What are we teaching in freshman comp again?

A question for me
As a follow up to the question from this post the author sent me part of a response from the professor at a local university. I was asked not to reprint it here, so I won’t. Basically the local professor said modes and literary analysis are out and genres related to activity-systems are in.

A question for readers
I answered based on what I know. Am I correct? Or has my circle of influence led me astray? Comments anyone?

Here is what I wrote her.

Academia is not as monolithic as it seems that it ought to be, since we are all attending conferences together. Actually even our conferences are self-perpetuating circles of influence. If you are all about literature and theory you go to MLA, if you are all about composition you go to 4C’s, if you are a community college you go to TYCA.

I teach at both a community college and a small liberal arts college. I have also examined what the large universities in our city are teaching. So I can speak pretty expansively for the circle of academia in Houston. I would say that it probably translates fairly well across colleges until you get to Tier 1 research schools. These are the huge name schools like UC Berkeley, Harvard, etc.

First, the modes may be “so 80s” but they are also still very much in fashion, not just among English composition faculty. Essay exams from other disciplines rely on the modes and, therefore, even if the freshman composition class does not, their usefulness is clear.

Second, in my experience freshman composition is rarely genre-contextualized. I would say other composition courses are, in fact, strongly leaning that way. We offer not only technical writing and business writing (junior level courses) but also writing in the hard sciences and writing in the behavioral sciences (sophomore classes) at the liberal arts college. These types of courses are becoming more ubiquitous.

What is far more common, I have found, in freshman composition is teaching a topic of interest. A teacher of freshman comp at Purdue in 2007 taught on “Time Travel and Paradox.” The teacher chose that as the organizing principle of the class. Rollins College in Florida also organizes around topics of interest, including food. Abilene Christian in Texas had a freshman composition course organized around the study of vampires.

These courses still require writing, including the research paper, but their approach is a bit different. Instead of reading standard texts, for example, at Rollins they read food critics’ reviews in the newspaper and recipes. Food critics’ reviews are persuasive essays, often compare and contrast. Recipes are process writing. So, even when the mode being read is not the “main” point, the mode is still at issue. Of course, time travel doesn’t exist, so much of the writing being read at Purdue is science fiction, with some discussions from Einstein thrown in. There aren’t any vampires writing, so ACU is reading about vampires, not genre-contextualizing for an audience of vampires.

Even when the teachers are instructing from a unique emphasis, however, the courses are teaching writing and usually this is writing in different modes. They may be discussing a more specific audience, more specific genre and tropes, but they are still writing in the same modes.

About literature… Second semester freshman composition is still usually literature. The reason for that is that most teachers of English are literature teachers. If they must teach composition, they want it to be about literature. That generally holds true at Purdue, Rollins, and ACU, as well as here in Houston. So literary analysis is still useful and necessary. In addition, many, though not all, colleges still require sophomore English, which is still mostly literature. A student could take writing for the hard sciences and writing for the behavioral sciences and have six hours of sophomore literature that counts at most schools, but most students not in those fields will not do that. Writing is even scarier than literature for most students.

So, I would say to some extent what the professor said is accurate and certainly it would be very accurate for his/her university. If most of your students are going to be attending there, then looking at that is more important than what is being done across the board. (Which you can’t really know anyway because we have so many colleges in the US.)

However, his/her dismissal of literary analyses and genres is probably based on what is happening at the local university and attending conferences in which what is happening at the local university is being supported. So, for instance, he’d go to conferences where theories of and pedagogical approaches to genre-contextualizing hold sway.

How will you teach your senior class professional contextualization when they don’t even have a strong idea of what professions they will enter? I don’t think you can. I would say that you should concentrate on teaching them to write well, whatever you choose to teach them to write about, and they will be well served.

One thought on “What are we teaching in freshman comp again?”

  1. Thank you. You basically just confirmed what my thoughts were on the matter. I guess what surprised me most was the comment about mode writing being gone since the 80s. (I was a freshman in college in the early 90s and did mode writing.) I still have students coming to me for help after graduation. They are primarily doing “mode writing” and/or literary analysis. You are so kind to take the time to respond to me and my questions. I appreciate it greatly. It speaks volumes about your professionalism.

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