Miller Discusses Problems with College Writing

This is a portion of Nan Miller’s speech to the John Locke Foundation Monday. Miller discussed a recent study examining college writing courses to a crowd of 40 people. This excerpt shows typical conversations one may have about college writing programs.

Imagine for a minute that you have a daughter who is a freshman at Carolina. That’s the question I put to you. What if… (when the ink is barely dry on the tuition check) you had this conversation with your daughter. I’ll call her Page, and let’s say that she has been at Carolina for about a month and has left Chapel Hill for her very first weekend at home. She might be bursting with the details about her social life, but you are impatient to hear about the courses you just wrote the big check for. So you interrupt…

Q. Page, tell me about your courses. I especially want to hear about your
writing course. Who is your professor?

A. His name is Bob (he really does let us call him that), and he isn’t exactly a professor, not yet anyway. He’s a grad student, but we don’t call teachers “professor” any more. Our Student Guide for freshman English calls Bob “facilitator.”

Q. Well if Bob doesn’t profess anything, what does he facilitate?

A. See, the first day of class he assigned us all to groups that we go to at
the beginning of every class. In our groups we talk about what Bob has
told us to read; then we write in class and critique each other’s papers
while Bob roams around the room and comments on what each group is

Q. Now you might be a thinking that a superb textbook could possibly
make up for the missing instruction, so your next question is “What text
are you using?

A. We don’t have a textbook that has stuff to read in it. We just have a
handbook on grammar (but we don’t have any assignments in it)—and we have the Student Guide I just told you about.

Q. Then what do you read for assignments?

A. Bob posts articles on the web for us to read, or we find our own articles.
Right now we’re reading articles by scientists, but we’re going to start a unit on the social sciences pretty soon; then a unit on the humanities comes last. By the end of the semester I’ll know how to write like the experts in all 3 fields!

Q. Is a grad student in English really qualified to teach you how to
write like a scientist or social scientist?

A. He doesn’t have to because we can figure it out for ourselves talking
with our groupmates.

Q. Well does Bob know enough to know what you’re doing wrong
when he grades your papers?

A. Bob doesn’t grade our papers. Well, he does have the final say, but we
grade each other’s papers anonymously using a system called “holistic scoring.” And the best part is that I’m making all A’s!!!!

Here, clearly, you have a dilemma, because naturally, you would be delighted to hear that your solid B daughter has become an A student. But you worry about a class that’s not led by an expert, a class that expects small groups of 18-year olds to teach each other how to write like scientists, social scientists, and humanists.

I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I had had that conversation during the years when I had one son at Carolina and my other son at State. Both had the good fortune to take freshman English before the composition theorists had gone off what many think is a pretty deep end.

If you were the parent of a student enrolled in such a course, what would you do? I hope you would protest. I hope you would call or visit the head of the freshman program at Carolina and say you have doubts about the unrealistic aims of the new course and the trendy methods being used to teach it. You would be put in touch with an administrator who is enthusiastic and committed, one with a very impressive CV, but the conversation might go something like this.

(Each of the answers to the questions in the following dialogue is a verbatim quotation from an essay, book, or handout written by a State or Carolina composition theorist.)

Let’s say you begin by questioning the course’s content, asking why the course emphasizes writing in the sciences and social sciences and plays down writing for the humanities. You might say something like this…

Q. I don’t understand why my daughter is reading essays about
“hyposalinity” and “the aggregating a-NEM-e-nes” in freshman English.

• The goal of freshman composition is “to empower writers to membership in various discourse communities.” We call it “writing as system.”

and furthermore…

• “Seeing writing as a system contextualizes these disciplinary perspectives and raises questions student writers invariably must answer for every course they take.”

If this is your first exposure to a theorist inflicted with what some call “jargonitis,” you might be taken aback and a little reluctant to admit that you’re not sure you understand what she has just said; nevertheless, you proceed, and your next question would probably be about the format for the class.

Q. My daughter’s handout says her writing class is based on a “social-theoretic model,” which I guess means that students can work only in groups? But I don’t understand how freshmen with SAT scores not high enough to place out of freshman English are suddenly qualified to teach each other how to write.

• “These workshops not only help students talk out their ideas and find an authentic voice, but also make public the criteria for good writing, students helping other students attain them.”

Q. But why can’t there be an expert in charge? I thought we had paid tuition to have Page taught by an instructor—not by her classmates or by a roving facilitator. I don’t have a problem with Bob’s being a graduate student because I understand that having over 80% of freshman composition taught by grad students is a budgeting necessity. But I wonder how Bob can be qualified to facilitate discussions about material from the sciences or social sciences.

• “Teachers adopting this model attempt to forge their classes into a community of writers. Though students may begin the course having been schooled in the strategies of individual competition, the teacher deliberately fosters collaboration so that students must now learn from one another.”

Q. My daughter must be learning a great deal because for the first time, she’s making all A’s on her essays, so I want to know more about the “holistic scoring” students use to grade each other’s papers. My daughter’s Student Guide says that the teacher has the final say in the grading, but Bob hasn’t changed a single one of my daughter’s grades.

• “Because students can be trained to be highly reliable scorers, teachers rarely find it necessary to change a paper’s score.”

Q. But I see that the Student Guide tells students to read their classmates’ essays “quickly but carefully” before they give them a grade. That sounds contradictory. Is it really possible to read anything “quickly but carefully”?

• “Reading too slowly makes scores unreliable because isolated features, not overall quality, assume too much importance.”

Q. When you say “isolated features,” do you mean grammar errors? Page says there’s no grammar instruction in freshman English. We were disappointed because she didn’t have much grammar instruction in high school. Doesn’t grammar count anymore?

• “Though writers must conform their messages to reasonable conventions of spelling, mechanics, and usage, these same rules and principles may prove confining.”

• Many of us agree with Michigan professor Anne Curzan, who recently declared that

“Punctuation is not an ascertainable fact, like mountains.” Correcting errors in papers “creates a kind of insecurity that is not helpful.”

Even though you suspect that most people’s definition of literary still includes correct usage, you see that the writing program director won’t budge an inch on the subject of grammar, so you move on to another question about the format for the class. You ask—

Q. And what about all this group work in class? How does Bob keep students from using class time to socialize?

• “Students report that getting to know a few other students well is one of the best features of their composition class!”

• And from a teacher’s perspective, this new “egalitarian” model has replaced the “standard curriculum” with a “dialogic curriculum,” which empowers students to “create knowledge rather than to accept ‘official knowledge.’”

• Or another way to put it is that we now prefer a “liberatory dialogue,” a “democratic communication which disconfirms domination and illuminates while affirming the freedom of the participants to re-make their culture.”

Again, you might be a little reluctant to admit that (a) you can’t quite follow her logic and (b) you hope your daughter isn’t being taught to write like that. So you move on to your next question which concerns the absence of a common text in the course.

Q. Why is their no common text of readings in freshman English?

• “Students may feel so intimidated by published readings that they will dismiss their own texts as unworthy.”

and furthermore….

• Textbooks “inhibit students’ use of writing as a tool of inquiry!”

Q. Let me see if I have this straight. If students read too much, they won’t
be able to write?

Here perhaps a note of exasperation creeps into the program director’s tone when she informs you that…

• “Most research has shown that we learn to use discourse by reading voluntarily when we are young, but not much as we grow older.”

Q. Is that why literature has been eliminated from the course? I see that taking an additional course in classical literature is no longer required at Carolina, so I was hoping Page would have at least some exposure to great works in freshman English.

• Freshman Composition is “no place for literature” for 5 well known reasons…
1. because reading others’ texts distracts students from writing their own,
2. because reading literature invites too much “teacher talk,”
3. because reading literature actually “silences” student voices,
4. because “interpreting literature also represents only one way of knowing, a process of knowledge-making that is peculiar to the humanities.”

and finally…

• “Literature teaching offers the writing teacher no model worth emulating.”