Re: Is freshman comp really a chore?

It’s only made worse by the lame assignments many comp instructors assign (or are forced to assign): 1. A turning point in my life! (Get ready for five hundred essays about, “The time I got drunk? And almost had a wreck? And now I realize how precious life is?” or 2. My personal hero! (Get ready for another five hundred essays about, “My mother is my hero! Because she’s always there for me! Even though I can’t say what exactly I mean by that! And even though, duh, that’s what mothers do!”) Anything–ANYTHING–you say about a freshman comp essay will immediately be taken as a personal assault on the student her/himself. In a math class, no one takes it as a personal critique if an answer is marked as “wrong;” in a freshman comp class, any grade less than a “A” is taken as a slam against the student, since after all he/she is just “expressing myself.” And when you assign a “personal turning point” type of assignment, it just compounds the issue: “So sorry, Bubby, but your essay on fire safety and the tragic burning death of your grandmother only merits a ‘C’! Now, if gramps had died, too, that might merit a ‘B’!” —didmycomptime Re: Is freshman comp really a chore? (Chronicle of Higher Education Forums)

Seton Hill used to have a required, two-semester “Thinking and Writing Seminar,” that included cultural identity topics (education, race, gender, class, family) and built up to a research paper. There were a few academic papers in the common reader, but there were also plenty of essays that were argumentative without being academic (a very entertaining Michael Moore essay comes to mind). But the students who emulated that kind of nonacademic persuasion were not prepared for the researched essay that was supposed to be the culmination of the two-semester sequence. As a result, some students who aced the cultural material bombed the writing component, and some good writers who didn’t do all the culture-related assignments had to take the class over again. Add to that the fact that some of the instructors were more interested in the cultural material than in the writing component, and some (like myself) were more interested in producing good writers than in getting students to explore and express their cultural identities.

This fall, thank goodness, the STW course has morphed into a one-semester composition basics course — sentences, paragraphs, main ideas, that sort of thing. Students can test out of it, or they can retake it as many times as necessary. Then they’ll move on to what is now a one-semester course that’s still called “Seminar in Thinking and Writing,” where the instructors can proceed on the assumption that their students have been taught how to write a paragraph and how to revise.

Last year the faculty voted to approve a new writing-intensive component, in which every major will have at least one course designated as writing intensive. While some faculty have expressed unhappiness because they feel that writing is not their area of expertise, it’s very clear to me that I know nothing about the writing one is supposed to do in a French class, or a psychology class, or a math class. Who does know about that kind of writing? Naturally, the French, psychology, and math teachers.

Didmycomptime should add “The day my team won (or lost) the big game.”

Another great comment, from a different poster: “I also have a low opinion of marijuana legalization papers–too many of them were written while high.”

2 thoughts on “Re: Is freshman comp really a chore?

  1. Fair enough. I agree that cultural identity is a good topic, but I do wish our reader had more examples of researched essays. Of course I can (and do) provide such models myself, but because they’re not published as part of the reader they don’t have the same authority as the essays in the reader.

    A newspaper editorial can (and should) be persuasive, but the rules of evidence and citation are different. A movie review or a personal rant can be persuasive, but needn’t cite peer-reviewed academic resources or contain original research (in the form of surveys or field observations). I feel that in a composition class, I will be able to explore and reward success in the building blocks that can later be used in other courses to construct an academic research paper, or any other kind of writing the students might do (such as cultural identies papers in the second semseter).

    I certainly don’t feel that anything was wrong with the STW teachers, or with the “cultural identities” focus. I’ll be perfeclty happy teaching either freshman comp or STW, depending on enrollment needs.

    I did, however, find it disorienting when I wanted to spend more time with grammar and sentence struture, but instead had to make room for the series of assignments that lead to the research paper.

  2. Seems to me that most of those examples from the site you’re quoting are about papers from basic skills classes, not from classes that assign readings that come out of cultural studies texts, like STW. Although any class reader threatens to pull a class away from learning core writing skills, I must say in defense of the STW teachers that the reason “cultural identity” issues work so well is that everyone in the room has a stake in them, and they can function as a ‘common ground’ for teaching argumentation skills (not culture as the ‘content’ of the class, per se). What is “non-academic persuasion” really? Is it inherently unpersuasive? Or is persuasion still persuasion, no matter how you slice it? After all, teaching students ‘academic writing’ can bomb just as badly, as I’m sure you know. And academics can still write ABOUT someone like Michael Moore without becoming him. Mastering the skills take time, sure, but if there isn’t any content that will set a spark under a student’s pen, there will never be a flame.

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