Should First-Year Writing Be Academic Writing Only?

Every August, when I introduce the UConn’s First-Year Writing course to new instructors, I present the course—“the pedagogy”—as a fairly coherent set of approaches and practices coming out of a particular tradition, which we do our best to engage with, revise, and renew each year. I encourage new instructors, who may be best positioned to notice weaknesses or limitations, to suggest potential innovations or mark points of difference from what they expected or have experienced in other programs. I take seriously the adage that teaching is a kind of research. And, although I will occasionally joke that “this is a teaching hospital” and therefore a place where mistakes can happen, I see good teaching as inseparable from experiment.

This year, in our seminar for these new instructors, we are reading selections from First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice (Parlor Press, 2014). Each chapter features a composition theorist working through a few key issues in teaching FYC (or FYW) and then offering a sample syllabus. Most of these chapters describe courses that are quite different from the UConn courses, and my hope is that encounters with these alternatives will stimulate further experiment and help us resist replicating the UConn ideology merely out of habit or familiarity. We’ll see how that goes.

Doug Hesse’s chapter and sample syllabus is especially interesting to me in its challenge to our almost relentless focus on academic writing. His course, which places academic writing alongside three other domains of writing (civic, vocational, and aesthetic), resists prioritizing the writing students do within academic modes and even pushes back against a definition of composition that would leave it “fussily constrained” as just writing (51). His course stresses diversity of engagements (through a long series of related assignments) and attention to audience and contexts for writing, including the affordances of various media and publication venues. What stands out for me is Hesse’s reluctance to tie the course to a specific academic purpose.

[W]hile I’m confident that the strategies they will practice in this course will inform their writing in other classes, I have not devised this course as a “service” course for the academy. Rather, I hope it stands as a service course for writers, connecting them to wider possibilities for texts and text-making. (65)

I’m intrigued but not fully persuaded by Hesse’s step back from academic work here. In presenting a choice between serving the students and serving the academy, he makes it clear that he sides with students. But in an important way, I think he misrepresents what is in question when we define the first-year course as a course in academic writing (as we do at UConn).

In his presentation of research, we get a glimpse of this oversight. He mentions four ways students might be said to engage with research. Reading, described here as “finding and synthesizing published texts,” is counterposed with “real research,” which includes “the empirical work of systematically collecting data,” something he calls “lived experience” (memoir, autobiography, etc.), and what he calls “created experience” (engaging with the world in a journalistic or ethnographic mode) (53-54).

By reducing reading to a somewhat unreal form of research, a familiar component in the “dummy runs” students have been assigned in previous courses, he reinforces the gap between students and academic writing instead of helping to close it. His excitement about data collection as more real to students than reading indicates a willingness to maintain the stable dichotomy he had introduced earlier of analyzing texts and producing them. He seems to be saying that academic work for undergraduates is either an analytical and fairly passive process of reshuffling the deck of known statements and formulations or a more active, almost physical, search for data or captured “experience.”

Our course, at its best, complicates this separation by considering reading as itself experience, not someone else’s content to be analyzed but a way of figuring the world that might be taken up and put to use in some new way. When FYC/FYW courses present academic work as something happening somewhere else (“in” the academy) or as largely factual, informational material, they sacrifice too much. Within UConn’s FYW courses, we try to see a student essay not as a catalogue or response but as the interanimation and testing of concepts and vocabulary circulating around a question or topic. In perhaps high-flown (but well meaning) terms, we ask that students see their work not as simulacra of academic discourse but as genuine engagements with a style of thought (characterized by experiment and testing) that defines the academic domain. That is, their academic writing in this course is real academic writing in that it extends the territory of a given subject.

I understand Hesse’s hesitation with an exclusively academic focus in FYW, and, undoubtedly, several of his suggestions can help us envision ways to resist the seeming austerity of our version of the course. I am at least partially persuaded that the wider definition of writing that his course offers to students can be more inviting to them, and I agree that we need to give more attention to audience in our courses (who is this text designed for?) and to spend more time with images. But I see no reason why we cannot do so under the auspices of academic work. There’s an argument that needs to be made here about the genre of the student essay and its seeming disinclination to take on the exact qualities of published work in any discipline. FYC/FYW courses are under fire for not, in this way, serving the disciplines as well as they might. But as I’ve tried to make clear here, the work of the academy flows in more than one direction. If our course is a contested site that opens up questions about what is at stake when take on academic styles of thought, so much the better.

In my next post, I will follow up on this last cryptic suggestion by looking at what student writing is if it is not an imitation of published academic work.