why teaching college composition is getting harder

I realize that’s a provocative assumption. I wasn’t teaching in the 70s or 80s (or earlier), and I don’t mean to suggest that teaching composition was ever easy. I also don’t want to make the declension argument, the “kids today” argument about texting, video games, or whatever. This isn’t even a point-the-finger argument as in blame the parent, blame their high school teachers, blame No Child Left Behind, blame capitalism, and so on, even though, when I look broadly at the common challenges we face at UB with our typical in-state students, it does seem reasonable to consider the role that their increasingly common high school curriculum plays (both helping and hurting us, after all ever cure is also a poison). But that’s not the subject of this post.

  1. A more diverse population: there’s a larger percentage of Americans attending colleges today than every before. That means a greater cultural and ethnic diversity. It also means a wider range of preparation and history of academic success. There are also more international students. At UB our international student population continues to grow. It’s around 15% of our undergrad population, and most of those are English language learners. Just in demographic terms, the composition classroom of students I see at UB is quite different from the classroom of students I joined when I was a freshman at Rutgers back in the 80s. There are many potential benefits to this richness of cultural differences. I don’t mean to present it as a problem, but it is a challenge for the instructor.
  2. The diversity of academic genres: I think it has long been the case that students wrote in different genres around the campus in their majors. However it is only more recently that composition has become attentive to that fact and been self-reflective about the connection between the traditional, humanistic essay-writing it has taught and the composing activities for which it claimed to prepare students. Partly this is because of the shifts in which students view their education. Again, when I was in Rutgers college (which was the arts and sciences college of the university), English and history were the most popular majors. Not so much anymore. As an instructor one cannot possibly be an expert in the many genres of the university. Nor can a single composition classroom provide the context for learning to compose in those genres, even if one where magically such an expert. Nevertheless, one is left facing this challenge of preparing students somehow.
  3. The rise of digital literacy: “digital native” talk aside, our students face real challenges in learning how to communicate academically and professionally via digital means. This includes everything from collaborating online and communicating via various networks to composing with image, sound, video, graphic, and so on. This is a new set of technical and rhetorical skills that are now placed on instructors that did not exist a decade ago AND a new set of curricular expectations for a composition classroom. As it turned out, I began to learn my digital literacy skills doing my college job working for a family friend’s computer business, but it certainly wasn’t happening on campus. Though the typical composition instructor has experience as a successful academic writer in his/her field (usually English literary studies), it’s a real stretch to acquire digital literacy skills to a level of expertise where one can begin to teach them effectively. Obviously instructors can and do acquire this expertise, but it is one more challenge.
  4. Delivering information literacy: again, when I was a student, information literacy meant learning to use the card catalog, printed bibliographies (like MLA), and the microfiche machine (and I’m not even that old!). Today, college students are awash in the firehose of digital information. The web presents a whole new set of information literacy challenges, starting with crap detection as Howard Rheingold calls it but quickly expanding to thinking about how to archive, organize, and curate one’s own compositions and connect them to the larger community of data.

One could say all of these things are part of a single phenomenon: a globalizing digital-information revolution that has expanded literate practices to new populations while raising the literacy stakes for everyone by proliferating genres, inventing new media types, and exploding information production and access. Write whatever history you want of this phenomenon but it has fallen like a ton of bricks on first-year composition in the last decade. We can order students to close their laptops, forbid “Internet sources” (whatever that means anymore), assign “3-5 page papers,” and require students to turn in printed documents with a staple in the corner. That is, we can try to ignore these challenges, but that still doesn’t make the job any easier, because the challenges remain even when we try to ignore them. There’s no doubt that we still want students to be able to read closely and carefully, to analyze and evaluate text/media, to put sources in conversation with one another, and have a point to make, a purpose to achieve, in relation to that conversation.

On an abstract level, in that respect, what we want our students to do is not so different from what I was asked to do. But it turns out to not be that helpful to think about this in abstract terms. Here’s an analogy. The other day, during our program assessment, I was listening to a slidecast where a student asked “What’s the difference between a slave and hammer?” He was trying to make the point that slaves were treated like tools while on route to some argument about capitalism and labor. Overall it was a decent if overly ambitious slidecast. My first thought was, remind me not to send that kid to the hardware store to buy me a hammer! But I understood the point he was trying to make. He was speaking in abstractions. But as with that argument, here thinking only about the abstract critical-rhetorical goals gets us in trouble. If all that was required was some general, abstract ability, then our instructors wouldn’t face challenges shifting from print to digital literacy. In fact, as far as that goes, our students wouldn’t either, as they have their own critical, rhetorical savvy when it comes to the communities where they have matured.

But that’s not how it works. Instead, it’s all about those “missing masses” of actors and objects that comprise our compositional, rhetorical, informational, and cognitive networks and how those networks are shifting dramatically. And I think it’s only going to get harder.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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