You know something? I don't think I believe in composition.
I mean, obviously I believe it exists, because it's difficult to spend six hours a week teaching a subject that doesn't exist. But I am, like a clergyman in a nineteenth-century novel, Having Doubts.
I think these particular doubts began back in grad school, when I elected to teach second-semester composition in the fall semester for reasons that I now forget. The class comprised a mixture of first-semester freshmen whose SAT or placement-exam scores were high enough for them to place out of the first semester, and sophomores who had either placed into Basic Composition in their first semester or failed one of the courses later in the sequence, and were therefore a semester behind the rest of their cohort. And believe me, as soon as you read the first papers, you knew which were which.
It was at this point that I thought: Wait. If the composition sequence actually worked the way it's theoretically supposed to work, surely these two groups of students should have been indistinguishable? Or at any rate, the differences shouldn't have been so glaring.
The second comp course in the sequence at Misnomer U. is actually a junior-level course, taken by students who already have at least 45 credits under their belts, and at that level, the differences are even more glaring. Perhaps four or five of my 32 students are writing thoughtful, subtle, intellectually engaged essays. For them the course is, I think, a waste of time and energy that they might be using to learn something new, but otherwise harmless. (Unfortunately for these students, there is no way to place out of this course.) And at the other end of the scale, there are a dozen or so students who write like the weakest of first-semester freshmen; three to five semesters of coursework have plainly done nothing to bring their writing skills up to an acceptable college level, and I don't seriously believe that my class is going to make a difference for them either. It might make a difference for some of the ones in the middle, I suppose -- I might at least be able to teach them a few useful tricks for writing introductions and conclusions, or get them to remember that citations go outside the quotation marks -- but I'm not even sure of that. I don't believe I can transform them into writers of forceful and elegant prose. That has to come from within, and it has to be learned much earlier than junior year of college.
In theory, teaching composition is supposed to be the most useful work that English professors do. Hell, it's how we justify our existence to the rest of the world. I wish I were more convinced that this work had any value or meaning -- or, alternatively, that I had the courage to speak openly about my doubts, instead of mumbling my way through one more Sunday sermon about thesis statements.
Sigh. Maybe it will be better next week, when I hold individual conferences with the comp students; or maybe I'll be able to approach them with renewed faith after spring break, which seems far too long in coming.