Devoid of Content

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.


“We don’t do content in this class. By that I mean we are not interested in ideas – yours, mine or anyone else’s. We don’t have an anthology of readings. We don’t discuss current events. We don’t exchange views on hot-button issues. We don’t tell each other what we think about anything – except about how prepositions or participles or relative pronouns function.” The reason we don’t do any of these things is that once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content, usually some recycled set of pros and cons about abortion, assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare reform, the death penalty, free speech and so forth. At that moment, the task of understanding and mastering linguistic forms will have been replaced by the dubious pleasure of reproducing the well-worn and terminally dull arguments one hears or sees on every radio and TV talk show. —Stanley FishDevoid of Content (NY Times (will expire))

At Seton Hill, at present we have a two-semester course called “Seminar in Thinking in Writing,” which attempts to cover freshman comp, an introduction to cultural studies (education, gender, family, race, etc.), and a first-year experience program. There are certain topics that I exclude from consideration — abortion and gay marriage, for example (I’ve never read a student paper on those topics that takes “the other side” seriously, no matter what side the student takes). I should probably add “images of women in advertising media,” since the student argument is pretty much always, “Advertisers should show healthy images of women,” and the paper never actually spells out what kind of benevolent dictatorship would force publishers to follow that directive, or what punishments should be visited upon those who dare to exercise their first amendment rights.

A few weeks ago, a committee led by our newly-hired comp director, Laura Patterson, agreed to change the program so that it begins with a one-semester composition course that students can test out of, and that they must re-take as many times as necessary in order to pass it. Then they move on to a one-semester course on cultural studies (intended to focus on developing critical thinking skills), and then one or two subject-specific writing courses. In the humanities program, we are thinking of two courses — one early in the program that covers all the humanities, and then another for the specific major. In fine arts, students learn in ways other than writing, so the faculty there don’t think that a writing-intensive course will be helpful until after the students have done the studio courses and learned the material that they will need to write about in their upper-level courses. Nobody from the natural sciences or math was at that meeting, so we realize we have some information gathering to do.

One of the problems with our current two-semester plan is that students who are good writers have to take it anyway, since the cultural content delivered by the course is considered important to the core curriculum.

I won’t be teaching Seminar in Thinking and Writing in the fall, but I will be piloting one of the mid-level writing intensive courses, specifically American Lit (which serves as a Gen Ed course for students seeking “American Culture” credit, as a required coverage course for English majors, and a broadening course for education students who may or may not be planning to teach English.

I spent more time on the grammar component in “Introduction to Literary Studies,” and while some students were worried about it (writing essays that pleaded for leniency), when we spent a while on professionalism, I thought I noticed a slight shift towards realism. Several students who desired to make their living with their writing skills were bizarrely cavalier about grammar, until one class when I spelled out the following situation.

You’re an editor. Part of your job is to correct the grammatical mistakes in articles submitted to you for publication. You get two submissions from strangers. One is a bit dry, but grammatically correct. The other is witty and lively, but full of grammar, spelling, and syntax errors. Which would you rather do — give the author of the dry submission a few pointers to make the article wittier, or go through the witty submission with a fine-toothed comb, checking every comma, every preposition, and every subject-verb agreement?

After I asked students to submit a resume and cover letter, in which students applied for a real job that uses their English skills, even before I returned those assignments to students, I noticed students asking me how they could work for The Setonian (the student paper, which I advise).

I never did get around to handing out copies of an article from The Onion, announcing “English replaced to be new syntax with,” and I never did get around to giving them constrained writing assignments (write a poem only using the upper typewriter row, or palindromes (“Bob.” “Racecar.” “Dennis sinned.” “Dennis and Edna sinned.”), or on the day they are supposed to submit a 200-word essay, give them time in class to cut out 100 words of fat, and then for homework have them add 100 words of muscle.

The reason I didn’t get around to these compositional activities is because we were too busy looking at content — I had them read The Tempest, then spent the next week reading six academic articles on the play. I assigned them pairs of articles with widely diverging viewpoints, and I was very pleased with the result. I’d actually like to repeat this exercise, but instead of assigning widely diverging articles, I assign articles that differ more and more subtly.

It would be nice to have the time for that — and I might, if more students entered this class with better composition skills. And I think the revised core writing program will give many students exposure to bedrock skills earlier in their careers.

I don’t think content will disappear from our new composition course, but perhaps we can cover just one or two content units instead of the three we’re expected to cover now. I never had a problem with grammar in my English courses, in part because I took three years of Latin in high school. The German grammar that I took in college was a snap by comparison. While some of my grad school companions were mystified by Middle and Old English at the University of Toronto, I loved the required History of the English Language course.