How many people teach first-year composition in the US?

I wonder if there’s any reliable data on this question. The US Census indicates that in 2005 there were more than 14 million people enrolled as undergrads at two- and four-year institutions. I think it would be fair to estimate that at least a quarter of those people were in their first year (everyone gets to the first semester; not everyone makes it to year four). So that would be 3.5 million first-year students. Not everyone takes FYC. Some place out; some go to colleges that don’t have FYC programs.  So let’s say that their are 2.5 million students taking FYC in this fall semester. At 25 students per class that works out neatly to 100,000 sections of FYC.

I could be way off. I’m really just guessing and trying to make it seem reasonable. Now here’s an even greater estimate. I want to say the average FYC instructor teaches two sections per semester. That would be 50,000 people. You’ve got community college profs and college full-time instructors who might teach three or four. You’ve got graduate TAs who probably teach one. And you’ve got tenure-line faculty who might teach one per semester or year or every couple years, depending. Plus, some FYC programs are two-semester sequences. Others are just one, and so on. So it’s really difficult to know without actually counting heads. Then somehow you’d have to account for folks who teach at more than one institution.

Come at this another way. There’s over 2000 four-year colleges, and at least that many community colleges. If every college has 10 people who teach composition that would be 40,000 people. Suddenly 50K doesn’t sound like that large a number, right? I mean we’ve got at least 20 people who teach FYC, and Cortland isn’t that large a school.

So let’s say there are 50K people teaching FYC. What does that number mean?

Well, when you start talking about revising the teaching of FYC on a national level, you begin to realize you’re talking about the work habits of 50K folks in 100,000 classes with 2.5M students, or more. My guess is that commonly what gets taught in these courses is

  • Some stripped-down model of process with some brainstorming and revision/editing
  • Workshops that are mostly editing sessions
  • Opportunities for revision that are basically carrying out the corrections made by the instructor
  • Much talk about thesis statements
  • Much discussion of grammar, MLA style, and other formatting issues
  • Assignments based on the modes–argument paper, personal narrative, compare/contrast, research paper

In short, it’s basically the current-traditional approach with some veneer of process taught primarily by individuals with little or no professional development in rhetoric and composition. So it’s hard to imagine how you would even reach these people if you wanted to.

In addition, institutional decisions are almost always made with the purpose of sustaining inertia. Few people will choose to give themselves more work, or worse, to put their jobs at risk or cut their own budgets or lose some benefit or prestige or anything. The situation in FYC obviously benefits institutions who can profit from cheap labor. However FYC programs are also sustained by the instructors on the ground. And by English departments.

I guess my point is that rehabbing FYC is not so much about developing an idea for how FYC should be taught. There are plenty of good ideas. Even though I’ve launched some criticism at the WPA technology plank, it you took the WPA recommendations and applied them as a national standard, you’d probably advance the general practice of FYC instruction by some 10-20 years.

The real trick is figuring our how to spread knowledge about FYC in a way that it sticks to instructors and creates some kind of tipping point in writing instruction.


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