what are the common ways first-year composition is taught?

In composition studies over the years folks like Lester Faigley, James Berlin, and Richard Fulkerson have attempted to describe the various schools of thought within the field. This is a different question as we know of the disconnect between scholarship and actual teaching practice. So I’m brainstorming a list of the common ways I think composition is actually taught in US colleges.

Here’s my list:

  1. The writing process: as in teaching a single process approach. This is what happens to the process theory of the 80s when it gets repackaged as a textbook. Even though it isn’t meant to be linear, it ends up imagining these stages of invention, thesis, organization, paragraphing, sentences, editing.
  2. Writing and literature: basically a writing-intensive introduction to literature course where there is some revision and discussion of writing practices but all within the context of writing in response to literary texts.
  3. Writing and culture: this is the cultural studies composition classroom but it’s similar to #2 where we read about various cultural issues and cultural theory and then write in response to them. Like #2 this is a class that argues that learning to read in a particular disciplinary way is a necessary precursor to learning to write.
  4. The modes: yes, they are still around, or at least a perusal of textbook catalogs would indicated they are. Write a description, write a summary, write a narrative, etc.
  5. Writing and style: the focus is on grammatical and stylistic concerns, primarily on the sentence level. I imagine students mostly write essays.
  6. Writing and argument: a critical-thinking approach to composition where students write argumentative essays and learn about logic-based forms of argument. Students write humanities-style essays.
  7. The many genres approach: students write in many genres and the focus is on identifying the formal qualities of genres so that they may serve as models.
  8. The many purposes approach: students write for a variety of purpose (to argue, evaluate, solve a problem, analyze) and investigate who those purposes manifest in different genres.
  9. Rhet theory/writing about writing: classes that introduce the discipline of rhet/comp in some way as a mechanism for students learning about writing.

At UB our history is that we’ve done a fair amount of #3, but, at least in our 101, we are moving toward #8 in our use of Mike Palmquist’s Joining the Conversation. I read Palmquist’s book as being informed by the genre and activity theory approach to composition we seen in the work of Bazerman, Russell and others. In that respect it shares a scholarly foundation with the writing about writing approach, though the pedagogical application is different. It is a challenge for our instructors who are primarily TAs in the areas of  literary studies, cultural theory, and poetics. As such, they haven’t had many encounters with cultural-historical activity theory or North American genre theory, let alone how those areas intersect composition studies.

My ideal approach would likely be something else but I have to think about what is sustainable and deliverable across 100+ sections every semester when every year I have a 20-25% overturn in instructors. The advantage to the churn is that any change I make this year will seem like “the way it’s always been” to more than half the instructors in 3 years. The disadvantage is that I do have a case of the eternal September, of never really being able to build a more sophisticated curriculum, as in any given year more than half the instructors have not taught the course they are teaching more than twice. This is, of course, not their fault. It’s just a condition of the program as it is constructed.

As I always tell my new TAs, a composition pedagogy is based, implicitly or explicitly, on one’s theory of how composing happens and one’s theory of how learning/teaching works. The activity theory of composing is probably as close as any mainstream theory gets to my own. I would tend more toward Latour and DeLanda than CHAT, which means, for example, that I’d give a larger role to nonhumans and to the distribution of cognitive processes. I also am more concerned about the shift toward digital technologies and networks and their impact on composing processes than we see in the list above.  An FYC class begins with helping students understand the roles they play as actors in the various compositional networks in which they already participate (I would describe those networks in a slightly different ways than CHAT, though maybe the subtleties would be lost at the 101 level). FYC needs to address the importance of a writer’s affective orientation toward those compositional networks; that is, in less jargon, to recognize that how we feel about what we are writing and our motives for writing are a significant part of the process, so strategies for reorienting ourselves are important. Finally (and ideally), an FYC class should help connect students to the compositional networks of university life, but it cannot do that alone as there needs to be some articulation with some WAC/WID curriculum for that to happen. Here I think those “networks” can be quite literally some digital form of community, an ongoing e-Portfolio, and so on. Those are things we don’t have right now at UB. All of this also indicates a pedagogy where the focus is on student activity and the design of the compositional networks in which students will be asked to participate. The first goal has to be addressing student affect, by which I don’t mean helping students “find their voice” and learn to love writing. Instead I mean shifting students from viewing writing as a monolithic, top-down activity where they are at the bottom and instead seeing writing as a varied, multi-directional and fluid activity that can be connected to many different purposes and goals a student  may have both in and out of the university. This may sound like it is all on the students, but it is really all on the curriculum and faculty. It starts with us stopping using writing as a pedagogical weapon for ensuring conformity, standardization, and evaluation and beginning to use it for communication, collaboration, invention and so on.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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