The Arizona Desert Lamp

White Paper: Undergraduate Writing

Posted in UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on 19 October 2008

This one will be a bit long, if only because it is (a) an important issue and (b) because I find the thrust of the paper incorrect. First though, a three sentence summary: eliminate the current English composition program, and move composition courses into the various colleges. Greater focus would be put on specialized writing as it pertains to a student’s major. Class sizes would be increased to 60 students, with one faculty instructor and one TA.

Suffice to say, I disagree rather strongly with this proposal. Take the first bullet point in the section “Statement of the Problem”:

The first year English composition course sequence is not producing students who
are prepared for writing in the discipline.  In fact, for some disciplines (science,
business), students report that they have to unlearn recommendations made in
English composition that are inappropriate for writing in the discipline.

This reminds me of a friend who was interning at Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research (Luntz as in Frank Luntz, the pollster regularly featured on cable and the one behind the (in)famous “squiggle lines“). For his job, he said, he had to write completely differently than he had grown accustomed to, writing with extremely short sentences, with important words in ALL CAPS. This, he said, was known as Luntzian.

Does this mean that his English education had failed him? Perhaps, but not as much as Luntzian has failed the English language. People can adapt as they must to fit their employers’ whims, but this doesn’t mean that basic principles of English should be tossed by the wayside.

This white paper puts the cart way ahead of the horse. Worrying about discipline-specific writing before worrying about basic principles of grammar defeats the purpose. Worrying about how to format a business memo before learning how to compose a coherent sentence makes the former irrelevant. This is the point of freshman English.

To be fair, the paper addresses this in their solution:

The entry level course would provide instruction in reading the primary literature as well as producing critical summaries of it.  The first semester introductory writing instruction would concentrate less on the content of what is produced than on the form, with grading linked specifically to the organization of information, use of grammatical sentences, accurate word choices, spelling, and punctuation.  The second semester would focus equally on the form and content of writing.

Yet there’s a reason they include composition under “General Education” requirements. For pre-professional students, this may be the last time that they are exposed to any kind of literature, a sobering thought for anyone concerned with the humanities or Western civilization as a whole. Freshman English classes are among the most diverse classes that a UA student will ever take, and that is a good thing. Part of the University’s mission entails providing students with a wider education, not simply putting kids on a professional track.
Furthermore, focusing on content shifts the focus away from the writing itself. One of the best parts of freshman English is that is forces you to focus almost entirely on the writing itself, a devotion which will almost never be achieved afterwards. Yet when you throw technical physics articles in there, it distracts from the main goal of improving writing.

The better solution is a one-unit class, specifically geared towards writing within the discipline. This is already a requirement for an economics major, in ECON 479. Unless my impressions are mistaken, Eller has a similar program for business writing. It wouldn’t be that hard for Chemistry, Engineering et al to emulate this approach. By keeping this a separate requirement, it also avoids the problem with the proposed solution of students making mid-career switches from, say, Engineering to Classics.

As far as budgetary issues go, another quick proposal I would add to help reduce the class size would be to allow students to test into ENG 109H, a one semester version of freshman English. Right now, the only students who can take the class are those who got a 4 or a 5 on their AP English test. Expanding this program ever so slightly to those qualified could help to remove a few kids from the 103/104 track.

—–

Two other issues I couldn’t quite fit in above:

1. Reduction in page length requirements.

The change would be from 10 pages of writing with at least one opportunity to revise work to a minimum of 5 pages of non-exam writing, with multiple writing assignments required and the opportunity to revise a majority of the writing assignments.  This would give instructors of gen-ed classes the flexibility to assign shorter assignments that provide several benefits over the 10 page requirement, which is frequently assigned as a single paper.  For example, they could give two one-page assignments and a three page assignment with the opportunity to revise each.

Shorter assignments allow a more concentrated focus on a single writing goal
(integrating knowledge, writing organization, production of grammatical
sentences, etc.).

Five pages? FIVE PAGES? Most high schools worth their subsidies assign five-page papers . The fact of the matter is that, given instructor feedback, the more one writes, the more that person’s writing improves. If this were a debate between ten and twenty pages, it would be a reasonable contention. But there’s no reason you can’t have effective revision periods with ten pages.

2. Increase in class sizes

Huh?

We propose an average class size of 60 with one faculty instructor and one TA per class. This will require 8 faculty instructors (assuming at teaching load of 8 classes per year per instructor) and 30 graduate TAs (assuming each TA teaches one course in the fall and in the spring).  The justification for only one TA is that full-time instructors would need less TA support because they are not engaged in research or scholarship activities.  It is also important to acknowledge that the TAs role would be to support lecturers rather than provide the majority of instruction as they do now.

This defeats the purpose of the page-length reduction. If a Professor A is grading thirty students with ten pages per student, and Professor B is grading sixty students with five pages per student, then they are providing exactly the same amount of analysis. The only people who are hurt here are the students, who are being required to write less and thus not improving their writing as much as they should. Furthermore, that professor is less likely to have personal contact with his students, a further obstacle to improving that student’s writing.

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  1. […] White Paper: Undergraduate Writing This white paper puts the cart way ahead of the horse. Worrying about discipline-specific writing before worrying about basic principles of grammar defeats the purpose. Worrying about how to format a business memo before learning how to … […]

  2. […] … to become stable, so the real point of the list is to provide a little sunshine when I gaze upon it. My usual format is title, designer, year designed/issued, when and where I bought it, colorway. For example, I’ll give you the first scarf I purchased: Daimyo Princes du Soleil Levant Francoise Faconnet … White Paper: Undergraduate Writing […]

  3. […] this is what we can expect from “more-specified” English requirements, then this offers all the more reason to fight against such a proposal. Fortunately, the paper goes […]


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