What’s Wrong with Freshman Composition, and How to Fix It

My having mellowed the other day (briefly, no doubt) when the 101 students showed a flicker of intelligence led frugalscholar and Sandra J to remark that I may secretly like my students.

LOL! Well, I do: it’s not the students I dislike. In fact, if I didn’t have to read their marginally literate papers, I would happily hang out with them for an hour or two a couple of times a week.  Preferably in some venue that offers something decent to eat.

What I dislike most about teaching freshman comp is freshman comp: the futility of it, the bureaucratic stupidity of it, the wrongheadedness of the pedagogical theories behind the teaching of writing in general. Freshman comp is a waste of time for about 99 percent of the students who are made to take it. If they’ve not learned how to write competently in their native language by the time they reach the college level, they’re not going to learn it in one or two semesters; if they have, then the course is a pointless hoop-jump. And consequently, freshman comp is in general a waste of faculty time, student tuition, and taxpayer dollars.

Witness the stupidity of what’s happening to the guy who showed up at Heavenly Gardens with a passing grade in composition from a college on the quarter system. Because he had not physically sat in a classroom the desired number of hours, the District would give him only two of the three required credits for English 101. Consequently, he is having to take a one-credit special studies course with me, in which I am expected to jump him through the hoops of demonstrating that he’s read chapters in the textbook and then make him write an argumentative paper. He’s already done those things at the school whence he came. Nevermind that he turned in a perfectly fine “A” paper arguing that an investor’s risk tolerance (or lack thereof) should not override the need for diversification in a portfolio, no matter what the investor’s time of life. Making this man plod through one extra credit to prove his competence in writing a 750-word paper (about the length of a blog post!) is a pointless waste of his time.

The very idea iconizes what’s wrong with requiring freshman comp for every kid who comes down the pike.

Okay. So like Mitt Romney and his Republican pals, if I’m going to say everything is wrong with a policy, I need to come up with a functioning alternative. Here it is:

1. See to it that all K-12 teachers are literate. Too many people who go into education are about at the level of my freshmen. That’s why students come out of high school barely able to write their names: they’re being taught by rafts of education majors who themselves have never learned basic grammar, style, and punctuation and who may rarely have written a piece of exposition during their own years in school.

2. Train teachers in their subject matter, not in social work. If schools are to be institutions of social work, then hire social workers to do the social work and let teachers spend their time teaching.

3. Teach formal grammar, style, and punctuation starting about in the second grade. Teach standard American English to students in low-SES schools in such a way as to make them understand their own dialect is not “wrong” but that to succeed in the larger world, they need two dialects: whatever they speak on the street and the standard English they hear on the television.

4. Continue to teach students how the English language works — that is, explicitly to teach grammar, style, and spelling — all the way through to the end of the twelfth grade.

5. Teach a second language to all students, beginning in kindergarten and extending all the way through high school. If a student is already a native speaker of a language or is from a home where a language other than English is spoken, give that student formal training in the grammar, style, and spelling of that language and accept formal instruction in English as the person’s required second language, at least until a high level of fluency in writing as well as speaking is achieved. Learning a second language turbocharges logical thinking skills, narrows achievement gaps, enhances skills in mathematics and other core subjects, and, more specifically, leads to a stronger grasp of and skill in one’s native language.

6. Require expository writing assignments in every subject, beginning about in the third grade. As soon as a child can write a short essay, she or he must begin writing about things learned in school and in the world around us.

No matter what their subject, do not allow teachers to get out of requiring at least one expository term paper in every course, assessed according to a set of credible rubrics appropriate to grade level.

7. Do not allow regular English teachers (as opposed to teachers of distinct creative writing courses) to assign students to write poetry, short stories, and dreamy “journals.” Require that English classes teach exposition.

Especially, do not allow schools to substitute creative writing for English exposition under the rubric of “AP English,” as they do here in Arizona.

8. Require students to read all the time. If they live in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the parents don’t read because they don’t understand why they should read or because they can’t read, then set up the schools in those neighborhoods so that teachers begin reading aloud to students in kindergarten or preschool for at least an hour a day (not necessarily in one chunk), and continue reading to such students every day through the end of the fourth or fifth grade.

9. In all districts, provide after-school day-care for the youngest grades, during which reading aloud — either by the teachers or by the kids themselves in game-like contexts — is a required activity.

10. Ensure that at least 50% of this reading consists of real literature, not “YA” pap.

Do this, and the urgent sense that college students must somehow learn to write competently will go away.

Image: Sir John Lavery, Miss Auras, the Red Book. 1900. Public domain.



  • Nitewriter

    November 19, 2012 at 10:21 am Reply

    It all sounds great especially the part about hiring literate teachers. I used to teach in an MSEd program and I was appalled how poorly most teachers write. How did they get through a bachelors program much less how will the survive a masters program. Sadly, instructors were “strongly encouraged” to pass them even if their writing skills sucked. It finally got the point where college policy was that writing could not count more than 10% of the grade for any assignment.

    • Melete

      November 19, 2012 at 10:48 am Reply

      Yup. At the Great Desert University, the dean of the College of Education actually paid a visit to the chair of the American Studies department (wherein the English and writing courses resided) to tell her he wished we would please NOT teach grammar to his English-Ed majors.

      Take a look at the document linked in my previous post, the one the students had a field day critiquing. If the author really is teaching adjunct, he presumably has a master’s degree. He’s writing on a level that would earn about a C+ in one of my comp courses; less than that in the junior- and senior-level courses I used to teach.

      • Nitewriter

        November 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm Reply

        *sigh* Looks so familiar. And here’s a kicker for ya — the graduate writing classes I’m teaching now are for EdD students. It’s remedial writing for grad students. OMG! Some can’t string two sentences together, much less a paragraph or an essay. No wonder national education is in such a mess.

        • Melete

          November 20, 2012 at 9:56 am Reply

          One semester in an advanced editing course, I had a graduating English major (English English, not English Ed) raise his dainty paw ask me, while I was explaining how to tighten writing by revising or eliminating prepositional phrases, and ask, “What’s a preposition?”

  • John Doe

    October 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm Reply

    You guys need to do a grammar check….seriously. Know how to use apostrophes and semi-colons before you massacre the English language in a rant against Freshman Comp.

    • Melete

      October 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm Reply

      Sweetie-pie honey-bunch… Would you like to be specific? Please enlighten us ignorami.

  • JC

    May 17, 2014 at 5:16 pm Reply

    If you truly believe that composition is a hoop for students to jump through and that students cannot learn to write at the college level, then you shouldn’t be teaching the course. You are there to teach. As a reminder, teaching is defined as imparting knowledge, demonstrating, instructing, or explaining how to do something. Clearly, you have no faith in yourself as a teacher. If you don’t believe that you can impart knowledge or teach students how to read, write, conduct research, argue, or think critically, then you should switch professions and go back to editing.

    I would venture to guess that you have become more bitter and jaded in the past two years than you already were in 2012. It makes me sad for you and the students who are placed into your classes. Their teacher has given up on them before they even begin the course.

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