first-year composition: writing discovers its own purpose

There's a recent article in The Atlantic, "Composition 1.01: How Email Can Change the Way Professors Teach," which I almost believe has to be a joke. It describes the work of one professor who responds extensively, via email, to student drafts in rapid fashion. As the comments quickly figure out, it is a fantastical logistical situation, especially for the typical adjunct instructor with 100+ writing students. I imagine though that it is precisely what the contemporary student expects: instant communication (because that's how things happen these days) and step-by-step writing instruction (because that's what they get in K-12).

In fact, there's an ongoing conversation on the Writing Program Admin listserv regarding the Schaffer paragraph, which is a highly formalized approach to writing. It's not used in my kids' middle school but it is a commonly used approach at that level. Schaffer provides specific instruction on the purpose of each sentence in a paragraph (e.g. topic sentence, concrete detail, commentary, etc.). I imagine it helps students to pass standardized writing exams. Not suprisingly, such techniques are anathema to college writing instruction (and compositionists). I don't think anyone would suggest that Schaffer's method is the be-all and end-all of writing, except perhaps the students who go through such courses and come out expecting future writing instruction to be the same way. So the students pass the test and the job of undoing the damage of this short-sighted pedagogy is left to those who follow. There is a larger problem here though that deals with the identification of the purpose of writing instruction. If the purpose of 7th grade ELA is to get through the test, the purpose of FYC is often to "get through" future writing assignments in other college courses. A similar, though perhaps more complex, formulaic approach is often prescribed. 

Composition courses struggle with their sense of purpose. Sometimes they take on pedantic but unachievable goals like saving the world from comma splices. Sometimes they take on nebulous and thus unrealizable goals like making students into "good" writers. They even identify comically Quixotic goals such as producing good citizens, opposing hegemony, or fighting injustice. Of course it would be "nice" to do all these things. They are all worthy in some way, but not as curricular goals. All of these things find their way into the WPA Outcomes Statement to one degree or another. While that document is useful, its brushstrokes are intentionally too broad to serve as goals for a course.

In the composition program that I oversee, one of my main goals is for all our instructors to have a common sense of the purposes of the courses they teach. We have some requirements that ensure a common workload across sections. But for the most part I try to give instructors latitude in the methods they employ as they seek to acheive our common purposes. Our purposes are actually fairly straightforward. The basic goal is simply for students to experience an intensive, regular writing practice. In other words, we ask them to write a lot. Much of the writing is informal–blogging, discussion forums, etc– but the idea is to connect informal to formal writing assignments. In doing so, we ask students to think about their writing practice/process and give them ways of understanding and developing the practice. We also introduce students to a modestly, disciplinary/rhetorical way of reading, evaluating, and discussing writing. We focus on purpose, audience, and genre, but we might also talk about introductions and conclusions, forms of argument, uses of evidence, etc.: in short, introductory rhetorical analysis. In K-12 ELA students spend years learning basic tools of literary analysis–character, theme, conflict, metaphor, plot, and so on. This course introduces the rhetorical analog of those. Of course the key difference with rhetorical analysis is that it must also be turned toward composing. That is, it's not enough to be able to identify the audience of a given text and discuss how that sense of audience shapes the text's arugment; one must also be able to think about audience in one's own compositions. Finally we ask students to think about the role that technologies play in composing and to try composing in some digital format. 

Could one say such purposes make "good" writers or citizens or whatever. Maybe, but only because such goals are so ambiguous anyway. I suppose good is entirely relative, but to me becoming a good writer requires 1000s of hours as opposed to the couple hundred (at best!) a student spends on FYC coursework. And good writers are certainly not necessarily good citizens. On the other hand, the micromanagement that the Atlantic article suggests is no better. Writers don't need instant feedback from a mentor every time they get stuck. They mostly need to figure out how to work through their own problems. 

Spend enough time writing and one discovers that writing always has its own purposes. Writing is not yours. As a student, you might just want to finish the assignment. In the workplace, maybe you just want to impress your boss. An academic might just want to get tenure. A freelance writer might want to meet a deadline. But writing doesn't care about any of these things. It has its own demands. Why? Because it's not you. Of course you can always ignore those demands. Students regularly do. Many writers do. Writing means taking on those demands somehow.

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