What can first-year composition do?

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: FYC, History 

First-year composition (FYC) can accomplish a great deal for college students but less than we so unfairly assume.  The history of first-year composition is a history of remediation.  Many years ago, when the same cultural class attended college, writing, speaking and rhetoric were practiced throughout all four years of college.  The professional goals for college were fairly simple:

  1. To become a lawer
  2. To enter ministry service, and/or
  3. To provide politician leadership

After industrialization captured the nation’s economy, a business class grew up and wished for its children to be college educated.  Ivy colleges didn’t know what to do with these strange people who used language less aristocratically than the curricula and professors were prepared, so while the business class demanded additional majors and contributed money these growing colleges couldn’t ignore, writing classes were used as a gateway to guard against those who would not adapt their language use toward standardized, if arbitrary, genres.  Nevertheless, this remediation wasn’t simply a test to stay in college.  Its current-traditional curriculum also required students practice modes of writing: narration, description, exposition, and persuasion/argument.  Faculty psychology theorized that these modes were the basis for the standard way people think.  This isn’t really true, but the current-traditional did help many in the business class stay in college and succeed in their business practices because it captured industry needs in some degree.   Thus, the modes of writing helped business become more organized.   And organized business demanded new majors and specialized writing tasks to meet their goals.  For example, engineers write differently than accountants who speak differently than professional management, so shouldn’t college majors reflect these differences?

Each new generation in America has added its own class warfare to the mix of demands upon first-year writing.  Since writing instruction was handed off to first-year composition, the expanding majors deleted their own writing and rhetoric instruction until many colleges have been left with one course to do the work of four years in meeting the goals of numerous majors.  By now, you should get a good sense that the expectations on FYC are unreasonable.

So what can first-year composition do if we understand it can’t do everything?

  • First, FYC can help students begin to understand their identities as writers.  If students think of themselves as writers they will develop writing practices–similar to how we view doctors practice medicine.
  • Second, students can learn to practice writing as a process.  Individuals have unique talents and can develop specific procedures for getting writing done.  Students can explore how they work best and where different writing tasks should use different approaches.  Students can learn to be independent in their writing decisions thus preparing them for tasks where no one will tell them how to write successfully.
  • Finally, students can reflect and develop analytical abilities based on inquiry.  Curiosity can be enhanced through writing.  In learning to write, students can see writing as a medium for learning, researching, and developing new knowledge.  Professionals comment regularly that expressing their problems, attempted solutions, and accomplishments lets them know the content in their professions.  Language assists in one’s thinking, so if we want to enhance thinking, we have to increase where and how we use language to investigate our world.