The first year college student receives mixed messages about writing. Consider some mutually incompatible phenomena they observe. They might infer that writing is terribly important. Their evidence for this is that freshman composition is almost universally mandatory. Simultaneously, students might infer that writing is exceedingly unimportant.
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Why, otherwise, would ‘mere’ graduate students and adjunct faculty teach it, and with so few resources? (Crowley 241) Freshman may be excused confusion over the purpose of freshman composition. They may also be forgiven for being perhaps disappointed at the results (Taylor 54). What a first year student extracts from a writing class depends to some degree on what they bring to the class. It may depend on the socioeconomic class of which they are a part, and the school from which they graduated.
What they get out of a first year composition class may also depend on what their instructor brings to the course. This baggage includes not only the instructor’s personal training, experience, and proclivities, but also the attitude of the college towards this endeavor. A clearer common orientation towards what individual students need from a writing class could help to make this element of education more useful and less frustrating for all stakeholders.
From the student’s perspective, much depends on background. Coming from a disadvantaged school, their major writing exercise might have been, in fact, their admissions essay. Formal grammar study may have ended in middle school and consisted of worksheets. They may covered perhaps two to four books each year.
Their texts may have been largely from anthologies. In such books of readings, sections of longer text are sometimes excerpted, and even modified. (This technique of presenting texts can be misleading and confusing, especially if the student has actually read the work previously.)
Most exams may have been in multiple-choice format and graded by Scantron. They may come from a family where speech is stereotypical and largely profane, or not even in English (Kitzhaber 6). There may be no role model at home for reading in any language, and writing may consist of agency or employer form completion.
Some of these issues are reflected in the questions that Downs’ and Wardle’s students research themselves. For example, their students examined how literacy activities varied between day care centers. This demonstrates student recognition of how early the writing gap between the haves and the have-nots develops (Downs and Wardle 562).
Freshman from an advantaged school, on the other hand, may have studied twelve or more books annually, and perhaps more texts in another world language. They may have been taught to identify, obtain, and use primary sources. However, even their teachers may not have proofread assignments with useful detail or attention to grammar (Taylor 52).
Their home conversation may be substantive. They may listen to public radio. Their families may read and write for their own pleasure, even if only in response to an online news story or blog post. It is almost as if they are using speech and writing in a completely different way.
They do share other things, however. One shared item is an incessant use of social media, which is largely text based. If the amount of text typed into Facebook or Twitter is any measure, today’s freshman ‘write’ more than their parents ever did. However, texting ‘wassup?’ is does little to prepare freshmen for studying literature, business, history, or science.
What they also have in common is how much their lifetime success will depend on reading and writing, of a variety of sorts and purposes. Any job beyond flipping burgers will require the ability to read closely. Even machine directions and software instructions require astute inferential reading. Almost any job will also demand writing skills. Refraining from consciously doing everything possible to prepare students for this seems almost irresponsible.
The authors covered in the present course all are concerned about these problems. They echo Kitzhaber’s 1960s worries about freshman writing (Kitzhaber). Their concerns seem to stem from professional pride, professional pique, and disappointment at the results that they observe, judging from the essay by Crowley (Crowley passim).
They clearly want their work respected. They want to have the resources and institutional support to accomplish what they know how to do – teach all the elements of effective writing. They want to see their students actually succeeding in writing, not just in their own courses, but also in future writing they will confront in school and life.
Downs and Wardle discuss the scarce evidence that writing skills learned in a freshman composition course will ‘transfer’ to the specialized genres in which they will work as they move on to other courses (Downs and Wardle 555-557). Does Freshman Comp teach them how to write up a chemistry lab report, a biology research paper, an analysis of an accounting problem, or a social sciences essay? (Downs and Wardle 557).
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While Downs and Wardle recognize that assigning topics for reading and response that are relevant to the student might help, they do not mention actually writing a lab report or an accounting analysis as an effective classroom exercise. This may be due to a lack of content expertise needed to assess and grade such an assignment, Furthermore, as they point out, in a freshman-writing course,
“These instructors are unlikely to be involved in, familiar with, or able to teach the specialized discourses used to mediate other activities within disciplinary systems across the university.” (Downs and Wardle 556)
Instead, the course that Downs and Wardle propose involves much reflection, and research on topics that interest students.
Miles, et alia point out that the model in Downs and Wardle’s article seems to remain vertically within the confines of the writing discipline (Miles, Pennell and Owens 507). They suggest instead that,
“rather than advocate that Writing Studies make the mistakes that other disciplines have made by using first-year courses as a means to recruit and enculturate new majors, we are delighted to see more disciplines turning instead to teaching transferable procedural knowledge aimed at helping students make connections across disciplines” (Miles, Pennell and Owens 507).
This suggests the possibility that, for example, the biology department might offer ‘Writing for Biologists’. This is perhaps akin to ‘Statistics for Biologists’, offered in some colleges.
This is interesting, but may not help a freshman with no major, or one with inadequate preparation to write at all. Earlier, it was suggested that the needs of the individual student should shape writing instruction. Most importantly, students at all levels should be able to review exemplary peer writing as a reality check.
Better placement assessments upon admission could better match students with a class that addresses their deficiencies or strengths. Perhaps assessments should occur before students take upper-level coursework. This would allow remediation of specific problems before students have a chance to flounder.
Perhaps mini-courses could present the specialized discourse unique to each discipline. This way, top departmental researchers could commit a manageable slice of time to sharing their expertise. Perhaps each department’s ablest writers could team-teach a course segment on specialized writing techniques.
The scholars cited above have long been admirably concerned about writing program effectiveness. The approaches suggested herein would require commitment on the part of the college and flexibility on the part of instructors. The goal, to prepare students to write for life, is worth it.
Crowley, Sharon. “A Modest Proposal.” Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. 241-243. Print.
Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.” College Composition and Communication (2007): 552–584. Print.
Kitzhaber, Albert A. Themes, Theories, and Therapy: The Teaching of Writing in College. New York: McGraw Hill, 1963. Web. <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED020202.pdf>.
Miles, Libby, et al. “Commenting on Douglas Downs and Elizabeht Wardle’s “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions”.” College Composition and Communication 59.3 (2008): 503-511. Print. 20 February 2014. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/20457015?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>.
Taylor, Felicia L. “African American Students’ Perceptions of Their Preparation for College Composition and Their Actual Performance.” Journal of Language and Cultural Education 2.1 (2014): 48-59. Web. <http://files.jolace.webnode.sk/200000046-078f20888c/Jolace-2014-1-3.pdf>.