Journey into History

Recent events have given me cause to dig into the Freshman English archives, which go back to the mid-1980s.  This is fascinating reading.  I’m serious here– there’s a real difference of style in how the Freshman English Program and the English Department communicated back then compared to now. Lots of long letters, long memos. Now, when we send out a memo with the weekly Digest, we fret that no one will read it if it’s longer than a couple paragraphs. In the past, Professor Thomas Recchio could not only send out a three-page letter about a proposed course change, he would receive multi-page letters from instructors in response! These longer communications are often in a different tone, more formal at times, but also more informal, more prone to dry humor.

An old syllabus of English First-Year Writing from the 1980sI don’t know who  Professor Compton Rees was, other than that he was apparently the Director of Freshman English in the late 1980s, after Hap Fairbanks (a venerable and consistent presence in these documents) and before Tom Recchio. I particularly enjoyed a January 27, 1989 memo of his about overenrollment in ENGL 105 and 109 (the predecessors to our modern 1010 and 1011), which were capped at 22 (“regrettably… beyond the national limit”), but suffering from the “fake drop” strategy, where students would pretend to drop a section, so their friend could add it, but never file the drop card so that the course ended up overenrolled.  Professor Rees attempts to offer strategies for countering the “fake drop,” one of which is, “Ask students to volunteer to drop the course. Hah.”  My favorite, though, is:

Tell your class that it is overenrolled and that it will have to be reduced. Read “The Lottery.” Choose lots and eliminate all those with black spots.

I like it.

One of the things one quickly learns is that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as the French say, “Ain’t nothin’ new under the sun.” In the minutes of the December 9, 1998 meeting of the English Department faculty, Professor Thomas Abbot is recorded as saying that “policy is now driving programs and that as Susan Steele and President Austin expand the undergraduate population to produce revenue, they are seeking ways to accommodate the greater number while containing costs.”  Now, that sounds familiar.

What also sounds familiar, though, are the values of our program. One of the documents I found was the agenda for an August 25, 1997 meeting that Tom held with all the instructors of Freshman English, where he declares

b. At no time in my memory has everyone who teaches in the program been in the same room together; thus I thought it important for us to get  a sense of how many of us really are involved in the program, how many of us, that is, have a common interest (whether that interest is of necessity or desire) in the quality of teaching throughout the program.

c. I would like to establish an annual meeting where we all would begin the year together.

And thus was born the Big Meeting– sixteen years ago!

Tom also articulates (in a parenthetical) what he sees as the core values of the Freshman English Program: “argumentation, documentation, and correctness.” If you were at Orientation this year, you will know that we had week-long throughlines of dialogic inquiry, risk, and precision, and I see echoes of these in Tom’s statement from 1997.  Inquiry is meant to point toward the production of new knowledge, which is expressed through argumentation, and its dialogic nature is of course expressed through documentation. Risk, which our Handbook defined as “to empower instructors and students to make active choices in their learning,” is also a key factor in how I (and, I think, Tom/the program) would define argumentation.  And correctness is part and parcel of that commitment to precision.

Many things have changed about this program over the past thirty-plus years, and there will always be more changes. These changes even happen to our core values: there’s a real focus on grammar in the documents from 1980s that has been left behind somewhere. However reading these documents has shown me that this English Department has long had a belief in the value of Freshman English, and there is a constant center of gravity to the program and what we do that has not and will not go away any time soon: a commitment to writing as a form of understanding, to new knowledge, to student learning, to students.