Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What First Year Composition Isn't

My three-year term as the University Writing Center Director is coming to a close in May and I find myself filled with emotions. So many unexpected things have happened during my time as director and I've learned so much about people, managing, administration, and negotiating expectations. As a result, I have so much to say, but I will just end my time in this position by sharing some knowledge that has been reinforced for me over and over again during the past three years. It has been quite the ride. With this, I bid adieu to the Writing Center and wish my successor and all of the tutors the very best wishes for a successful operation.

What First Year Composition (FYC) Isn't

FYC is not the training ground for other disciplines. Bio and Psych and Soc and Business and Art (etc) profs who want their students to know HOW to write Bio and Psych and Soc and Business and Art (etc) research papers should dedicate class time to teaching that type of discipline-specific writing. Why on earth is this such a hard concept to grasp? It is infuriating to those of us who try to teach freshmen the basics about how to write at a college level in 15 weeks. We are not multi-disciplinary experts and do NOT teach students how to write in every discipline.

FYC is not the dumping ground for complaints about student writing readiness in the disciplines. While there are research projects generally required in FYC, they vary and may delve into the creative, digital, and multimodal realms instead of remaining locked into one rigid disciplinary style. And guess what? That teaches students flexibility as they learn how to navigate different audiences, different medium expectations, and different rhetorical choices.

The lessons of FYC may not be retained by college students two, three, and four years after they've taken the class. In fact, when students leave FYC, if they do not receive regular writing instruction along with subject studies, they will lose the ability to write coherently and cohesively with research as well as anecdotes. Writing, like any skill, must be PRACTICED.

FYC is not the Holy Grail of writing instruction. It is the rough and ready basic training to get students in shape to continue learning additional writing skills and techniques at the college level. But when those additional lessons are not forthcoming because the other disciplines don't want to spend the time teaching students HOW to write in those disciplines, then the students will not do well. They don't know how to write in those disciplines because no one has taught them how.

FYC is not enough. Fifteen weeks is not enough time to fully train student writers. Fifteen weeks is barely enough time to get them on board. When they leave us, we know what they are walking in to - classes that tell them they must write, but don't explain how. Assignments that ask them to incorporate research in specific ways that they may have never encountered before, but no one is bothering to stop and teach them how to do so in that discipline. Students need more time to develop as writers across the disciplines, and they need the practical instruction of their professors IN those disciplines. Students do not come pre-loaded with disciplinary writing knowledge and it appalls me that there are profs out there who expect this.

FYC is not the enemy. Too many professors and administrators across colleges and disciplines turn their noses up at composition, the professionals who teach this difficult and varied subject, and the students who successfully complete the course. The time for nose turning is over. Enough with the snobbery and unrealistic expectations. Our students come from such immensely varied backgrounds with different levels of experience with writing - some have never written a research paper in high school and have no idea what that even means - others have written advanced research projects that synthesize multiple authors' perspectives. And these two students sit side by side in one of our classes. We must navigate a middle ground between them so that they both learn something. And we do a damn good job of it.

Now, go thank a composition professor, and continue about your day. :)

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I've seen a few essays written by GRAD students who have not continued to practice writing, I can confirm what you say about non-English fields losing their ability to write coherently.