Missing Freshman Comp

Have you hugged your college’s freshman writing course today? (Not the students, not the teachers—we don’t want disciplinary hearings. The course.) Like most who have worked in English departments, I was rarely excited to be assigned freshman rhetoric (as it was called where I started). The essay-grading was back-breaking and social-life-destroying, to say nothing of its effects on mental health. But, boy, do I miss having ol’ frosh comp around.

I deserted first-year composition when I moved to England. I won’t claim that British students are worse writers than American ones; I have read plenty of wonderful and horrible student writing in both countries. But the explicitness (and compulsoriness) of American first-year writing courses means that academics and students end up with a common vocabulary for discussing essay structure and the processes of essay-writing, as well as some common assumptions about what good writing practice is. The courses send the message that we think that at least some writing skills are teachable and that there are some generic principles of good academic writing—not just the things that you have to do to make Professor A happy.

My students here at the University of Sussex major in English language or linguistics, so they have learned to describe texts in certain ways. But they don’t often get the opportunity to discuss how an essay is structured from the writer’s perspective. Since they have been groomed for the university-entrance A-level exams, it’s not all that surprising that they believe that essay-writing begins with a question someone else has posed. They call this question a title, and the merging of exam questions and essay titles under a single term obscures the fact that they are different exercises. This difference is still obscure at university level. Teaching faculty often assign or offer essay titles, so that students still do not have to determine for themselves what an interesting topic or answerable question is. When students do get to devise their own topics, the approval mechanism is a title form—again encouraging the view that essays follow from titles, rather than titles following from essays. The titles they propose often follow the exam model they know best, like:

Tomasello et al. (2005:690) say that “saying that only humans have    language is like saying that only humans build skyscrapers.” Discuss.
Explain Chomsky’s notion of the poverty of the stimulus.

When I ask whether they’ve ever read a book or article with a title like that, they look at me as if I came from Mars.

Now, I’m grumpy by nature and I’ve been in England a long time, so I thought I’d better ask five more recent transplants from the U.S. system (one English, four American; all now teaching in four highly ranked British universities) whether they missed freshman comp. I can conclude from their responses that either (a) freshman comp does make a difference to academics’ experience of teaching or (b) grumpy people like me have grumpy, like-minded friends. I’m going with (a). My peers complain that their students don’t understand how to present and defend an argument in an essay and that their paragraphs have no coherent structure. My head is now filled with psychic transmissions from the future: American readers are saying: “So do my students! This isn’t a national difference!” And of course, you’re right; these are things that often go wrong in student writing. But my fellow transplants and I have found that we can’t react to these problems in the same way as we would have in the United States. A psychologist friend reads pages-long paragraphs and wants to ask “Where is the topic sentence?” But in order to do so, she would first have to give a lesson about what a topic sentence is—not easily done in the margin of an essay. The same goes for terms like thesis statement, audience, and argument.

The recently transplanted friends who teach psychology and engineering (including one in an Oxbridge college) had particularly strong views about writing at American versus British universities. In their subjects, students don’t get the chance to explicitly consider others’ writing, so they don’t have the back-door access to writing skills that my students (potentially) have. Since the first course I taught on my own was “Rhetoric for Engineers,” it was good to discover that someone misses courses like that.

Institutional resources for university-level writing are plentiful for nonnative speakers of English at British universities, and they often highlight ways in which British academic culture differs from others. But academic culture is no one’s native culture, and the support for native speakers is muddled. Departments try to cover the material in student handbooks—but I don’t blame the students for not reading them. One handbook I met had 19 pages on punctuation and not a single word on the purpose or audience of an academic essay. Face-to-face support for native English speakers is optional and focused on trouble-shooting, but because many of the staff didn’t go through freshman composition themselves, they don’t always know where to begin. More and more, we are recognizing that we need to make the teaching of writing more explicit and finding ways to adapt to those needs, but fitting such teaching into  England’s three-year bachelor’s degree brings its own challenges.

So, please ask yourself: Do you take your freshman writing course for granted? Would you miss it if it went away? And if you don’t want it any more, can I have it?

Lynne Murphy is a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Sussex. Her blog, Separated by a Common Language, describes differences in British and American English from an American linguist’s perspective. Ben Yagoda is on vacation and returns next week.

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