Teaching Freshman English: It’s a Battlefield

So you think you might like teaching college English. You love the language and its great works. Lots of people are like that, including me.

Good, but beware. Teaching college English, especially freshman comp, is not for the faint-hearted.

If you are drawn to the profession by the joys you experienced in grad school reading the great tacticians of the language, be prepared to gird your loins for something akin to trench warfare. You will often find yourself in a dark place where syntax constantly comes a cropper in its unequal battle against half-baked ideas, defenseless vocabulary, and ghastly grammar.

Your first skirmish will pit you against invisible, nameless, and formidable adversaries: all those “language arts” teachers from the past who, at least according to many students, seldom held them accountable for anything. To hear them tell it, their every idea was deemed above average, à la Lake Wobegon. Thesaurus-diving was also encouraged, so that a word like “plethora” will in their view serve their purpose much better than the perfectly clear and acceptable “many.”

And if you expect reasonably well-structured sentences with close-to-appropriate punctuation, don’t be surprised to encounter something like this: “They said all their usual announcements then they talked about a contest for writing and they read the winners that won it was only three from my school two boys and one girl.”  

Should you succeed in routing the enemy this first time, your work will have only just begun.  Although some of your students may be impressed by your promise to expect only their best work, they will view themselves as casualties if their first essay—often a revamped version of one written in high school—earns a low grade.

First the ghosts of all those neglectful “language arts” teachers will rise up once again to rattle their rusty chains. The students will implore you to read and grade a revision and/or take into account that anything less than a “B” will jeopardize their financial aid.

If neither of those stratagems succeeds, the opinions of parents will be brought up to the front line, guns blazing. Sometimes they will even visit your office, demanding that you show them why the paper didn’t deserve “at least a ‘C.’” They may also claim that this is the first time their child has ever received anything less than an “A.” Although it’s an unpleasant task, be prepared to go over the writing assignment in excruciating detail; if you do so, chances are it will keep that helicopter parent from knocking on your door again.

At this point, it’s wise to revisit the standards and expectations you covered during the first class meeting when students are notorious for nodding their heads while not attending to a single word you’re saying. After all, their cell phones keep lighting up or vibrating. Either a friend has posted something funny and fleeting on Instagram, or their roommate wants to know what happened to the Jägermeister.

This will also give you an opportunity to remind the students (and yourself) that writing must meet basic standards of content and execution to warrant a passing grade. In other words, hold that line.

Assuming you survive this first brush with professional misadventure, the task of getting your charges to contend with their worst compositional tendencies will continue for the entire semester. Just when you think you’ve made it abundantly clear that “whether” and “weather” are not interchangeable, these and other malapropisms that evade every spellchecker ever devised will rise like Banquo’s ghost to haunt the pages of your students’ essays.

Routine grammar and punctuation issues as well as basic rhetorical fallacies will also seem to have taken up positions for a protracted siege.

As the semester midpoint approaches, you would do well to reach out to those students who are not making much progress. If they have enrolled in more classes than their work/school schedule can support, let them know it might be a good idea to reduce their course load and thereby spare their GPA lasting injury. If other professors or mentors advise you this is not part of your job, I’m here to say they are wrong. Like it or not, your responsibilities extend beyond your discipline. Moreover, you may find that forays into advising are a welcome change from the time you spend performing triage on hastily written first drafts.

By week twelve of the semester the ranks of your freshman comp classes will probably  have thinned by about twenty percent. Some students will provide advance notice of their decision to withdraw, citing a family emergency or pressing personal concern, while others will simply go AWOL, sometimes as early as the third or fourth week of the semester. However, be prepared for one or two of those disappeared students to resurface during finals week. Their mea culpas will be heroic and all inclusive, in hopes that you can overlook the fact they did virtually nothing all semester. Hear them out, then wish them well.

Once final grades have been calculated and posted, it will be time to do a little retroactive reconnaissance. Review your classroom presentations, especially those most nearly resembling lectures, and entertain the possibility that they were ineffective. As soon as students realize you plan to talk for an extended period of time—say, fifteen or twenty minutes—their doors and windows of perception begin to close.

It is much better to get them doing things, preferably with pen or pencil, and either a textbook or sheet of paper. Or give them time to hash something out verbally with classmates. If nothing else, the hum of voices will assure you there is still value in a traditional classroom setting.

At some point you may also find yourself wondering about that one student who began the semester with so much promise only to falter or go AWOL in the end. He was extremely quiet, perhaps willfully so; or she was unusually talkative, either craving attention or trying to disarm it. Was there something you could have or should have done? After all, students have all kinds of needs and, since you were once a student, you might have a valuable insight to share.

Before embarking on a rescue mission, however, be advised that reaching out to an under-performing student can sometimes leave you stranded in no man’s land: there’s no guarantee your insights will be welcome. Just as students have all kinds of needs, they fail for all kinds of reasons, sometimes intentionally.

Enjoy a bit of rest after the semester is over. The battle of your next one looms just over the horizon.

  • 48574

    You actually teach English in Freshman Comp class?

    I went to college from 1982 to 1986. In a foreshadowing of things to come my professor thought his job was to clear up all those misconceptions you had about the Bible. I learned that the Bible required me to be a vegetarian for example. I started bring my Bible (King James at his insistence) and reading to him the actual verses he though he was quoting in context.

    He seemed to think a guy named Babbitt was the proof of all things he disliked was bad. It was like an incantation. If he didn’t like something Babbitt liked it and thus it was bad. I finally had to look it up and found out it was a book by Sinclair. So to be clear he never actual taught the book or gave any insight that is was a book by Sinclair. I guess you were either on the inside and got it or too dumb to be bothered with. I still haven’t read the book because it just reminds me of the guy. He has already ruined a book by a well regarding author by his abuse of what I assume is the main character.

    Come my senior year my then girlfriend (now wife of 30 years) informed me that as a student teacher she had a student who lived in a cave with his family. His dad taught English at the university we attended. Do I really need to say more.

    I would have really enjoyed simply having my English mistakes pointed out to me!

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      You might try “Main Street” or “Arrowsmith,” my favorite.

      Relevant for some, there is always, “It Can’t Happen Here,” a novel about the totalitarian take-over of America. Take your pick.

      • annieoakley

        “It Can’t Happen Here” my favorite.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    My favorite was “Jesus and the twelve decibels”!

    I was lucky to overhear one minimally literate student once explain how he aced his English Comp assignments — “I clicked on grammar check until the red went away.”

    Another similarly situated student went on to become the head of congressional staff for our district — forcing me to ask myself: what was the point? If computers and clerical assistants increasingly shoulder the hard work of writing, why bother trying to teach it?

    Of course, not everyone is this lucky. After pestering a previous congressman for two years about accreditation, I finally received his response — in which I counted three (3) typographical errors. Some people can’t be bothered.

  • bdavi52

    Obviously Prof. Diguette simply does not understand.
    How could he, though, being a prisoner and victim of Wrong Thinking all these years?!

    The Idiots at Pomona explained all this quite thoroughly just a few months ago as they responded in predictable outrage to their President’s tepid defense of Free Speech. Allow me to quote directly and in detail (it explains so much!):

    “Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes. Pomona cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Either you support students of marginalized identities, particularly Black students, or leave us to protect and organize for our communities without the impositions of your patronization, without your binary respectability politics, and without your monolithic perceptions of protest and organizing. In addition, non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.

    Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.”

    So clearly when Prof. Diguette addresses grammar, spelling, logic & construction problems in his students’ writing he is doing nothing more then unnuancing his ‘Columbusing’ of hegemonic, White Supremacist imperialism & capitalism in some sort of unending effort to silence oppressed peoples!

    Obviously he should just stop, go out and eat worms. What else is left?

    • meredithk


  • hrhdhd

    You should try teaching something other than Comp I and critiquing their writing. All I hear is, “But, Miss [what they call all female teachers at my school, it seems], this isn’t a writing class!”

    • George Avery

      See my comment above. I have heard that from Freshman comp *INSTRUCTORS*!

  • nauticalbear

    I owe my Freshman Comp professor a thousand “thank yous” I can never really deliver.

    I hated having errors pointed out. (I still do.) But I owe a lot of my success in IT to the fact I can write clearly & communicate my ideas effectively through writing. We need professors like this to hold the line!

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    The Computer Revolution just jumped over teaching Freshman English.
    Grammarly.com is free and eliminates the “red”.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammarly .

    • redweather

      But you have to know grammar to use a program like Grammarly effectively. Would that the computer revolution was all it’s frequently made out to be.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Ok. I see your point. But the sentence in the fifth paragraph goes beyond poor writing; it is symptomatic of a badly disordered mind. Perhaps the student was on drugs. The worst paper I read was from a girl on drugs. Now she is dead.

        As has been said about carpenters with a hammer, so too in regard to Freshman Comp instructors — everything looks like poor writing skills. Their perspective is far, far too narrow. We are losing millions of youth to drugs and ennui. Teachers efforts will not change that.

  • George Avery

    I ended up spending a significant time in a junior level public health class teaching students – mostly health promotion students – how to write a professional memorandum after their first papers consisted largely of very informal and poorly organized vernacular. Most of these students received “A” grades in their freshman comp class. When I mentioned this in a conversation with a grad student teaching the Freshman comp class, she dismissed the problem, stating that “the field of composition isn’t about teaching students to write, but social justice.” That, friends, is a real problem with the modern college English department.

    • Tao Burp

      I teach freshmen composition, and I do make the effort to teach writing at a small college, but I’m afraid if one of my colleagues had said such nonsense, I would not hold back in my criticism.

    • redweather

      That is a very odd comment. I’ve known some instructors to have fairly lax attitudes when it came to writing basics but never heard one even suggest that social justice or something else was of paramount importance. That is not a widely held view, at least not in my experience.

  • redweather

    There are two good pieces about writing running in today’s New York Times, both written by Dana Goldstein: “A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction (Now, What’s an Adverb?)” and “What Parents Can Do to Nurture Good Writers.”

  • mburke73

    What a dyspeptic, crabbed view of teaching freshman composition. I’ve been teaching it since 1983 and still do–though I encounter one or two examples of this kind of response from students, it is far from the norm, at least in my limited experience (teaching at five colleges, including the US Military Academy and now for the last 11 at a community college). I notice the writer does not blame K-12 standardized testing and its formulaic writing requirements for any of his students’ shortcomings. My sense is that many HS teachers have to teach to the test because high standardized test scores are what school “reformers” demand in terms of ‘accountability.” It’s a complex and demanding business, as the writer points out, but I think few courses can do as much to assist an unformed writer into a better one.

    • redweather

      What kind of standardized English test is administered in high school? And isn’t that a rather convenient complaint these days? Teachers typically blame standardized tests for everything which makes me more than a little suspicious.

      In my experience the average high school graduate is capable of writing a decent rough draft, using fairly basic sentence structures, baseline vocabulary, and minimal support. Maybe that’s all many of them are required to do in high school.

  • Ron Liebermann

    There is, of course, the unavoidable fact that many of these students should not be attending college in the first place. Right now in America there is enormous pressure on young people to attend college, instead of getting a vocational education. And the government makes this problem worse by offering student-loan guarantees.

    If the government stopped offering these loans, a lot of young people would search for alternate forms of education. And the price of a college degree would drop dramatically. You can add to that the fact that very soon, an on-line degree will be equivalent to a brick and mortar college degree; at a fraction of the cost.

    Universities in America should be 80% male, and 80% white. If you allow females and minorities to become dominant, you will end-up with a Communist state. That is the direction in which we are heading right now.