience, interviewed classmates and collected writing.

Becoming a student was not how I thought I’d spend a long-awaited sabbatical. I intended to do what every academic plans to do on leave: complete a book.

“We must understand the link between rhetoric and complexity.” That’s how I opened the book when I started it, back in 2008. I followed up with close readings of little-known scientific documents and a link between complexity science and my theory of a networked, posthuman rhetoric. The second half promised to describe a “new humanities for the 21st century.” A book contract came quickly. One press reviewer called the project a “bold challenge to the status quo.”

Three years went by, and the book lay dormant. The sabbatical was my last chance to see this through.

Things didn’t go as planned. Faculty members at my institution are eligible for sabbatical every seven years. Mine came after 12. By that point, I was a parent of three small children, juggling a heavy teaching load and directing a fledging writing program. And there was another less obvious derailment of the work-life balance: a daily failure to move on after a devastating death in my family.

Scholarship had always anchored me. But loss and regret left me detached. I couldn’t finish something begun in another time, by another self. I needed to start over.

I was not alone. My university, the City University of New York, was also on the verge of something new. Since 2008, the fate of higher education had become a national crisis. It seemed like everyone was seeing an apocalypse: the rising costs of college, the low rates of graduation and the failure of academe to keep up with the needs of what President Obama called the “new knowledge society.” There was a feeling at CUNY that something had to change.

That something was general education. In just “nine months in 2011 and 2012” colleges began to innovate like never before, reports Kevin Carey in The End of College. That academic year, American colleges and universities teamed up with technology companies to radically update curricula and learning platforms for a global, digital age. As Carey puts it, higher education’s “race to revolution” had begun.

CUNY’s version of the revolution was a 2011 curricular overhaul called Pathways. The promotional brochure promised “Reform and Rigor in CUNY’s Common Core.” Pathways would radically revamp undergraduate requirements through common course outcomes, easier transfers between CUNY schools and a consequent faster time to degree. Most important, it would prepare students for what the chancellor called “knowledge in a new century.”

Once, each of CUNY’s campuses had distribution or general-education requirements. Now the curriculum would be divided into two neat categories: courses in the major, representing knowledge of a new century, and gateway courses, or those leading to knowledge of a new century. There would be nothing in between.

English 111 had always been a course in between: a transition from high school to college, from job to academe, from a past to what might come next. Unlike nearly every other course, its goal was not to prepare but to practice, not to enter a disciplinary community, but to write effectively for general readers.

In early 2012, my college assigned me to the Pathways Composition Committee. We had until fall 2013 -- about a year -- to create a common syllabus that remade composition into a gateway course for professions and specialization.

For two months, we debated compensation and credits, protested assessments, and fought over favorite reading assignments. What we didn’t do was defend what had been composition’s foundation for 40 years: its focus on writing for and to a general public. In fact, we wrote the word “general” out of the description of first-year composition and every other writing class almost right away.

That was a good, progressive decision, I thought. Indeed, I had built a writing program and half a book manuscript on the belief that culture is a complex web of constructions and that rhetoric needed to be liberated from the false god of generality.

Then I took English 111. And I learned what we would be missing once general composition became extinct.

Going Back to School

Nothing was general about my section of English 111. Four of the 25 students came to college straight out of high school; the rest of us were in our late twenties, and some were many years older. Everyone worked full or part time, half spoke a language besides English, and a third had immigrated to America to escape poverty, violence or war. Eight were parents, and six were primary caregivers for older family members. Five students had earned part or all of a degree from another institution.

We were adults in between worlds, ideas, hopes and crushing realities. What could we learn from an introductory course in general writing?

That question haunted us through six writing assignments, multiple blog posts and weekly class conversations. It also prompted us to do what committees and crisis chroniclers claim is impossible: reform education and revitalize culture from the inside. Because we couldn’t be defined by one category, because the only thing most of us had in common was a world of particulars, we had to make up a general public. So we did. Over 14 weeks we cultivated a diverse, complex, educated public of the new knowledge century.

There are serious problems with a general-composition course. Writing programs that define generality as belonging to one culture, values system or genre defy the realities of a multilingual, global, digital society. And composition courses staffed by untrained and exploited teachers shortchange students and derail efforts to strengthen undergraduate education.

Yet those drawbacks should not blind reformers to the contributions of such classes. A general-composition course challenges students to use writing to find out what they know and to try to connect that to what others think. Something new always happens in the process. We should reform composition, yes, but also reclaim it as a scarce but vital resource of our culture: as a general resource.

Despite our best efforts, it’s not the curriculum that makes this happen. For example, my instructor crafted our course around a concern she believed had general, common appeal. Yet our course’s subject, “The Role of College Today,” did not automatically resonate. Most students told me that that the theme was too broad and general to make a difference to their writing. I agreed. We wanted to write about issues related to our jobs, majors or long-term professional prospects.

By the end of the course we felt differently. The topic grew on many. Working to make that topic matter was what really turned us from a group of students to an interested, dynamic, general readership. We were beginners engaging and disrupting a specialized, knowledge society. That essential paradox proved an enabling constraint and a productive, innovative muse.

The first assignment began this rigorous process of interaction and revision. We had to write a descriptive essay about an influential person in our educational lives for the class website and submission to a local newspaper. We broke into writing groups. All four women in my group acknowledged an influential educator in our lives, but none of us, as one classmate put it, “felt ready to write about it.”

“Not ready” describes my first five attempts. I wanted to write about my graduate mentor, someone who had professional and personal influence on my life. But draft after draft had me writing about the dissertation and not about my adviser or me. My writing group was bored. I had to move from what I remembered to what I could make relevant in the here and now.

Many of my classmates had to move from their first drafts, too -- sometimes from mundane generalities, sometimes from unexplained connections. One student’s witty anecdotes about a heroic teacher in his one-room elementary school just didn’t work when put into prose. Another student argued passionately for training teachers in a local after-school education program. But she offered no supporting narrative to help us see her point. We asked for more.

Writers today like to claim relevance by tracking retweets or the number of likes on Facebook. But, in English 111, that wouldn’t cut it. Our writing had to be relevant immediately, locally and publicly.

Two days before the assignment was due, I still hadn’t figured out an angle. That’s when a classmate offered an idea. “Call your old teacher,” she said. “Find out what’s up. Then tell us about that.”

That’s what I did. My mentor had one version of our history. I had another. And then there was a third perspective: the one from the students in English 111. For the final draft, I put these worlds together, finding a link between what I learned from my former teacher and what my classmate told me was needed in her after-school program. I reached back to my past and connected it to my present in a visceral, vulnerable way.

This is the heady, humanizing work that happens when you write for general readers. It’s complexity enacted through connections. These connections are endangered by educational reforms that designate this course and its students as unprepared and anachronistic.

A week after the semester ended, I let go of my half-written manuscript for good.

I’m working on something else now -- transcribing classroom interactions and coding hundreds of pages of student writing. I’m learning a lot about teaching, learning and literacy.

But mostly I’m discovering why we need this writing, why we need general composition. It proves that the next new thing is still in reach for those of us who seek a path not just to a future but also to a more fulfilling present.


Jessica Yood is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York.


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