Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's the Point of Freshman Writing?

This post is in response to a question asked on the Phi Beta Cons blog.

I am sorry that you don't see the point of courses like Freshman Writing. But you've never met my students. You've never met the students who come to the non-selective institutions of higher education in this country, in other words, the majority of them. And you most definitely have not gone through the K-12 system that currently values standardized test scores over real writing skills. Look at the statistics. The majority of students are not prepared for college work. They need remediation (look at California and New York's numbers). Well then, give them remediation, you say. After one semester, have these students really overcome 12 years of educational deficiency?

And, really, even those who don't need remediation. Are they really that far ahead of their peers in remedial or developmental courses? Are they ready to face the demands of a college degree, the level of writing that will be required of them? Not really, given the tyranny of the standardized test and the standardized essay. They do the five-paragraph essay over and over again. And then they are expected to succeed in a college humanities class?  

These are not students who have parents who have paid for academic coaches, SAT tutors, and admissions councilors. These are often students who are the first in their family to finish high school, let alone attend college. They are not the best and the brightest. They are often not the ambitious and highly motivated. But they are all motivated by the same goal: to build a better life for themselves. And the way to do that, they have been told repeatedly, is to go to college. 

It is the end of the semester, and I am saddened by the number of students who have written to me that I am the first teacher they have had who has given a crap about them, their writing, and their education. I am the first teacher who has tried to explain to them how to properly use a comma or what a sentence fragment is. That they learned more in my 15-week class than four years of high school. That they never believed that they could write until they came into my class. I have taught at three different public universities in three different states. I received the same kinds of comments from the majority of my students at all three.

As for the class refer to at UNC, I think you need to take any student's description of a class with a grain of salt. It actually sounds like the instructor tried to engage with the students in a way that was relevant to where the future of humanities is going (whether we like it or not): the digital humanities. Also, instead of droning on and on and on in a boring lecture format, the instructor invited the students to step outside the classroom and explore educational events on campus. Freshmen especially need to know what resources are available to them on campus, whether they think they are going to be interested or not. To then ask students to work together and shape their own learning experience? The nerve, forcing the students to be active, independent learners. I hope she didn't trip over her sense of superiority while she overlooked an opportunity to engage in some creative and critical thinking, something that is no longer valued in high school.

I am not absolving the instructor for not giving the course as advertised and failing to provide more guidance to the student in question (did she even ask, however?). But notice how I avoid talking about the instructor as a professor; that is because it was made clear that the instructor of the course was a PhD student. This is one of the biggest problems with how Freshman Writing is taught in many institutions, both selective and non-selective. Professors are too busy with their research, graduate students, and upper-level courses to teach Freshman Writing, so instead it is passed off to underprepared graduate students or over-worked adjuncts (often, but not always, they are one and the same). If professors aren't willing to take the courses seriously enough to teach them (even though it was they who demanded that the courses be offered because, presumably, they noticed that students couldn't write well enough), then how seriously will a graduate student take them, when their sole goal is to emulate their professors? 

Perhaps Freshman Writing is a waste of some students' time, but for the majority, it is a necessity to make up for years of standardized testing and sub-standard teaching. As for poor teachers of Freshman Writing or poor course/assignment design, blame a system that doesn't prioritize teaching. There are many, many of us out there who do try to teach it well, and most of us are off the tenure-track. Reading your post and the student's post remind me of how thankless and disrespected a task I chose to take on. Reading many of my students' thanks, I am reminded of why I love what I do.

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