Friday, February 27, 2009

Composition atheist

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.


jw said...

Yes. By which I mean, yes, I agree; yes, I commiserate; yes, I, too, hope that I discover renewed vigor and enthusiasm for composition before I teach it next.

The real problem, I think, is that the students are given little motivation outside their composition courses to work on their writing. They have (at my institution) one term as freshmen and another as juniors, but otherwise there's nothing. How could we expect them to have continuous improvement in a lifetime skill when they only participate occasionally and grudgingly?

The way the university undercuts its endorsement of composition doesn't help, either: "This is very important and thus every student must take two composition courses. Taught (mostly) by grad students." Message: we want YOU to think this is important, but we don't want to spend OUR resources on it.

My big drive in teaching comp these days is how much I learn. I love getting back into the writing books and looking closely at the mechanics of writing. I'm reading Gopen's "Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader's Perspective" and quite enjoying his thoughts about both writing and pedagogy.

So a crisis of faith? Maybe. But it's more satisfying to shift the blame onto the institution and the students.

heu mihi said...

I feel the same way, often, and it's hard to spend 3 hours a week in front of a group of students when deep down you have no confidence that the majority of them will learn anything from the class. I usually attribute this feeling to the following factors:

1) I have no idea how to teach composition. I got my degree in literature; I have a) never taken a class in composition and b) never received any pedagogical training in comp. I never even taught it until my current job. For the record: English =/= composition.

2) I, probably like most English professors, have always been a good writer. I read enthusiastically from before I went to kindergarten and I wrote all the time. As I got older, I wrote in imitation of writers whom I liked. This gave me a feel for language as a tool--a tool that can be manipulated and that, importantly, I can control. But I don't know what it feels like to *not* have that sense, or how to create that sense in someone else.

As I look at these excuses, they seem to suggest that I believe that comp *could* work, but not if it's taught by me. And maybe it could--I just don't know what that kind of class would look like, because I've never taken, taught, or even seen it.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks, jw and Heu Mihi. It's good to know I'm not the only one who's feeling this way.

We don't have grad students here (and the majority of the comp classes are taught by full-time faculty), but I think some of the other institutional problems that jw mentions definitely hold true. Unless students are consistently writing -- and being taught to write -- in their other classes, there's not much hope that what we do in comp will stick.

Like Heu Mihi, I never had a comp class; my undergrad alma mater encouraged almost everyone except ESL students to take a writing-intensive, content-based, freshman seminar instead, so I haven't really got any relevant experience to draw upon. And I'm not sure how I learned most of what I know about writing, other than by reading a lot.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I hate teaching comp. Hate it. I can't express my hatred in words -- it's that intense. I try to fake enthusiasm for my students' benefit, and it seems to work because I typically get great evals. But I still hate it. I have no idea how to teach it, despite teaching it for eight semesters, and wouldn't even know where to look for theory on it.

And it seems absurd that lit people have to teach comp. It's not like a person with a PhD in Rhet/Comp would ever be expected to teach Shakespeare as a matter of course -- just because he/she was an English major, for instance. UGH.

Dr. Crazy said...

If it makes you feel better, I don't believe in composition. I understand why lots of people do believe in it, and I understand why it's housed in English departments. But at the end of the day, I don't think that it actually helps students to become better writers. And yet, I teach composition. Because we require it.

I believe in the first year experience sort of aspect of comp, and I believe that practicing forms of writing that one might have to use later makes one a less anxious writer. But ultimately, I don't think comp does much to help students with writing generally or with writing in the disciplines specifically.

FWIW, I think I'm a much better teacher of writing in my literature courses for having spent so many years teaching comp, and I think that the teaching of writing that I do in my literature courses does actually make a long-term difference in students' abilities. So maybe my failure to believe in comp isn't total.

undine said...

I know what you mean about the frustration of teaching comp, but here's what your anecdote says to me, in a way: you are making a difference, and people are getting better because of what you do.

On the other hand, the word we are never supposed to utter in reference to comp is "aptitude." Years of teaching it have convinced me that students who grow up reading a lot, and writing a lot, write better even before they show up in a composition classroom. We can raise the level of the writing and teach students to make the most of the aptitude they have, and that's what we should do. To use an analogy: all the effort in the world couldn't make me swim like Michael Phelps, although it would make me a better swimmer. I don't have the aptitude. We're aiming for better swimmers, and if we occasionally get great ones, that's fine, but we can't beat ourselves up for not creating classes full of Michael Phelpses.

What Now? said...

I love Undine's take on all of this.

If it's of any interest to folks: After teaching freshman comp for several years and thinking "what is wrong with high school English teachers that kids are coming to us with such poor skills?," I'm now one of those high school teachers, and the view looks pretty much the same from here as it did from college teaching.

And I increasingly beliveve in aptitude, to use Undine's word for it. Some of my students love to read and to use language, and I can help those kids to hone their craft at a fairly high level. Other kids don't mind reading and are basically competent at expressing themselves, and I can help them to be competent in a wider set of circumstances. And some kids don't care about language, and with them I seem unable to teach even the most basic things, such as how to use apostrophes in possessives. I'm trying to make peace with these limits.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! You've given me a lot to think about and a little encouragement.

Like Dr. Crazy, I find it easier to believe that I'm doing something meaningful when I'm teaching writing in my lit classes, and yet I'm not sure why that is. Intellectually, I know that my students' other classes are more likely to require them to write some sort of research paper than to analyze literature. But somehow, I find it easier to believe that what I'm teaching them will stick when it's not divorced from all context.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Where I went to grad school, freshman writing wasn't comp (at least, not back in the old days); it was Writing Across the Curriculum, meaning that you took a writing-intensive course in a particular discipline: English, yes, but also history, the sciences, psych, etc, all had intro writing courses. I loved teaching those classes. I have never taught "comp" as such and find the whole idea rather baffling. It seems obvious to me (a "native" writer) that it's easier to write and to learn to write when you're writing about something in particular, preferably a subject you actually have some interest in, either because you think you might major in it or because you think of it as a "fun" class. Is the content of your comp class dictated from On High, or can you tweak it a little to do a bit of something more fun for you?

Anonymous said...

Ditto, double down, and repeat all of the comments above plus the original post. Like everyone else here, I'm a confirmed skeptic. I believe that Writing Across the Curriculum would work wonders IF it were taken seriously. But it isn't. All of those profs in courses presently built on scantron tests are probably not going to start lugging around bags full of dead trees just because it's the right thing to do.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Dame Eleanor -- Well, the course description stipulates that the students have to be write research papers based on reading in their own major field, so there's not a whole lot of room for instructors to include substantive content of any sort, since a typical class consists of fifteen to twenty students who may have ten different majors. (Also, the textbooks are Dictated From On High, which is another rant altogether, since they're both overpriced and one of them is awful.)

Christopher Vilmar -- Skeptics unite! I love how this post has brought so many of us out of the woodwork.

Horace said...

Late to the party as usual, but I'll still leave a qualified dissenting voice. Yes, I believe that student aptitudes have a lot to do with their performance in writing classes, and that we will often see very little changes in the writing of a single student over the course of the semester.

I would suggest, though, that this is a limited, even blinkered view of the writing classroom, for the following reasons:

1) Students don't learn everything immediately upon being taught it. It may take semesters for the lessons we teach them to sink in.

2) Students don't always learn things, particularly skill sets, after one time through. These things come by accretion and accumulation, and just because some students haven't accumulated as much y this time, doesn't mean they are done learning. They may just be doing it slowly.

3) if the logic is that some of us just read, wrote, and thought about language more as children, would there exist a certain logic that would suggest then that students without these aptitudes would need more in the way of focused attention on writing?

4) There are other things to measure than performance, including students' enthusiasm for writing, engagement in the process, and attitudes about their own writing. Sometimes leaving them with positive (though not necessarily inflated) senses of these things can be as useful as actual skills and aptitudes.

My father was an agriculture and music major, and while he was bright, he was not much of a writer at that point. At some point in his 40s, though, he began to write more. Now this was outside of the classroom, and driven by his own interests, but he is now, some years later, quite a more forceful and expressive writer.

To extend Undine's metaphor, not many people have the genetic quirks to be Michael Phelps, but almost anyone can learn to swim, and with a little practice, we might just be able to save our own lives with it.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Horace! I hope you're right, although I think one of the reasons why I'm feeling so anxious-and-despairing about this is that it's a junior-level course, and if anything the gaps between the strongest and weakest students seem to have gotten wider since they were freshmen. (Not that I knew any of these particular students when they were freshmen, so I haven't got the long view yet, and maybe the picture will look different when I can see how individual students have progressed.)