Would this actually work? My fantasy freshman comp course

When I went to college, the standard writing instruction was a two-course sequence known as freshman comp. I mercifully tested into an experimental one-semester “honors” comp alternative, but as a TA in the English department, I became very familiar with the standard approach, which I believe to be broadly similar to how freshman comp is typically implemented. The first semester taught “writing as such,” and the vehicle was primarily the students’ own personal experiences and reflections. The second semester taught more of the skills required specifically for college writing, including more argumentative papers and research papers — usually all on self-chosen topics.

I don’t think there are many people who would strenuously defend this approach to freshman comp, even though — and correct me if I’m wrong about this — it appears to be a kind of “default setting” for initial writing instruction at many institutions, particularly less selective ones. I’m going to throw out one possible change that I think may be helpful, and I look forward to my readers telling me why it couldn’t possibly work.

It seems to me that a major problem is the personal focus. I understand the motivation: if you’re trying to teach writing “as such” and can’t presuppose any content, the students’ own personal experience seems like an intuitive option. Similarly, allowing them to write an argumentative paper defending some viewpoint they happen to already have seems like a good approach, in that they’ll at least presumably care about the topic.

Yet the challenge of college writing is that you need to write about things you don’t know — indeed, you are often called to write about things you don’t actually care about at all. What’s more, one of the benefits of college is reportedly to encourage “critical thinking,” which presumably includes an element of distance from one’s own opinions and an openness to changing them. Hence asking them to defend their own pre-given opinions seems to be contrary to the spirit of things, and experience tells me that papers that represent the strongest pre-given opinions are usually the worst ones on every level (undercutting the notion that “caring” is a benefit).

So I propose that freshman comp instructors should assign students to argue on a topic they could not possibly care deeply about — the more contrived, the better. Which is better, ketchup or mustard? Which season is best or worst? That kind of thing. Even if they happen to have strong feelings that mustard sucks, they have to think up reasons, since they won’t have a pre-existing fund of cliche arguments to draw on (as in the dreaded papers about abortion or evolution). And since the topic is “no big deal,” you could also turn around and ask them to produce another paper advancing a different viewpoint on the same topic, whereas students may often feel uncomfortable arguing for a viewpoint they oppose on a topic that’s actually important to them.

Similarly, the research paper could also be on some pre-given “stupid” topic. What do people in other countries typically eat for breakfast? How did fashion trends in a previous era differ from ours, and can you figure out the motivations behind that? How do different societies approach the problem of cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom?

Even better than avoiding the pitfalls of self-chosen topics, I think that this approach would have the benefit of getting students to care about a topic they hadn’t even thought about before. Instead of viewing analysis and argument as a chore, they might come to see it as an enjoyable game. Instead of viewing research as a pro-forma checking of boxes (X number of print sources, Y number of online sources, etc.), it would be more exploratory — they would probably find themselves becoming interested in their “stupid” research topic despite themselves. It could also produce fun, non-threatening in-class discussions, in which students’ instinct to find discussion a “rip-off” compared to learning from the expert professor would not be set off, since the topic is trivial in any case.

But it’s easy for me to say all this, since I have never taught at an institution that has a freshman comp sequence and in any case would never be called upon to teach it myself (barring a major disaster that led me to join the adjunct pool at the City Colleges). I’m sure this plan is overly idealistic in some way — please inform me, readers.

17 thoughts on “Would this actually work? My fantasy freshman comp course

  1. There’s a real grain of truth in this but there’s also one big problem. When I was trained to teach comp, the Writing Program tricked both instructors (recently minted or so to be minted PhDs) and students by making the seminars topic based. We were happy because we got to “teach our topic,” they were happy because they weren’t taking straight “comp.” But as soon as we all got into the classroom, we discovered that the tasks we had to do almost totally minimized our attention to the topic at hand – everything was about writing, nothing about, say, “the Literature of Apocalypse” or whatever.

    BUT – here’s the problem. Part of the goal of teaching comp is to help the students learn to make useful, communicative, more signal than noise arguments. Arguments that add to a conversation that someone might actually want to have. So… if you were teaching “Literature of Apocalypse” (I didn’t – just an example) the trick would be to learn to make arguments that answer a question that a reasonable intelligent reader might have. I.e. “There are female characters in X and they do important things” is a bad argument, as everyone basically knows that who has read the book. “The treatment of female characters reveals significant issue X about other issue Y” is better.

    With ketchup and mustard, or whatever, it’s harder for them to develop this skill, as there really can’t be any stakes to the argument. I.e. if you’re entering into a discursive community, it’s a pretty dumb one to be talking about such an issue in the first place. No reasonable person – who’s not stoned – could really care what your answer is or how persuasively it’s formed.

  2. Sorry I guess I should have clarified that I oppose both the “personal” and the “random” models, per the post above. I have the same feelings about the former as the latter and for pretty much the same reasons.

  3. But isn’t that just an argument against having a freshman comp class at all?

    In my mind, the kinds of theses or questions that are going to be interesting will vary by field — that’s something that will need attention in basically every class. But if you’re going to have a class that’s supposed to teach writing and rhetoric as such

  4. Well, I think it’s important to teach classes early on that are primarily interested in writing rather than subject matter. I guess I have a hard time imagining what “purely teaching writing” would actually be, how it would work. I think you’re just shifting the subject matter toward things that no one really cares about. Definitely understand why you would think to do this, I just wonder if something else falls away when you do.

  5. Another thought: your examples are for literary analysis, which makes sense given your background, etc. — but there are a lot of cases where you are going to need simple expository writing skills, too. Like what’s your argumentative “thesis statement” for giving an account of photosynthesis? (“People give chlorophyll too much credit!”)

  6. I wonder if a middle ground would be to find an actual issue of dispute, but one that is so distant from their concerns that they couldn’t possibly have a position worked out on it. Fish subsidies in Iceland or something like that.

  7. Sorry x-posted. Yeah, I am thinking of humanities based comp. I’ve not experienced anything else. The science ones at the Ivy were sort of history / philosophy of science based (ethics and the like) while at State U, where I had a limited brush with comp (valiantly / subserviently filling in for a grad student whose class went wrong) it was still humanities centric even though, in that case, I was teaching people who indicated Physical Therapy as their probable major.

  8. Isn’t an element of good writing getting people to care, though? If they can write something halfway interesting on a stupid topic, then they’re well on their way.

    The way Shimer approaches the problem is by having one course each semester of the freshman year be a “designated writing course” with several writing assignments, at least one of which must be rewritten (all can be). The content is whatever Great Books we’re reading for the courses, which normally have a relatively more manageable reading list anyway. Then in the upper-level core courses there is one science course where they have to design and write up an experiment using a prism and one social science course that requires a research papers (the other upper-level courses also have writing assignments, obviously, but not ones that are specifically focused on developing particular writing skills). It’s not a perfect system — I’ve definitely gotten disappointing papers in the upper-level classes I taught my first semester — but at least it’s a system.

    But you can’t do anything like that in a school without a well-defined core curriculum, it seems to me. Maybe a nice middle ground would be broad disciplinary writing courses? “Writing in the humanities/social sciences/natural sciences/etc.” Like maybe you’d have to take at least two, and you’d be required to take the one that corresponds to whatever your major winds up being.

  9. That seems sensible. And I like the sound of the Shimer system. I went to one of those anarchic NE liberal arts colleges where they let me do basically nothing but what I wanted the entire time I was there. To my great gain I took lots of lit. But I’m still not sure whether the planets go around the sun or the other way around.

    But yeah, getting them to care and to write like they care. I just think you’re asking them for something paradoxical when you set up the ketchup / mustard thing. The appropriate answer, I suppose, would be: Actually, I don’t really care, and neither should anyone else. They’re just condiments!

  10. It seems to me that someone could just as easily object, “Who cares what the use of female characters in this novel means? It’s just a story.” The ketchup and mustard example is probably a particularly dumb one, but it seems that if we’re going to have an “empty” class like this, it’s better to fill it in with something that shows them there is something to analyze and discuss even in a seemingly unimportant topic and to get them to view such analysis as a fun activity — and I may be naive, but I think that a well-moderated discussion of a dumb question like that where everyone was playing at taking it seriously could be pretty humorous and enjoyable — is a worthwhile way to use that time. Similar to teach them, “Huh, when I dig into something, it can become interesting just because I’m learning about it.”

    That’s probably the naive part of my plan, though — it may presuppose that that kind of “learning as an end in itself” attitude is either already there or easily attained.

  11. Ha.

    Well, I know what you mean about the possible objections to literature as well. (One of the worst moments for an English teacher is when somebody – usually an arrogant freshman who didn’t get into the university of his choice) pulls that sort of stuff in a seminar. “I think the poem just means what it says – you guys are making something out of nothing here.” To an extent, when starting out, I guess one has to try to get them to take things a bit on faith. People care about this stuff, they take positions on it. I think EU fishing policy (or whatever) works better than that than mustard and ketchup * (or whatever) in that regard. Hopefully the students could make a leap of faith and believe that that sort of thing is actually something that people care about somewhere.

    * I couldn’t use your example over here because, bafflingly, they say “tomato ketchup” instead of “ketchup,” which drives me nuts and makes me, always, ask whether there’s another kind of ketchup on offer. As far as I can tell there hasn’t been for a couple of hundred years….

  12. There’s a course sequence at UIC that pairs classroom work with an apprenticeship doing writing tasks at local community-based non-profits. The Chicago Civic Leadership Certificate Program. It’s a series of four courses, one each semester freshman and sophomore years, where students get progressively more autonomy and control over their projects. They’re always writing for a very real audience, and are learning to write in multiple genres. It’s not learning academic writing per se, but it’s certainly learning writing.

  13. Yes, this would work.

    I taught English academic writing to German uni freshman (who either needed English as a subject because they wanted to become teachers or were majoring in English or American Studies) for several years, and we did something like this. One exercise I gave them, early on, was to take a thesis from a pop song — e.g., “If you like it then you’d better put a ring on it” — and write an argumentative paper defending or disagreeing with it.

    Another standard one I used, which was a class favorite: “Should the university get rid of all chairs?”

    We would also regularly take opinion pieces from NY Times and the like and then give them a prompt for an essay like “Is replacing teachers with computers a good idea?” and “Should all college freshman be given iPods?”

    At the next level, we would give them a longer essay (I used Nick Carr’s “Is Google Making us Stupid?” for example), and they would have to write a paper answering the question, “Is (author) persuasive?”

    We would, after that, go into research papers, where they could pick a specific topic under the umbrella of a theme (e.g. “technology’s effects on life today”) and on to literary analysis type papers.

    It was a three-semester course, and we had to teach other things, such as grammar and citation styles and logical fallacies, and the students obviously had the additional issue of working in their second (or sometimes third) language, but this worked very well. We completely avoided the kind of “creative writing” and personal essays that are standard in US intro comp courses.

  14. Technologies “affects” rather.

    Also, Adam, re: caring, in my experience students were quite willing to engage with the more silly and/or artificial topics. Most could really get into the argument about why the university should be chair-free, and would happily take the “crazy” side of the argument. They didn’t have any trouble recognizing that they were learning the form of an academic paper, and that making the content silly served to direct their focus more fully on the form.

  15. Adam,

    Stanley Fish advocated what I believe to be a similar method per “focus on the writing and not the topic” on his New York Times blog. He also had his students construct their own grammars, but that’s over the top for most students. These two points would treat the “writing and rhetoric as such” issue, though I am not advocating them.

    Per silly topics….

    Right now, I have several students in my Introduction to Ethics course who are writing an essay on the morality of My Little Pony or the Care Bears. Not taking the assignment seriously, but as a joke, has allowed them to write much better essays, as I require them to answer the basic questions (given in advance) that a morality should address and they pick up various theses from the historic theories covered in the course. I gave them this as an extra choice aside from the vanilla question.

    Apparently, we should understand both My Little Pony and the Care Bears to be virtue ethicists with a strong touch of moral authority as a source of moral knowledge…..

  16. Is the latke better than the hamentaschen? (Yes.) Is Helen to be blamed for the Trojan war? (No.)

    I agree that if your goal is to have a class that teaches writing and rhetoric as such, then trivial topics are at worst harmless and possibly beneficial, since the content is acknowledgedly trivial and you can focus on the form. The sort of things in literature classes that adsw/oproducts is talking about seems to be a different sort of problem altogether, one that’s at least somewhat domain-specific (you get similar things in philosophy classes, obviously, where the analogy to just recounting something about the book is recapitulating an argument or exchange—so-and-so argues that p, etc.). But you could still have a well written, persuasive essay that there are female characters in novel n and they do important things, or a poorly written, disorganized essay with the same general thrust.

    I admit that training junior rhetoricians in the arts of advocacy, regardless of topic, discomfits me a tiny little bit.

Comments are closed.