A Completely Personal Take on First Year Composition

I know the look on this kid's face.

Notice I did not say student. I did not say learner or co-learner. I did not say matriculated first-year participant. I certainly did not say client or customer.

This kid is 18 years old. Our college is in western Minnesota and the season has already turned cold. Three weeks ago, a blizzard swept through South Dakota leaving cattle dead in ravines and sloughs. This kid is cold. He or she is in a class we call Inquiry Written Communication. We're dealing with a research paper and I'm trying to explain MLA form for citing indirect quotes and paraphrases from single page web sites.

The look on this kid's face tells me he or she really wants to get this right. And the look on this kid's face tells me nothing, nothing at all, could be less important.

I admit I agree.

So much water has gone under the bridge. I started teaching first year composition in 1980, as a graduate student. And it seems that every year since then we - the collective insights and insanities of the profession - have complained that something is wrong, deeply wrong, with what we are trying to accomplish.

First year composition is not just a service class. Not just training for other classes with real content. Gotcha.

First year composition should encourage a love of learning, a sense of curiosity, a new and jaw-dropping wonder at the complexity of the world and the details that are available. Sure.

First year composition needs to introduce students to college level research. Right on.

First year composition needs to lay the foundation for transferable skills. We are judged by how our efforts are echoed, made manifest, in other classes. Whoa. This is where the trouble begins.

We labor with these truths:
• Our colleagues in other departments do not assign the undergraduate research paper nearly as often as in the past.
• Our colleagues in other departments do not want to review multiple drafts or consider writing a process.
• Our colleagues in other departments do not assign research papers that are more than five pages long.
• A cut and paste job of sources is often fine with them.
• They do not know how to effectively comment on writing.

Yes, there are exceptions. We have fine and wonderful colleagues in other departments who comb their hair and are not socially awkward. They enjoy writing, their own and their students'. But I just saw one of my own colleagues in the hallway. She's collecting research papers today from her first year students. Big, fat, hairy, foul-smelling papers--about 12 pages long before the works cited pages. "And they will never write another one in their college careers," I told her. Sadly, she agreed.

In my experience, most academics trained in Composition and Rhetoric are great at theory and can write a really pithy academic argument. In other words, they can't write worth a damn. As a result, we are teaching our students to hate writing. Show me an anthology of really good research papers. I'm not talking about the soul-numbing prose of any professional journal. Show me a collection of undergraduate research papers that's actually interesting to read. Yeah, I can't find one either.

I give my students The New Yorker, the Best American Essays/Travel/Science & Nature/Sports Writing books. I show them op-ed pieces from the New York Times and anywhere else I discover something good. Write like this, I say. Be this good. This informed. This curious and filled with wonder and insight. Be this clear with your prose. And when I say that, I can see the students spark. Full speed, I say. Let's go exploring.

I am not an unusual teacher. I am a writer who teaches writing. Give any of us half an hour with any class and we can teach the "skill" of writing. Don't write vacuous sentences filled with gauze. Be clear. Always, be clear. And once you know the skill, practice. Practice. Practice some more. And then practice. The recital, the show, is every day.

Right now--not just today but this very moment--we should stop thinking about first year composition, and especially the research paper, in terms of transferable skills. It's a skill they will never use. They should learn to write for their professions later. Instead, we should think in terms of helping the first year student tell a true story. A true story with deep background. A True story with ethical and moral weight.

Will the students all know MLA or APA or Chicago inside and out? God, I hope not. You can look that stuff up every time. But will this kid, this 18 year old who is just now beginning to see the universe is expanding faster than their ability to fill it want to go to the library to find out details and depth behind their curiosities? Will they learn to leap at the chance when someone says "Tell me a story"?

I believe they will.