Freshman Comp, Then and Now

Over the almost four decades that I’ve been a college English professor, I have seen many changes, some good and many bad. One of the worst changes is the transformation of the freshman composition course.

After World War II, when a surge in prosperity brought an increasing proportion of high school graduates into institutions of higher education, it became evident that many of them were incapable of reading and writing their native language adequately for academic work.  They were not illiterate; they knew their letters and could read documents that conveyed information or instructions of on a simple, one-dimensional level. They could write out their thoughts in a rudimentary, colloquial fashion. 

What they could not usually manage was to grasp the nuances of a sophisticated work of literature or follow the logic of a complex argument. They were even more perplexed at the prospect of constructing a consistent, focused argument of their own expressing such understanding as they had attained of the subtleties of literary and intellectual discourse. Their high school English hadn’t taken them far enough.

English departments in colleges and universities were, therefore, assigned the task of raising students to a level of reading and writing adequate for serious academic work. They tried to accomplish that by means of an essentially remedial course, freshman composition. 

The emphasis of the course, as the title indicates, was on writing; but reading was also a crucial feature, because of an implicit assumption that learning to read challenging works of literature would enhance a student’s writing skills.  Freshman composition thus became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language.

Now it would be naïve to suggest that the 1950s through 1970s were a golden age of student enthusiasm and exalted educational attainment. Very few institutions of higher learning, in this country or any other, have even tried to embody Cardinal Newman’s ideal of liberal education as the cultivation of the mind for its own sake. Land grant universities, polytechnic institutes, schools of agriculture and technology—all proclaim by their names a commitment to providing students with job training and augmenting the local economy.   

Nevertheless, almost all of those institutions, and certainly the most ambitious, usually sought to offer young men and women something beyond mere technical expertise. At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.

During the last three decades, this generally humanistic, even literary, understanding of freshman composition has been almost wholly displaced in the vast majority of state university campuses, along with many other institutions as well. The old vision of freshman composition has been pushed aside by a theoretical approach more in tune with the social sciences and the public education establishment. 

The reasons for this are deeply rooted in the professional structure and expectations of academic departments. “Composition” became a new research field requiring theorization and publication, requiring numerous and mutable theories, since everyone in higher education is now expected to have an ongoing research project. The researchers and theorists, however, do very little of the actual teaching of freshman composition, which has largely devolved upon non-tenure-track faculty, teaching under the supervision of composition specialists.

Some of the “discoveries” of composition theorists that have taken hold in many writing programs include the following:

  • Reading and writing are completely different skills not to be learned together, and literature must, therefore, be banished from the composition classroom.
  • There is no general skill of writing that can be transferred from one field to another, so freshman composition should teach students to write according to the protocols of the various academic fields in “writing across the curriculum” programs.
  • Conventions of grammar and usage—because they are mere conventions—are of little importance, probably cannot be taught to eighteen-year-olds anyway, and may even be damaging to minorities who speak different “dialects.”
  • It is pointless to mark errors in grammar and usage on student papers because they pay no attention to them; students best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and “peer-reviewing” their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.

The contrast between today’s “theoretical” composition course and my experience as an assistant professor at North Carolina State in the early 1970s could not be sharper.  At that time, few faculty members were not on the tenure track, and, although everyone was expected to teach the course, most of the burden of freshman composition fell upon assistant professors.  We weren’t altogether pleased by this because the course put heavy demands on students and instructors alike.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences.  The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper.  It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

Monday’s class would usually be devoted to discussing a technique or problem of composition.  My method was to begin at the broadest elements in an essay and work toward matters of detail.  I would begin with defining a thesis and outlining an argument by ordering large blocks of material in a logical fashion. Then I would move to the organization of individual paragraphs in a rhetorically effective sequence, and then to sentence structure: what are the different kinds of sentences and which ones are appropriate for particular kinds of statement? How is syntax properly varied?  Finally, I would treat diction and figures of speech: how to choose precisely the right word on the basis of context and association, how to use analogies and other figures effectively and unobtrusively.

Wednesdays were devoted to studying particular works of literature: prose fiction, drama, and poetry.  The students were asked to read carefully and critically, paying close attention to nuances of style and subtleties of structure. I am convinced from experience that close attention to the details of technique practiced by the most accomplished writers of the English language  augmented my students’ resources as writers. 

Moreover, asking students to write essays about works of literature—to which Friday classes were devoted—had the advantage of giving them all the same topic, which most approached with few preconceptions. Freshmen are usually more able to write a reasonable, disinterested assessment of “The Role of Faith in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’” than to give thoughtful, unself-conscious account of their views on abortion or global warming—the kind of topic that is typical nowadays.

I no longer teach freshman composition; in many quarters, literature professors are considered unqualified for that task since they have no training in “composition theory.” 

How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.