Freshman Comp: Often More About Politics than Sentences

I teach freshman composition at a community college in Florida. Here are are two writing samples from my recent classes.

The first is an exercise to identify the topic sentence in a paragraph on science and learning. Joseph wrote:

It is a proven that in order to understand science you must have knowledge you usually don’t find one without the other. The topic sentence have a few correlating sentences that could support it.”

The second is Rosie’s response to Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace”:

The Necklace; a story that consist symbolism with our society, especially the society, when the Necklace story takes place.

Sadly, these are not extreme examples, for poor, sloppy and even incoherent writing is the norm in the typical freshman composition classroom. Most of my students badly need remedial help with their writing, but my state no longer requires this of underprepared students. These examples illustrate the challenge facing writing instructors.

In contrast with most other basic courses, “freshman composition” does not have a uniform, agreed-upon definition in the nation’s colleges. Freshman comp is whatever the professor says it is and quite a few of them say that their course will be about hot-button issues. Many students, innocent as lambs, enroll in something called “College Writing” only to discover that it’s less focused on the writing they so badly need to learn than on the professor’s politics.

For example, in the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College, noted compositionist Patrick Sullivan, while acknowledging a role for writing, recently claimed that first-year composition “is also about class, gender, and race, and inequality and poverty. It is about freedom, social justice, and the ideals of a democracy.”

Sullivan urges teachers to add “activist” to their identity as teacher-scholars, “accepting and embracing the revolutionary and inescapably political nature of our work.” That work, he explains, is to “democratize” the open-enrollment college, guaranteeing to all who enroll—the “forgotten voices” of students “trapped by their histories and their economic conditions”—their piece of the academic pie.

Sullivan doesn’t suggest ways to teach students how to write well while simultaneously doing something about race, inequality, and poverty. His 19-page essay ignores the gritty task of teaching sentence structure or paragraph organization, but it devotes six pages to why the composition classroom is the proper place to battle economic inequality. Still, Sullivan says political activism should require only 2 percent of a writing instructor’s time.

Even 2 percent is too much, but activist professors might have a hard time curbing their enthusiasm.

Now consider the argument of Dale M. Bauer, a prominent contributor to compositionist theory. She wrote that she has trouble “leaving that other ‘f’ word, feminism, out of my classroom.” In a College English piece, Bauer admitted that her courses are dominated by “feminist doctrines and ideas” and that she does not permit students to challenge her assumptions. “How do we move ourselves out of this political impasse and resistance in order to get our students to identify with the political agenda of feminism?” she asked.

Bauer’s approach is hardly in the spirit of objective inquiry into truth—ostensibly what the liberal arts are all about. And as for student writing, the necessary focus on basic skills is evidently subordinated to the professor’s political beliefs.

To Andrea Greenbaum, the author of Emancipatory Movements in Composition, freshman comp should empower students, especially women, “to resist oppressive forces of racism, classism, and sexism.” Greenbaum wants her students to “view themselves as agents for social change and attempt to redress social inequity outside the boundaries of the classroom.”

She calls her method “bitch pedagogy.” Nowhere does Greenbaum explain how best to get students who write poorly to construct good sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

In his book Save the World on Your Own Time, Professor Stanley Fish put his finger on what is wrong with such politicized courses. He writes, “All composition courses should teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. No composition course should have a theme, especially not one the instructor is interested in.”

Every minute of precious class time devoted to lectures on the professor’s favorite grievance is a minute lost from the work of constructing clear sentences and well-organized paragraphs. It is the student—not the professor and not the school—who suffers when instructors turn writing classrooms into indoctrination centers.

We don’t put up with this in biology or engineering. We shouldn’t put up with it in English, either.

While they explore rhetoric’s fundamentals, students don’t need the distractions of hot-button issues as writing themes. While some content is necessary since students must write about something, professors should stay away from such emotionally-charged arguments as same-sex marriage and gun control. Students typically come armed with rigidly-held views on such issues that are unlikely to change even after tendentious readings and writing assignments where they’re apt to feel pressure to say what the professor wants to hear.

These “ill-informed views,” Fish says, “take up all the air space and energy in the room and leave the students full of banal opinions but without the ability to use prepositions or write a clean English sentence.” He’s right. It is hard enough to teach students who write poorly how to use language well; trying to do that while at the same time trying to turn them into political activists is educational malpractice.

Students arrive at college with “fully established habits of sentence rot,” John Maguire wrote in a 2013 Pope Center commentary. The creator of the Newsweek College Writing Guide, Maguire teaches a fundamentalist brand of composition whose gospel is clarity. He drills on active verbs and concrete nouns—devices he says “worked for Swift, Defoe, George Orwell and E.B. White.”

Political topics make bad writing assignments, says Maguire, because students “do not reach into their own minds to write on these topics. They cobble these papers together from pre-fabricated language. They’ve been fed this language and they spit it back onto the page.”

Good assignments require thought without triggering inflamed emotion. My Comp I students choose from four topics and may take any approach or argue any position (I am always open to suggestions of better topics):

  • How Galileo’s challenge to state authority has implications for free societies today.
  • Florence Nightingale’s continuing presence in the modern nursing school.
  • How the 17th Amendment shifted power from states to the federal government.
  • What 12 Angry Men says about the rule of law.

Each topic has some controversy and requires serious research to sort out. None, I hope, will ever instigate a brawl in the classroom.

Students have the right both to pursue the stated course objectives of first-year writing and to know what to expect from it. Colleges and universities should tell all writing faculty to focus their courses on improving students’ ability to write and to keep their political agendas out of it. At the very least, they should require full disclosure on course syllabi so that students can avoid professors who insist on instilling political activism rather than just teaching them how to write.