redesigning our composition program

Our FYC program has been essentially in its current form for more than 20 years. The result has been a calcified and overly bureaucratic entity. So we’re changing it. I don’t think there are any "solutions" to the "problems" of FYC, namely that "students can’t write." There is no way to teach students in general to become writers, to become people who write on a regular basis. However, I do think students can learn about writing and learn how to study writing practices–important skills for most writers and at least as worthwhile as most of the content of general education.

So that’s how I see our proposed revision to FYC, as a version of introduction to writing studies. It isn’t necessarily an intro to rhet/comp but to a broader conversation of writing studies. Now some may say that students aren’t interested in that subject. Perhaps. In a similar way one might say that they are also not interested in American History or the Roman Empire or short stories or biology or whatever else makes up their gen ed curriculum. So I’m not sure what the point is. They are also not interested in the modes or thesis statements or MLA style or any of the other things that make up our current program.

Anyway, we are following this up with a sophomore writing course in that familiar format of writing in the arts and humanities, writing in the social sciences, etc. Why are we going there? Well for one thing we’re hoping it will serve as a good segue to major-specific WID courses. Our idea however is not to have our instructors teaching students to write specific disciplinary genres. Instead, the point is to make use of the writing studies methodologies introduced in the first course to analyze discursive practices in these fields. That might include professional genres as well as genres written for lay audiences.

I don’t see this as a particularly radical idea. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The point isn’t to ask students to practice professional genres they are unprepared to write, nor to spend their time writing "rhetorical analysis" papers that become a kind of rhetorical new criticism. The point is to realize that professionals in every field, including the one they are pursuing, spend time writing and that they write to specific audiences to achieve purposes. Duh. And that’s probably what we would want to imitate, of course. That’s the real challenge, far more than trying to figure out the difference between writing in the sciences and writing in the humanities and arts.

People will say that students writing isn’t valuable, that no one reads it unless they are paid to, and that as such there isn’t a real audience or purpose for it beyond the grade. Of course this is inaccurate. Facebook is a multi-billion dollar property on the backs of student compositions. Students write to real audiences for real purposes, just not in the classroom.

In the end, the point of the redesign is not to be prescriptive. It’s to be generative. The new courses poses questions about how they might be taught but they don’t establish answers. The answers will have to emerge from the pedagogy. So if the courses seem problematic, they are meant to be.

All courses ought to have problems.

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