thinking programmatically about first-year composition

And the continuing saga of revising our fyc program…

So here is a question/thought experiment/hypothesis. If you were to take all your institution’s graduates over the last decade and categorize them in the following ways:

  • high school GPA
  • SAT verbal score
  • AP place-outs of some or all of your FYC program
  • Transfers who took FYC elsewhere
  • Grade in your FYC program
  • Grade in upper-division writing intensive courses in their major.

Would you guess that you would discover the following? That HS GPA and SAT verbal scores would roughly match? That these scores would match performance in your FYC program, as well as performance in later writing intensive courses? And, that this would hold true for transfers and those who placed out of your program?

IF this turned out to be the case, it would seem to suggest the following. That IF your goal is to "prepare" students for college writing, it doesn’t really matter what kind of FYC experience you have. When you look at a broad number of students what you find is that students who perform well continue to perform well, regardless of the instructional method or content.

Now this is just a hypothesis, so maybe if you actually looked at your institution’s numbers you’d see this isn’t true, but it makes perfect sense that it would. Why?

B/c grades are a relative measure between students. While individual students will certainly rise and fall for any number of reasons, looking at the entire population it would be very strange if there was a sudden and dramatic demographic shift where all the "C" students (i.e. those who have GPA’s under 2.5 in the first and second years) suddenly started performing better relative to the "B" and "A" students on your campus.

My point isn’t that FYC is pointless under these conditions. My point is only that it doesn’t make sense to evaluate a program or pedagogy based on the future performance of its students in other courses or in later in life.

  • If a doctor commits malpractice, do you sue the med school?
  • If an engineer design an unsafe product, do you blame the engineering school?
  • If an accountant messes up your taxes, do you send your tax bill to the accounting professor?

So why hold FYC responsible for the future writing performance of students?

First of all, we need to distinguish between getting good grades on writing assignments and being a good writer. Only a small percentage of students will go on to become good writers–people whose writing is valued by an audience that is willing to pay for that writing (and by that I don’t just mean novelists and such, but also technical writers, PR writers, and so on). To be a good writer you have to want to be a writer. We can maybe give every student the opportunity to do this, but we can hardly require students to cultivate a desire to be a writer!

On the other hand, getting good grades on writing assignments probably has very little to do with what you know about writing. There are plenty of students who write their papers in a single draft the night before and get A’s or B’s; there are likewise many students who spend hours laboring over their papers, bring drafts to their profs and writing centers and so on, and still get C’s. Yes, it is certainly possible that something you teach in FYC might click with one of those latter students to make things a little easier for him or her, but there’s no pedagogy, no program, that will change the relationship between these groups of students.

So where is this rambling going? Teaching the writing process is clearly about changing the writing behaviors of students. We are asking students to approach writing tasks in a new way. Most of my FYC students do not do any non-assigned reading or writing (aside from texting and facebook/myspace of course), so we’re not talking about changing writing behaviors so much as we are talking about creating them. Even if we create these practices, we cannot expect that these new behaviors will improve their writing performance relative to their peers (for some individuals this will happen, but it will not–I would say cannot–happen for them as a group across a program).

Besides, it is HIGHLY unlikely that any writing program would significantly shift the writing behaviors of a student body to a degree that their writing performance, as a group, would change. Let’s say that the average college grad at Cortland takes two FYC courses and two Writing Intensive courses and writes 50 pages of graded essays over four years. Let’s say they spend 50 hours over four years writing those 50 pages (that works out to around two minutes a day for four years, BTW).

Does anyone really imagine that writing behaviors or practices or performances will change as a result of this? For some individuals, yes it will happen. But for the broad majority? All you have to do is look at college-educated adults to see the answer for that. It’s as plain as day.

I guess my point is that it makes no sense to me to define FYC in terms of such goals. It makes no sense to evaluate FYC programs in terms of how students perform as writers or define FYC as the act of teaching students to become better writers.

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One reply on “thinking programmatically about first-year composition”

So, what would make sense as an alternative? You can approach the question programmatically, and that’s fine and necessary, but I wonder about it on an individual basis, too: What counts as success for you as a teacher in any given FYC course? What do you want to see happen there? How do you know when those good things (whatever they might be) have happened? And then, to what extent might those ideas apply or not apply on a programmatic level? (Which entails another set of questions: To what extent are individual notions about what counts as success shared in your program? Are there conflicting ideas about what success looks like? If so, can those be broadly categorized according to any of the usual schools of thought, or are they beyond those categories, somehow?)
One aspect of the Writing Studies approach that could be construed as either an advantage or a disadvantage programmatically depending upon your goals and values is that because it’s content oriented (intro to whatever set of ideas ultimately gets deemed appropriate for an introduction to the field–and that’s something that will take some time) it would neatly lend itself to content oriented testing: students either are or aren’t conversant with the major theories, theorists, research designs, terms, etc.
But, I wonder about this looming sense of pressure from the outside: I think the only way effectively to remove that (if that’s what you’re after) is to remove FYC from its central position in the university. Not too much hand wringing going on about how much anthropology students engage in after Intro to Anthro. There’s so much worry about the status of FYC in professional terms, but functionally, the pressure problem stems from status (central courses, everyone must take them, key part of the Communications core, relatively large number of teachers), not from a lack thereof.


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