some first-year composition reflections

I've just finished my first semester at the University at Buffalo, which included teaching first-year composition. It's not a class often taught by tenured faculty at UB, but since I'm going to be taking on the job of running the Composition Program next year, I thought it would be useful to have taught the primary sequence of writing courses most UB students take. (I'll be teaching the second course, 201, in the spring.)

Personally, I think composition is one of the more difficult courses to teach. I won't go into all the reasons this is so. But if you've taught the course, I imagine you will agree with me.

I can't say it was a great class. No heroic pedagogy narratives here today I'm afraid. It has its moments. Students certainly had opportunities to learn and develop as writers. I intentionally tried to push the envelope on the course somewhat, and I certainly succeeded in doing that!

Here's something I think I know about FYC in general. If you give students a fairly narrowly-defined assignments, lay out specific steps for them to take, give good workshop directions that feed back into that narrow definition of an assignment, and then give very specific draft feedback, then you are probably going to end up with some decent products. 

So, for example, we read Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, which is a tough text, and a little dry for FYC. But the students got some sense of what rhetoric is out of it. I didn't do this, but we could have taken Booth's chapter on media, where he discusses media rhetrickery, and evaluated his argument by analyzing a recent media event. Following the formula above, I'm sure my students would have produced fine essays. We did something similar, which was more open than that, and they did well on that assignment, so I'm confident with less variables they would have produced even better final products.

The problem is that I'm not exactly sure what the point of doing that is.

I mean I know why I would do it as an instructor. As an instructor, I know where all the bodies are buried on the way to a disastrous composition. I can create an assignment that steers us around all the real rhetorical challenges of writing. Generally speaking, if you give students a blank slate then they will find they don't have anything to say and they have no one to say it to. But that's not a fair assignment, because as writers we are never given a blank slate; we are always writing into a rhetorical situation. And, in fact, the students don't really have a blank slate either. They are writing into the situation of the classroom.

Of course, as writers, we have to figure out the rhetorical context into which we are writing. I suppose one could say that we start as readers. E.g., recently I started reading some blogs about object-oriented ontology. Then I wrote a post. More generally as a scholar I started reading in my field. Afterward I started writing, and eventually I got published. This is part of the act. To read, but to read as a writer.

I think the main argument for a narrowly-defined assignment is the assumption that composition is a collection of moves. First you teach the students the moves, then they put them together. I do this with nine-year olds in soccer practice. I teach them how to dribble and pass. Turn your foot like so, strike the ball here, position your body like this, etc. But I don't think the analogy really carries to writing. Yes, one can analyze a text and identify various rhetorical moves. And if I were teaching students a specific technical genre of writing, then there would be clear conventions to learn.

In this comp class, we talked a fair amount about motivation. We also talked about creativity. To write well take creativity, which means taking risks. It also means thinking beyond conventions. We took risks and often we were not very successful. But we have to be OK with that. But the other part is motivation. While we have to be willing to accept failed experiments, we also have to be motivated to keep trying until we succeed. So we accept failure, but we are not satisfied with it.

The difficulty is that students have been educated to take the path of least resistance. I don't blame them for that. I'm not someone who is going to claim that "students today" are lazy or anti-intellectual or "the dumbest generation." The narrowly-defined assignment is, in a sense, the path of least resistance. It is the most reliable and shortest path to a decent product. As an instructor, I can ask students to take risks and I can be lenient in my evaluations so that they are not unduly punished for failing at the risky ventures I encourage them to take. The difficult problem is motivating students to not accept failure but to continue to strive for success when what they really want is to just be finished.

Writing is not about finishing. It's always about more writing. How do you teach that?

Of course the professional writer in me laughs at that idealistic statement. Of course writing is about getting done. It's about getting paid in fact. And it is, if you are writing in a particular context. And if FYC was about teaching students to write a job letter or a brochure for a new product or service or a guide to campus activities for incoming students, then sure, it would be about getting done. And it wouldn't be a matter of experimentation, at least not very much.

But that's not what FYC is about. Is it?