Shirking the Real Work — Full Professors and Freshman Comp

Editor’s Note: Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, and he has recently served as Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.

In all of higher education, across the entire college campus, there is no more difficult teaching assignment than the freshman writing class. The instruction is labor-intensive like no other. Teachers grade papers for hours all weekend, evaluating the full gamut of work from the central idea to the single comma. No multiple choice tests or computerized scoring for them. Each student has his own strengths and weaknesses, and needs individually tailored coaching. This makes office hours for composition instructors run all morning several days a week.

There is no set knowledge to pass along, either — no facts and figures, laws and theorems that belong to the field and standardize what students should learn and how they should learn it. Instead, in a necessarily complex and uncertain tutelage, teachers promote discursive habits and understandings that require years of practice before students have become proficient in them. Let’s face it. Students can’t increase their vocabulary much over a 14-week semester, nor can they develop an expressive, evocative style or a confident, persuasive voice. Teachers have to pick and choose, and rest content with but a few areas and increments of improvement.

Students hate it. They realize their deficiencies and dread being exposed. Around one in five end up in remedial courses, and in a large 2006 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, fully 44 percent of college teachers stated that incoming students were “Not well-prepared” for college-level writing. This makes the composition classroom a dreary setting. Ambitious students don’t like it because they’ve got calculus and organic chemistry to handle, and if they slip in those classes because of a paper on George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” they see their chances for Stanford Business, Yale Law, or Hopkins Medical plummet.

The lesser students slide into chronic exasperation, then sulk. Writing is so hard for them, so frustrating. They work and work, but can’t put a coherent paragraph together. As a result, teachers can’t just assign a topic and tell them, “Go out and write.” They have to get involved in the composition, help students through rough drafts, work with them on the choice of one verb or another, and enter their mental processes to an extent that no math or science teacher ever does.

It’s an exhausting task, but one with high stakes. In an Information Age, poor writing skills bring low wages and unemployment. They also mean lower productivity for the nation. A 2004 study by the College Board of writing skills in the workplace estimated that corporate America spends more than $3 billion per year on improving the writing skills of its employees (Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out). The following year, a College Board study of state governments found that “providing writing training costs state government about a quarter of a billion dollars annually” (Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government). And a 2005 survey by the National Association of Manufacturers of its member firms showed that 36 percent of them “indicated insufficient reading, writing, and communication skills” among their employees, and 51 percent of them stated that they “will need more of these types of skills over the next three years” (2005 Skills Gap Report: A Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce).

These findings make the writing curriculum in college a crucial responsibility of higher education, with leaders in the private and public sector demanding better talents in recent graduates.

So why, then, are so many freshman writing courses staffed by the least knowledgeable, least experienced, and least secure teachers on the entire campus? I mean graduate students in English and related fields. In a Pope Center report from 2006, Nan Miller found that fully 80 percent of freshman composition sections at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill were taught by graduate students. At the University of Georgia this year, 60 percent of freshman writing classes are taught by graduate students. At Ohio State University, all 50 sections offered are taught by graduate students.

Many programs strive to help the grad student teachers along. At UC-Riverside, graduate students handle 25-30 percent of all composition courses, but they attend weekly training meetings run by regular lecturers, and a senior lecturer is assigned to visit their classes and provide guidance on all matters of practice. The University of Georgia English Department offers a “practicum series on teaching techniques,” and inexperienced teachers must take a “teaching apprenticeship” course before they lead a class, as well as attend a week-long seminar on the teaching of writing.

But the investment in strong mentoring by composition leaders and administrators takes a lot of money and a firm resolve. We need to lower the percentage of freshman writing courses taught by graduate students, and that will require a shift in priorities among the tenured humanities professorate at large. More full professors should teach freshman courses and coach novices in how to do it.

Too many of them, though, recoil at the prospect. They can’t imagine spending evenings on comma splices and topic sentences. The diction of a freshman paper appears to them a deadening artifact. They prefer a graduate seminar with five students focused on the latest in critical theory. Not only is the workload a fraction of the composition course, but the content approaches closer to their own research, which often sallies into outré theories and interpretations, ideas entirely divorced from the educational needs of the average 18-year-old.

How do you get a rising professor to scale down to the freshman level without seeming to contravene his career?

Our higher education system forms a critical divide. It separates people at teaching time, the tenured faculty from the graduate students, leaving the latter shaky about their teaching duties. The professors they emulate disregard the teaching they have to do, causing graduate students to see freshman instruction as grunt work. Instead of treating freshman writing as a foundation of all future liberal arts learning, grad students mostly slog through the assignment.

That world contains yet another factor that complicates the teaching of freshman writing. For three decades, the humanities have undergone a revolutionary change in topic and concern, that is, the suffusion of identity matters throughout the curriculum. Race, gender, sexuality . . . they have become presiding themes in the English Department world. However much those themes engage scholars, they can go easily awry in a class of shy and headstrong, fragile and self-involved, incurious and half-informed teenagers. The skillful handling of those delicate matters requires ample knowledge of and experience with adolescent minds, not to mention hefty factual information about the topics. To be blunt, the typical humanities graduate student doesn’t come close.

We are caught in a treacherous situation. The hardest classes to teach are often taught by the least competent teachers. The class most unpopular with undergraduates is taught by the most vulnerable teachers. The most delicate subjects are thrust upon twenty-somethings ill-equipped to manage them.

This is not the fault of people running writing programs, or of deans of humanities, or of lecturers with renewable appointments. It is the fault of safe and secure tenured professors in English, Comparative Literature, American Studies, etc. All too often they conduct rarefied research and minimize contact with students. They regard themselves as specialists, busy and professional, and while they agree on the importance of freshman writing, in their actions they express the opposite. General education and basic skills, they indicate, are the responsibility of lesser colleagues.

This is not a healthy subdivision of the humanities, and the disciplines will recover only if the upper-faculty regularly turns its attention away from its research and toward the foundations of reading and writing. If those foundations are not reinforced and respected by distinguished humanities professors, and if students don’t acquire sound English skills during the first year, the most cutting-edge sophisticated scholarship collapses upon itself.

Full professors must reconnect with the freshman classroom and with the teachers—graduate students, temporary hires, and lecturers—who are doing the hardest job on the campus.