Teaching composition in a new economic era

Most people I meet like to say that their industry is recession-proof. I hope they are right. This would seem to make sense in higher education, or at least some sectors of higher education. When people lose their jobs or the job market is bad, they return to college or stay in college. I know this was a factor in my own decision to go to graduate school in the early 90s. At the local community college where my wife teaches FYC, the student population is exploding. Of course this assumes that students can get loans to go to school, and at some point one imagines the affordability issue tips the scales away from college or at least away from certain colleges.

One thing we can say about FYC I believe is that it is relatively cheap. The main cost has to do with class size. In better economic times the small FYC classes lower the overall class sizes at a college, and it’s probably the cheapest, effective way to do so. That always looks good in a US News and World Report ranking kind of way. Also, if a college staffs these classes with graduate students and/or contingent faculty, then the delivery costs are also pretty low per student. Given that humanities faculty come comparatively cheap, even on the tenure-track, even having full professors in English teaching composition is not an unreasonable expense in comparison to business or engineering faculty for example. Students have to be sitting somewhere earning credits; from a strictly fiscal viewpoint, it would make sense to reduce the per credit costs as much as you can. In fact FYC is so inexpensive, that everyone seems to want to get in on the business with AP credit, online courses, and so on. Of course things aren’t that simple. It’s easier to cut contingent faculty than tenure track faculty. A college invests less in contingent faculty, and they are, at least in the institution’s eyes, easier to replace if the need arises in the future.

There’s also a broader question, one that has arisen again on the WPA list, about how to improve FYC’s image in academe. As I’ve mentioned, I think we are already a very inexpensive way to deliver credits to students, so I don’t think we can gain much more by trying to economize. It’s not about costing less; it’s about offering more value. Hypothetically, a college could cut its entire FYC staff and have a single faculty member design an online course that all students took. Obviously the hundreds or thousands of students in that class wouldn’t be getting any faculty feedback on their writing. You’d have to have some standardized test at the end. I’m not saying that there would be much, if any, value, in a course like that. I’m not suggesting this is a good idea! Hypothetically you could replicate this across a general education program. Instead of the tens or hundreds of sections of history, philosophy, literature, you have one "humanities" course and every student is in it. They take it online: midterm, final, the end.

Sure, you might get some drop off in terms of program assessment, but you never know unless you try. And then you make the cost/benefit calculation. How much drop off is worth how much budgetary savings? And it could be even sadder if you ask the students. If I offer to cut your tuition by 20-30%, will you care if your classes are impersonal and largely worthless? Maybe you already feel that way about your classes.

Now, let me reiterate my point. I do not think anything like this is a good idea. My point is that if you go down this path, it doesn’t lead anywhere worthwhile. The problem with program assessment is that it just becomes a kind of economic calculation. If a program scores a 3.7/5 (whatever that means), how much money is it worth to try to get above a 4.0? If I can offer you 20% savings, is it worth it to you if the score drops to a 3.5? It’s just an absurd way to talk about education.

So FYC needs to communicate its value. As I have written before, I do not think that we can found our value upon the vagaries of student behavior. That is, I don’t think we can make the claim that FYC makes students better writers when most students aren’t writers of any kind, good or bad. That is, they don’t spend time writing. As I’ve said before, that’s not a sin. Does a history gen ed program have to claim to make students better historians? Does a science GE make better scientists of the entire student body? Does a literature GE turn every student into a junior literary critic? I don’t think so. In fact, the typical student may not study history, conduct a lab experiment, or read another literary text in their academic careers or indeed for the rest of their lives. So what is the purpose of all this? Well, I won’t rehease the familiar liberal arts education answer, but why shouldn’t FYC fall into the same umbrella. An introduction to the disciplinary practices and knowledge of rhetoric is as valuable a part of a liberal arts education as the study of history or philosophy or literature or science. In my view this includes the study and practice of writing, just as science includes the study and practice of experimentation and literature includes the study and practice of composing literary analysis.

As an aside, the other day in class we were looking at some essays from the Atlantic, New Yorker and such. We were asking the typical question, what makes this writing good? One of the obvious qualities was that the writers clearly had a broad and deep range of knowledge to draw upon. GE classes are the first step toward that. But you probably can’t be a "good writer" in the general cultural sense without a fair amount of knowledge/expertise.

Graduating students who are good writers is a worthy goal for higher education. FYC can be a part of that goal, but only a very small part. If you want to achieve this goal then you have writing as a fundamental experience of every college semester and virtually every college course. You have students incorporating the knowledge they are learning into their writing. And you have students writing in a range of writing situations and genres to actual audiences about things those students actually care about.

But I imagine everyone know this, right?

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