What should college students write?

Continuing interesting conversation on the WPA listserv about Wardle and Downs’ CCC article. I also read some interesting comments from Mike and Kevin. All of this has me thinking some more, so I’m going to try to distill this down to a few observations.

  1. I think we agree that being a good writer is not the same as being a good teacher of writing. They are different skills, different talents, different practices, different bodies of knowledge, etc. The discipline of composition studies the formal teaching and learning of writing in colleges (it does other things, but this is a primary one and particularly germane to the Wardle/Downs article). You study composition theory to become a good teacher of writing, not to become a good writer. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but I don’t see studying composition theory as a logical way to becoming a "good writer."
  2. I agree with Wardle/Downs that one of the pitfalls of FYC is the concept of a universal literacy and/or general academic discourse that students are supposed to learn (and master!) in FYC. This thing doesn’t exist. No one can simultaneously teach students to write philosophy essays, economics research papers, and biology lab reports. Certainly learning to write literary criticism won’t help you do these things. Learning to write about pop culture or do cultural critique won’t help you with these tasks, and neither will learning to write about composition theory. Or perhaps I should say they’ll all help you about the same.
  3. What FYC can do (and I think many folks already do this) is teach students to become conscious of their own writing practices and teach them methods of studying and acquiring the discursive practices of the various communities they enter.

Still that doesn’t answer the question of what students should write.

Let me also say, before I press on, that I don’t think this is in opposition to what Wardle and Downs suggest. Maybe this is all just some disagreement about the reading list. Nor is any of this business I’m writing now in any way new, nor should it be. After all, we’re talking about introductory concepts here. The primary problem that I face (and I imagine most FYC teachers face) is that students don’t want to write. They have negative associations with writing in the classroom, and even if they didn’t, writing is a mentally taxing activity, particularly when one is dealing with complex content, and not something you’d jump into without some real motivation (and apparently the grade is not enough of a motivation).

In short, the basic challenge is not about skills or knowledge. It’s about motivation. Students have to want to become better writers and be willing to work hard to do it. It’s not any easier than getting daily exercise or eating a healthy diet or staying out of debt. But there aren’t any short cuts. Of course motivation is an issue in any kind of teaching, but I think it’s especially important for writing. If you want to write and start writing on a regular basis, there will be almost no way that you can’t improve as a writer. Motivation may not be sufficient on its own for becoming a "good writer," but it certainly is necessary.

After motivation, I think you begin to approach issues of audience, purpose, and genre, as well as discussing writing practices. I think that if you can teach students to perform this basic level of rhetorical analysis and apply that knowledge tactically in writing, you would have a highly successful FYC program. In short, you’d be producing students who write on a regular basis, who can describe the audiences of different texts, who can articulate the purpose of a text they read and purposes for the texts they write, and who have practiced methods for studying a writing genre (e.g the lab report) and identifying its salient features.

I don’t think there’s really any need to read rhetorical theory texts to get these concepts. They are so very basic; there’s not much to know. The problem isn’t understanding the concepts but rather practicing them. It’s like many practices: the concept of hitting a golf ball isn’t all that complex, right? So an FYC course has to offer students

  • motivation for writing
  • a real audience to write to/for (the students in the course might suffice, but a larger audience would be better I think)
  • real world purposes for writing that the students share
  • an actual genre (or genres) in which to write (as opposed to the non-genre of "academic discourse")

I suppose that’s as close as I’m going to get to a prescription for what college students should write. So in the end I don’t really object to reading comp theory in FYC, if that’s something that motivates students to write, and as long as students end up actually writing rather than practicing writing or producing some simulacra of writing.

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4 replies on “What should college students write?”

Hi Alex, I have enjoyed your blog as well as your comments, here and on the WPA list. I just want to say that I agree with you very much here, esp that what you are arguing is not in opposition to what Doug and I argue in the article. In fact, while the *theoretical* reasons for the Intro pedagogy led me to it, the way it really and actually *motivates* students is a lot of what keeps me with it. Since there is no one perfect genre that all students must write and which will lead them to mastery of all texts they will thereafter survey, I go with a) helping them explore questions that really interest them and b) having them write about their answers to those questions in whatever forms are appropriate for what they have to say and c) seriously talking to their classmates about it. Since they are all dealing with literacy, all have questions and answers about it, etc, they become very informed readers and colleague. Anyway, none of the various incarnations of FYC I ever taught before motivated students like the one where they explore questions about literacy and primary research on it. This probably has as much to do with them doing *actual* research versus regurgitative research as anything else, but regardless, they do seriously get motivated. And that is a lot of fun to watch.
Also, thanks for your post about post-process on WPA-L today. You made sense to me, though I am still resisting the whole post-process label.


Thanks Elizabeth. As you can see, I found your article thought-provoking. Questions of literacy and research/experimentation with literacy practices interest and motivate my students as well, especially in the professional writing courses I teach. I think we are on the same page in saying that writing courses, including FYC courses, should study writing (both the object and the activity).
I am all for resisting labels, btw. I came into rhet/comp after getting an MA in creative writing and studying post-structural theory, so traditional rhet/comp theory could never be the foundation of how I approached the study of writing. From the start I read process theory and so on through a lens of experimental poetics and postmodernism.
I suppose that makes me post-process, and in some locales that might be a good thing, but not so much on the WPA-L I think.


I would really like to hear you say more about post-process. Maybe this isn’t the venue–though, then again, why not? Maybe I am resisting a label but comfortable with the tenets, though, frankly, I haven’t ever found any clear tenets of post-process theory. If it is simply that “there is no one process,” well, I don’t think process researchers ever claimed there was. If it’s that any description of processes, however complex, don’t (as you say) “describe the material events by which texts are produced,” well, I would agree. But I don’t think the process researchers would *disagree.* If it’s more along the lines of Kent, that writing is not teachable, I don’t completely buy it. But I guess if I take everything I do believe we have learned from genre theory, activity theory, and the whole social turn, we have to seriously question what it is that *can* be taught. I don’t believe that nothing can be taught, however. We can teach *about* writing and we can *practice* writing. Is that belief post process? If so, can we get a new label?
Anyhow, given your perspective and very thorough, thoughtful thinking, I would like to hear you say more about your take on “post process.”


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