Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In Defense of First-Year Writing Done Right

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I have this awesome colleague who I admittedly disagree with often. This is one of the things I enjoy most about our conversations, though. I always leave feeling smarter. Either he has taught me something about the other perspective that I had not considered before, or I am able to better articulate my own stance on something for myself. Most recently, the latter happened in regards to First Year Writing (FYW or First-Year Composition/FYC).

My colleague definitely falls into the First-Year Writing abolitionist group. He believes it's useless. After all, outside of the FYW classroom, where would students ever need to write essays like that again? At the university where we work, the FYW course also has a social reform focus, which can sometimes wind up confusing students-- they feel forced to choice a side that they might not buy into based on what they think their teacher feels about the issue. It seemed to me that my colleague had a singular vision of FYW and what it could do, though. 

Why We Need FYW Courses

The NCTE makes a strong argument for the FYW requirement in the research brief, First-Year Writing: What Does It Do?  The NCTE notes that FYW courses foster engagement and retention, enhance rhetorical knowledge, push students to develop metacognition, and increase responsibility. These all sound like good things to me!

Through my own teaching and consulting, I've also seen that First Year Writing is a social experience. It is a chance for first-year students to struggle through their first year in college together and to meet students from across disciplines (which they might be prevented from doing later in their major). It is a chance for them to become acclimated to college academic expectations. It's not surprising that the NCTE did not find test-out options particularly useful, then, as those options negate the social experience that helps students to develop as intellectuals and human beings. 

Where the Anti-FYWers Get It Right

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The reason many argue against FYW courses is because these courses are often limited in scope. Academic writing comes to mean a very specific type of "academic essay." Academic texts comes to mean a narrow cannon of writing textbooks and literature. Students come to see the writing in their FYW courses as divided from any other types of writing, especially those performed beyond academia. Professors in other disciplines become frustrated that they "didn't learn to write" in FYW when students fail to master grammar or citations (which is often a result of conflating convention and style with grammar, but we'll save that talk for another day). 

Where those against FYW do get it right is when they note that a limited scope is counterproductive. That is not to say that all types of writing must be taught, all students' grammar skills must be perfected, etc. What it means is that sometimes, especially in cases where the course is taught by someone with little teaching experience or study of writing pedagogy, FYW gets too caught up in preparing students to do tasks rather than preparing students to solve problems. This happens when students learn formulas for essays rather than questions to ask to approach a writing situation.

Reclaiming FYW

I think if we are going to continue requiring FYW classes, a shift does need to happen. It's not a very radical shift. I see many instructors who already are doing this and already know this is where the future is headed. FYW needs to start focusing on a set of learning outcomes that privilege the following: 

1. Conceptualizing rhetorical contexts: The big question students should learn to ask in a FYW writing course is: What are the elements of this writing event, and how can I best communicate within this framework? As I said in an earlier post about losing job opportunities because of poorly written cover letters,
"Every writing event will not call for the same performance or product, even ones that seem extremely similar. Those who cannot locate the elements that influence the writing event and ask the right questions of themselves will be unable to perform and produce effective writing, and they may miss out on real opportunities as a result." 
Teaching students to conceptualize rhetorical contexts would include everything from how to figure out style and citation to what form or genre would be most effective for communicating with a particular audience and/or purpose. 

2. Research Skills
  • Performing academic inquiry: Students need to learn how to apply depth and breadth of inquiry appropriately. They should be asking themselves, "what questions do I need to ask to get closer to the truth?"
  • Evaluating source materials: It's important, especially in the digital age, that students learn how to evaluate sources, and not just scholarly ones. They need to learn how to assess bias and know that biased doesn't necessarily mean useless. 
  • Learning how to find information: Where can I find reliable (not necessarily scholarly) information to help me consider my argument or inquiry?
3. Dealing with complexity: As an undergraduate, this is something I really didn't learn about until the Spring semester of my senior year, and when I did, it was mind-blowing. I always thought you could only "make an argument," "take a side," or "provide evidence." That isn't how the real world works or even real scholarship. In world beyond FYW, things are rarely set in simply defined binaries. Students need to learn to make arguments while dealing with complexities (thinking about inquiry instead of argument can help this, too) and to see how complications can actually further their thinking or make their thinking more sophisticated. 

Teaching a class with those learning goals might be messier and require more energy than a "here's how to write an academic essay" formula-based course, but the students will reap the rewards in the long run.

Food for Thought

I'm clearly not the first one who has thought about whether or not there should be FYW and/or how it should be taught. Here are some online sources that reflect multiple perspectives (but is in no way a comprehensive bibliography or in proper MLA format).

Bamberg, Betty. "Alternative Models of First Year Composition." 1997.

Berrett, Dan. "Freshman Composition is Not Teaching Key Skills in Analysis, Researchers Argue." Chronicle of Higher Education. 2012.

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. "Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning First-Year Writing as 'Introduction to Writing Studies.'" College Composition and Communication 58.4. 2007.

Duffy, John. "Virtuous Arguments." Inside HigherEd. 2012. 

Fish, Stanley. "What Should Colleges Teach?" New York Times. 2009.

Thaiss, Chris. "What Should First-Year Composition Students Learn about Writing Across the Curriculum." 2002.

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