Composition ground zero

There are several untenable and under-theorized places from which a first-year writing program might operate. I think most of these are familiar to us.

  • The traditional pedagogic function of writing in the university is to demonstrate student knowledge, where writing and language are neutral, objective carriers of thought that exists elsewhere and only writing "errors" interfere with this process. This arhetorical, anti-genre imagines writing as a purely formal process, as almost literally filling out a form.
  • A more updated version of this same notion looks to prepare students for writing in the workplace. Of course this is impossible to do in a general first-year program, even if one develops a few tracks. Still there remains this idea that the foundation of writing is the elimination of error. There is also the half-life of a kind of twisted writing process concept that has been sucked back into a product-orientation and been reborn as the process by which a product is perfected.

If faculty across academia want to pursue such ends, I suppose they can. Writing certainly can be used as a tool for evaluating knowledge and preparing students for workplace writing isn't a bad thing in itself. However there isn't much FYC can do for either of these practices, at least not directly. Indirectly, FYC can perhaps help students become writers, which in turn might make them more successful at these limited writing tasks.

Of course, in rhet/comp we've been trying to exorcise these demons for several decades. Instead, when starting at ground zero, I think one can begin with one of three possible questions/approaches (at least three is the number I have today).

  1. You can begin with a product-orientation, which doesn't have to been "bad," and ask, "What kind of writing do you want students to compose?" What should be the genre(s) of FYC? We know what they have been, the various modes and such. Most FYC readers are filled with intellectual but not scholarly-academic writing (i.e. not research articles from academic journals). Are these models of the kinds of writing we expect students to write? If they are, they surely represent a depth of knowledge and writing experience that cannot be simulated 18 year-olds in a semester, so how would such models realistically translate? What is it, exactly, that we expect students to produce? Even avant-garde, heuristic compositional practices are undertaken for a reason where the composer can make judgments about the end result of the practice.
  2. Or maybe we eschew the product orientation in a preference for teaching process. I've written about this many times here… the idea of offering students the opportunity to become writers, to pursue a life or habit of writing. As writers we know that the representation of process in a typical FYC textbook is absurd. Yes we invent and arrange and revise and so on, but not like that! Writing is as much a process as living is, living a writerly life. Of course a writerly life isn't for everyone, nor would I wish it to be. But an FYC course might be a place where students experiment with such a life. And a writerly life could clearly be many different things. So then the question would be something like this: we know the writing process in FYC textbooks misrepresents the practice of writing, so what habit/life/practice do we wish our students to engage?
  3. Finally I would consider a writing studies approach, which would include the Wardle/Downs version of introducing students to the scholarly practices of rhet/comp. Here we think of FYC in the way we think of nearly every other course at the university, as addressing a particular body of knowledge and/or methods. This approach might also include the post-process, cultural studies-inflected pedagogies which we sometimes see. The goal here is offering students means to study the production and operation of writing/media from Aristotle to Foucault and beyond. However this approach still begs the questions of what will we ask our students to write (the product question) and what writing practices or habits will we seek to inculcate (the process question). The danger in ignoring these questions is falling back into the academic default where writing becomes a way of demonstrating a student's understanding of the course content.

Perhaps it is (predictably) unavoidable that all these questions must be considered: that FYC represents a body of knowledge and methods; that FYC asks students to investigate and experiment with compositional practices; and that any compositional project presumes some (aesthetic, rhetorical, discursive) concept of product (even if it is that a product will be "experimental"). As I have often said, the great thing about emerging technologies is that they have destablized all our preconceptions of thinking and composing that were implicitly (and often unconsciously) founded upon print technologies. That means virtually every thing is up for grabs in answering these questions.

Of course there are all kinds of institutional variables and other stakeholders that shape what FYC programs actually become. But I think that too often those objections are raised too early in the process, simply to avoid exploring these difficult and maybe uncomfortable questions.

So here, briefly now, is how I would answer these questions.

  1. If FYC is going to teach a genre that doesn't exist, it shouldn't be "academic discourse." The error in how genre is generally taught is imagining that a genre of writing can be excised from its material contexts and neatly pasted into an FYC classroom. In short, the genre of FYC writing will be FYC writing. Rather than simulating some real or imagined genre, we should open the question of product. I would say defer to process and see what starts to emerge. I do think one needs to consider the questions of exigency–audience and purpose. Why are we doing this? Who will read it and why?
  2. The approach to process that interests me is the rip/mix/burn practices of networked composition, which I've discussed elsewhere. However I also think students need a regular composition practice.
  3. In terms of content, for me an FYC course should include fundamental rhetorical concepts, cultural analysis, and some new media theory so that students can investigate how cultural, material, and technological contexts shape compositional practices.

As such, I imagine FYC writing projects should make use of these analytical methods, asking students to investigate compositional practices in their own lives, in professions that interest them, in schooling, in media or politics or other cultural arenas that interest them.

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