what first-year writing can do for you…

The meta-conversation of the WPA listserv is disciplinary identity. It is not surprising that the expanding field of rhetoric/composition-cum-writing studies (or whatever) struggles with identity. 30 years ago or more, it was maybe understandable that rhet/comp functioned as analogous to other specializations in English (e.g. Victorian literature), even if was maybe not as well-regarded. Today, one might either view rhet/comp as a field separate from English (which would now be literary studies) or as a general field of study with its own specializations (comparable to the field of American literature or British literature). I won’t get into that today, but either way, this changes the relationship of the first-year writing course to the broader field.

On the one had, you could look at first-year composition and say that it is the cornerstone of our discipline. FYC programs are what give many of us jobs. It is by far the most commonly taught writing course in higher education. It is argubaly where we came from (unless you want to say we came from Aristotle or something as rhetoricians).

On the other hand, you could say FYC is the weakest link in our discipline. It is the course/problem that was handed to us, predefined. If you look at the growing number of professional or technical undergraduate majors or masters programs or at doctoral programs in our field, I think you get a far better sense of how our discipline understands its paradigms, its methods, and its objects of study. One thing that is immediately implicit in all these programs is the obvious fact that one cannot learn "to write" by completing an FYC program. And yet, that’s what FYC was constructed to do in the 19th-century: to teach students to write. And that’s the continual complaint we get from colleagues, adminstrators, and the rest: students who have taken FYC still don’t know how to write.

But that doesn’t mean that FYC should be abolished! It means that appropriate expectations need to be established. Think of it this way…

I often teach juniors and seniors who have completed their general education requirements. They don’t have an extensive understanding of world history. They have never heard of many major philosophers. They struggle with math. They are unaware of fundamental scientific principles. But we don’t expect a student who has taken one or two history classes to have an extensive understanding of world history, etc., etc. Here’s the type of complaint I have gotten many times. A professor teaches a capstone course in her major and asks students to write a lengthy (20-30 pg) paper. She complains how the students struggle mightily with this task. Have the students had any writing courses since FYC? One or two, but maybe none in the discipline. This course is their writing-intensive course in the discipline. So the students have maybe never written in their discipline and certainly have never written anything near this length. That’s like imagining that b/c I can screw together furniture from a box store that suddenly I’m a cabinet maker.

FYC can teach students about the general strategies of successful writing (the first three are practice, practice, practice, any guesses to the next three?). FYC can also give students an introductory understanding of rhetorical analysis, which can help them to figure out how to approach new writing situtations: like asking questions about audience, purpose, and genre. Finally FYC can help students understand how different material-technological situations inform compositional tasks. This last one is increasingly important as we meet expanding literacy practices in our culture.

But the bottom line is the FYC is going to do for student writing what BIO 101 does for students understanding of science. You aren’t going to take BIO 101 and the show up for a 400-level physics course with the expectation that you’ll have a clue about what to do. That said, general education, done properly, is a worthwhile enterprise. And teaching rhetoric and composition as a part of general education makes as much sense as any other subject.

However, I don’t think we ought to be defining our field on FYC anymore than any other discipline defines itself by the introductory course it teaches. We should define ourselves through our majors, graduate studies, and research practices, as other disciplines do. It may be true that the value of humanities research is coming under fire in the general public, particularly in the face of the growing costs of education. It is a legitimate question to ask: why do we pay humanities scholars all this money to do research? What is the value of that research? And I think there are good answers to those questions, but it is still reasonable for those questions to be asked and we should welcome the opportunity to answer them and to communicate our knowledge to the broader culture.