How First-Year Comp Can Save the World

What if the best about composition teaching, Deborah L. Williams asks, became the pedagogical default instead of the exception?

January 2, 2020
 
 
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At least once a semester, I have a conversation that goes something like this: a colleague looks at her students’ essays and moans, “They just can’t write.” When I ask how much class time she spends talking about student writing, I’m told quite sharply that “there is way too much material to cover to spend time on that, so I just give them a handout. I mean, aren’t they supposed to learn this stuff in first-year comp?”

And there it is: the paradox of student writing. Bad student writing will make you moan, but writing isn’t as important as content coverage. Writing is “stuff” that should have been triaged by first-year comp classes, which can apparently be replaced by the compositional Band-Aid of a handout.

It is almost axiomatic to say that first-year writing programs occupy a subaltern position in most universities, even though university mission statements tout the fact that their students will gain the necessary critical thinking and writing skills to land the job of their dreams. The mission statements gloss over the specifics of how, exactly, students are supposed to gain these mad skills, given that many students, particularly those majoring in STEM-related disciplines, might only have one semester of sustained writing instruction during their entire undergraduate career.

I don’t want to belabor the disconnect between what universities say about the importance of writing skills and the material realities of most first-year writing programs, which are generally staffed by the lowest-paid contingent faculty in the university. Composition courses have become academic piecework factories, only instead of being paid by the blouse, faculty members are paid by contact hour, with no compensation for time spent conferencing with students, reading and marking student writing, or preparing for class.

Instead of detailing the marginalization of writing programs, however, I want to propose a thought experiment: What would happen if through some magic spell, first-year comp became the beating curricular heart of the university? What if what was best about composition teaching became the pedagogical default instead of the exception? What if we provided better pay for comp instructors, organized courses around different principles and asked students to slow down and reflect?

Conferences, drafting and revision, thoughtfully structured workshops -- all these are commonly agreed to be best practices in the composition classroom and all share two traits: they are labor intensive, and they are only effective if skilled practitioners implement them. And yet, as Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt said in the 2018 presidential address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the “least prepared, least experienced and least supported instructors” often staff writing courses. She could have added “least compensated” to this list, as well. Contingent faculty, who are paid by the course and often not entitled to benefits of any sort (not even a shared office, much less health insurance), frequently teach composition courses.

The latest Modern Language Association report on salaries recommends that the minimum per-course compensation for contingent faculty start at $11,100 for a standard three-credit hour semester course -- a number that is both paltry and, for contingent faculty across the United States, quite aspirational. In New York City, for instance, the most experienced adjuncts in the City University of New York system now make slightly less than $7,000 per course. Pre-tax. Would you, for that amount of money, spend hours prepping for class, readying comments for student conferences or organizing materials for a workshop? When I was an adjunct, I didn’t; I depended on a quick wit and several years of high school teaching experience to get me through each class. So when students -- and faculty members -- complain about the inadequacies of first-year writing instruction, perhaps the complaints should focus on institutional inequities rather than instructional shortcomings.

Principles of Consilience

But let’s return to the ideal university, in which all the faculty members are well paid and the composition course sits at the center of undergraduate learning. Composition courses don’t operate on the widget model of rote learning -- the model that, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire called “the banking method.” We might even go so far as to say that composition classes, at their best, refuse the capitalist emphasis on product to the exclusion of all else. Students do, of course, create a product -- a finished essay -- but before arriving at that moment, composition classes give students an unexpectedly powerful experience: they have to slow down.

In an effective writing class, students are asked to stop and reflect at every point in the writing process. Are their arguments reaching their audience? Do they need to reconsider their assumptions? How can they help develop their classmates’ ideas? They are asked to engage not only with themselves but also with their peers in a nonlinear, flexible process that ultimately leads toward the articulate exploration of ideas. Through revisions, conferences and workshops, students learn to step back from themselves and consider the nature of the conversation they are having in their writing and what they want that conversation to accomplish. The process holds true whether students are writing personal essays or analytical pieces about foreign policy, economics, literature, medical science or anything else they want to think about.

A composition course can center on any topic, any discipline -- which is a flexibility that some people might consider a strength but is all too often viewed as a failing. Teaching writing isn’t seen as “content,” the thinking goes, and without disciplinary content that is taught for its own sake, how can a course be important (or as important)?

The adaptability of a comp course enables consilience, a word that should become as common on comp syllabi as the phrase “critical thinking.” Consilience, as Nobel prize-winning economist Robert J. Shiller defines it in Narrative Economics, is the ability to draw upon multiple intellectual disciplines to inform one’s perspective. His book urges all of us (but particularly economists), to become more consilient thinkers; he wants economists to become better storytellers, for example, and suggests that we all avoid intellectual compartmentalization. As students work through their ideas in a comp course, they realize -- through conversations at all points in the process -- that only in very rare cases will a single rhetorical or disciplinary mode create an effective argument or discussion.

In our ideal university, the consilient thinkers produced by composition courses would need fewer specialized majors: universities could reorganize themselves into multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary clusters, further embedding the principles of consilience. The structure of the university thus begins to resemble the structure of our world, in which networks of information, creativity and technology are profoundly interwoven.

Does the world really need 20-something graduates who are hyperspecialized, who can only consider information and ideas within the framework of their own narrow paradigms? In the world of fake news and social media blizzards, wouldn’t we all be better served by graduates who can examine ideas from a variety of perspectives and work collaboratively with peers whose personal experiences might be very different from their own?

Consilient critical thinkers can resist the quick and snarky comments that score likes on Twitter, and they understand that “critical thinking” doesn’t mean “criticize everything.” The well-taught composition class teaches students that good questions move thinking forward rather than shut it down And it shows them the importance of the pause: the space between the first draft and the second, between snark and support, between negation and connection. No handout can do that.

Bio

Deborah L. Williams is clinical associate professor in the literature and creative writing program at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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