A History of Freshman Composition

I studied under Jim Berlin and he would not agree with much that was written here, both in terms of history and in terms of whether it was good or bad. I found the article startling (freshman comp began as a remedial course?) and interesting (classes did that?).

Freshman Comp, Then and Now says:

Over the almost four decades that I’ve been a college English professor, I have seen many changes, some good and many bad. One of the worst changes is the transformation of the freshman composition course.

I was not teaching college (or anything else) in the 70s, but I taught as he did when I first started in the mid-80s. You might be surprised by how well it worked.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences. The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper. It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

If it worked, why did I quit? Because teaching 100+ students who are writing a paper a week is totally consuming and, though I hate to admit it, probably only achievable by the young.

English departments in colleges and universities were, therefore, assigned the task of raising students to a level of reading and writing adequate for serious academic work. They tried to accomplish that by means of an essentially remedial course, freshman composition.

This troubles me even more since now freshman comp is ubiquitous and the remedial work is far more basic. It says a lot about the educational system of the United States, and not much that is good, either.

There is a lot in the article that makes it worth reading.

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