|I wrote this essay in 1980, while
in the Institute on Writing, a joint project of the University of Iowa
and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Institute was designed to bring to light the new research on writing and learning and to develop new methods for the teaching of writing. It did that reasonably well--made a good start, at least.<>Lights have come on in many English departments since then, but I'm sorry to say they're still awfully dim, even at my own college. It's frustrating. Well all right, I unearthed this essay while dumping out old files the other day and found that it still made sense to me after 17 years. So I've OCR-ed it and am posting it here unchanged, even though the third-last paragraph omits any mention of students working in groups or communities, hoping it'll generate a little light--or at least some heat. If you'd care to respond to it, please do:
(Sorry--I've been getting a lot of SPAM lately.
Please type the address into the "To:" line of an email message,
with no spaces. And type the other thing into the "Subject:" line.)
JSRCC, September 1997
(Yes, the quotation marks in the title below are there on purpose.)
Everything I have to say about this subject has been said many times before and is self-evident.
If you stand back a little way from "freshman
and look carefully, you'll see this:
|What's right with it||=||a few students become competent writers; they get A's.|
|What's wrong with it||=||most don't.|
Now, if we assume that only a few students are capable of becoming competent writers, then there's nothing to worry about. But I can't make that assumption. I know that practically everyone is inherently capable of competent writing; it's a trait of the species. Nevertheless, most students stumble through composition courses, accumulating letter grades and credit hours, without learning to write well. Why is that? You hear lots of small explanations dealing with textbooks, rhetorical modes, relevant assignments, and so on, but they're all inadequate because they all ignore the one big explanation that no one wants to hear--it's the teachers themselves who are wrong. And they're wrong because they make a wrong choice in dealing with their students.
"Freshman writing" is an expression that can be understood in two entirely different ways, one pointing to nearly everything wrong with most so-called writing courses, and the other pointing to nearly everything right with a few genuine writing courses.
Most teachers of writing act as though "freshman writing" is a noun ("writing") qualified by an adjective ("freshman"). You can see this in the way they talk about the writing of freshmen as if it were all pretty much a lump, or category. You can also hear these teachers talk readily of categories of students--"A" students, "C" students, and so on. To hear these teachers talk, you'd think that their main aim as teachers is to categorize and grade. Of course, they don't think they have that aim, and I'm sure that most of them really do want their students to learn and improve. But listen closely to their talk and you'll hear it: one judgment after another. Their conversations inevitably turn to grades and ignorance-stupidity-sloth, which are variations of the same subject.
These same teachers act in their classes and in responding to student writing as if they have great expertise to impart. Watch them closely and you'll see that they do most of the talking in their classes, just as if they were teaching courses with lots of content. Or, to put it another way, in their classes they customarily talk about writing, while their students listen and maybe even take notes. Listen to these teachers and you'll hear a lot of talk about the beauty of language, the subtleties of literature (the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome).
To be fair, I should say right away that these teachers are bright and hard-working. After all, they were successful students themselves. But there's the problem, don't you see. They were successful students--of teachers who were just like them, teachers who ran their classes the same way and who talked about students the same way, teachers who in turn were successful students of their teachers. So these teachers I've been asking you to look at are well socialized as English teachers, well indoctrinated. But "A" students of "A" students of "A" students makes for an elite group, and a narrow one. No wonder I hear them lament that their students aren't as enthusiastic about school as they were as freshmen. Their "A" students--those who are already well indoctrinated--might be just as enthusiastic; but most of their students get C's! No wonder I heard a teacher almost bragging just the other day that his composition program flunks about 25% of the students at the end of the first semester. When I asked if there was a deliberate policy to flunk so many, he said, "No, it just seems to work out that way." Then he added something about the caliber of students not being the way it used to be.
So these teachers compose a rarefied group, which--wittingly or not--acts to perpetuate itself and in effect excludes the majority from its membership.
In the classroom, these teachers mainly evaluate and prescribe; they lecture; they dominate the class. They may praise the few, and they condemn the many. In general, those students who could write well when the course began get the high grades; those who needed the course most get the low grades.
And is that good or bad? Well, it depends on whether you want to perpetuate a small group of "A" students, or to improve the writing of every student--in effect, to develop a group comprising all students and to insure that they all become, as soon as they each can, "A" students. The choice ought to be simple simple; but unfortunately, it seems to be complicated by each teacher's social heredity, which often causes the teacher to think one way and act another. Just as persons who oppose violence intellectually may spank their children because they themselves were spanked as children, there are teachers who oppose elitism in theory but reinforce it in practice, probably without even being aware of what they're doing. The conditioning must be powerful, because in discussions of this subject the talk inevitably comes around to standards: "How will we maintain our standard of quality if we change our way of teaching?"
To short-circuit any argument, I'll simply say that in America the choice was made toward the end of the academic year 1775-76.
To say it more specifically, nearly everything wrong with "freshman writing" is caused by teachers who act as elitists. There can be no significant improvement in "freshman writing" until the teachers themselves change. No attempt at curriculum revision, no rewriting of textbooks, no piecemeal improvement of any kind will have any substantial effect as long as teachers act as academic Tories.
One way to turn these teachers around and to point out what is right with "freshman writing" is to think of the expression as a noun followed by a verb. The noun is singular, the verb continuous [I should have said progressive!]. Notice how your actions toward students have to change when you think of "freshman writing" in this way. The student--"freshman"-- has to be one person at a time, instead of a group or category. Furthermore, the student has to be the most important part of any student-teacher relationship, meaning that a "class" or "course" has to be student-centered, rather than teacher-centered. The student predominates.
The activity is "writing"; a student (who happens to be a freshman) writes. Writing is like running" or drawing or playing the piano in that talking about it, however helpful that might be, can never supplant doing it.
And what does the teacher do? The nonjudgmental teacher acts like a coach, whose only intention is to help the runner or the musician run or play better. A running coach, say, doesn't try to show up the runner because they aren't competing with one another. Nor does the coach have to worry about standards because the coach isn't judging the runner, but instead is helping the runner prepare for a race--that is for external competition, for external judging.
There are two ways in which nonjudgmental teaching can proceed. The simpler, but less desirable, is to work within the conventional curriculum, treating each student separately; encouraging the student to extend in range, to take chances, and not merely to practice what has gotten good grades in the past; ensuring that the student will not be graded until the very end of the course.
The more desirable way is to completely dump the notion of "composition course" and truly treat each student as an individual. Assign each student a writing coach, ensure that the student becomes proficient at whatever writing skills are thought necessary, and then have the student demonstrate those skills when ready. Because the aim is to develop writing skills, finishing a course of set duration is irrelevant, as are credit hours and letter grades. The intellectual and aesthetic content of traditional composition courses are more effectively treated apart, perhaps even in graded courses of set duration. But the main advantage of separating them from the writing-skill work is that immediately their range can be expanded to include academic disciplines other than those that literature teachers are equipped to teach. The writing coach can help a student equally well with the writing of science, say, as of literature.
The result of this plan for treating "freshman writing" as a freshman who is writing ought to be both improved communication among the academic disciplines and substantially improved quality in the writing of freshmen--more freshmen writing competently. But I think it'll work only if there is first a substantial change in the attitudes of teachers.
I'd prefer to be optimistic.
Iowa City, 1980