The Futures of College Writing: Part II

29 August 2017 Written by   Doug Hesse

Last week’s post, “The Futures of College Writing: Part I,” summarized thoughtfully provocative ideas from three writing studies leaders. Linda Adler-Kassner explored the gap between complex disciplinary knowledges about writing and simplistic popular understandings, especially those shaped by data analytics. John Duffy called for teaching ethical argument and rhetoric in post-truth times. Eileen Schell called for paying attention to the communities in which we teach, the diversities of our students, and the situations of writing teachers. As you might imagine, their remarks that June afternoon in Denver stirred an energetic conversation. Representing that discussion with anything like full clarity would tax the blog. Instead, let me address three further questions.

If required first year composition (FYC) persists, what should be its focus? Our field’s history is strewn with dissolving and reinstating FYC. Fifty years ago, at the CCCC convention in Louisville, participants in the workshop on “New Ideas in Freshman Composition: Elimination, Reduction, Extension” included a study showing how required writing was disappearing or contracting at many schools. In the 1990s, Sharon Crowley, Bob Connors, and others explored doing away with FYC for reasons of ethics (we were exploiting teachers), efficacy (it wasn’t doing demonstrable good), and identity (composition studies would be consigned to backwater disciplinary status if it continued to have FYC as its avatar).

After all these years—and even with the increasingly robust status of WAC (writing across the curriculum) and WID (writing in the disciplines), the growth of writing majors and minors, and the realization of Composition Studies as a discipline—required FYC nevertheless persists. Even with strong, principled efforts like the WPA Outcomes Statement, the course remains hopelessly broadly defined. In fact, one might perversely say that the menu of options for FYC remains oppressively huge to some extent because of the Outcomes Statement—and I say this as a member of the team that produced its most recent revision. There are far too many outcomes and attendant pedagogical options than can be accommodated in one or two writing courses. In broad strokes, the question reduces to something like, “To what degree should FYC serve academic discourse, serve composition studies as a discipline, serve civic discourse, or serve some hazier landscape of the liberal arts?

The ends of academic discourse have achieved substantial gravitational force in recent years, largely under the umbrella of genre studies and the historical imperative to “get students ready” for further college writing. Despite that, I’m increasingly skeptical of the “getting ready for writing in other classes” rationale, something I believe ought to happen as an aspect of WAC and WID. I’m also somewhat reluctant to embrace one subspecies of academic FYC, writing about writing. Having students grapple with the complexities of writing from research, historical, practical, and theoretical viewpoints is an admirable goal; however, to the extent that an overt or implicit rationale is to recreate students in our own images as proto-rhet/comp scholars, I’m more comfortable with the goals of creating writers than with creating writing scholars.

More desirable, to my mind, are other options. The circumstances that John described bolster the case for FYC as foregrounding rhetoric for civic discourse. There’s a tension between promoting an idealized notion of how persuasion should work in the world vs. what is actually effective. By the latter standards, we might well teach the rhetoric of tweeting and meme-making, the coding of artificial bots. I’ll return to this issue. Still, though, if the lack of curricular time and space means tough choices, I’m more invested in teaching ethical writing for the civic sphere than I am in teaching the genre of the IMRAD report, which is to prioritize the latter, not devalue it.

Another option, FYC as a “liberal arts course,” refers to writing for personal and social development, the writing of exploration, definition, and connection to others. I’m thinking about the life writing of memoir, the exploratory writing of essays, the journalistic writing of observation and inquiry.  I’m thinking about writing that’s intended to render events, thoughts, and observations for readers who don’t yet recognize they wanted to know about them. This, of course, is the least salable orientation in a practical age in which education is deemed to serve pecuniary ends, ultimately.  When Linda talks about embodied writing and Eileen reminds us of location and language, I do wonder about the space we’ve accorded writing not as a student or as a worker or as a citizen but as a person constituted by all of the above and even more. Is there a future for this sort of writing as college writing? Is that future elective, the province of writing majors and minors, or is it something wider? As Eileen reminds me, these questions matter especially “in light of the way many use writing as a form of self-construction through social media and other venues.”

What will and should happen to essayistic literacy? For a couple decades, we’ve launched smart critiques of extended, connected prose as the privileged type of writing, certainly in the academy, but even in required writing courses. I would certainly never think it is the only literacy that matters for composition studies; our own writing program has foregrounded multimodality. But what is the place of essayistic literacy in college writing? In an age of popular discourse in which tl;dr prevails, are we just spitting into the wind to grant it space? I believe that some issues and ideas need the extended discourse of essayistic writing (not simply topic sentence/support but the exploratory essay). Those extended discourses might also include photographs or links or sound. But given all available genres of writing and communication, with their different affordances, just how should we allocate finite time and energy in our courses? Our approach heretofore has been additive, but we need to sort this out more systematically, given that the teaching space of first year writing is already overcrowded.

Who should teach writing classes? This is a different question, surely, than who does teach writing classes. And while it echoes the crucial complex of labor questions that Eileen raised, I want to focus on one element. I wonder what teachers really need to know to teach writing—as opposed, say, to be admitted as members to the guild of rhetoric and composition studies. I ask this dangerous question knowing that, for years, people didn’t/couldn’t really care about its answer. Teaching writing was sloughed off to the available labor pool of graduate assistants (whatever their interests), or adjuncts, with the occasional writing professor or, at two-year and liberal arts colleges, English professor who might or might not have training in the field. When the teaching of writing is devalued as rudimentary work of low status, and when research, theory, and history of the field are overlooked or dismissed, credentials don’t matter. All that has changed, of course, but the numbers problem of matching teaching bodies to student bodies still frequently requires that the expertise bar be set fairly low.

I’m chasing a subtler point about the nature of expertise that we do expect. The number of people receiving MAs and PhDs in rhetoric and composition is increasing. But what is the nature of this new credentialed expertise? At the doctoral level, there’s almost always a course or two in pedagogy, coupled with supervised teaching. But as with most disciplines, what’s being cultivated is more an identity as researcher in the field than an identity as teacher of writing. (Often cultivated, too, is an identity as writing program manager, but that’s another story.) We should ponder the effects of the identity of scholar versus the identity of writer. Yes, scholars are writers, especially in our field. But this is specific kind of writing, by scholars for other scholars. How many credentialed writing teachers actually do the kind of writing they might assign and teach to their students, especially arguments for popular audiences or for stakeholders outside the field? How many of us regularly produce op eds or policy briefs or magazine essays—let alone photo essays or videos? How many write for a wide range of audiences, expert to popular? I suspect the percentage is small, even though a lot of us are surely writing a ton. Frequently, one hears that writing teachers should be writers. But of what? And does it matter?

I raise this last, dangerous question because the futures of college writing will involve (one hopes) a professoriate increasingly constituted with particular professional orientations, career interests, and identities. The spectrum from people who study writing to people who do writing is not only continuous but also folded on itself. Scholars write. One challenge is recognizing how our individual and collective orientations toward writing—manifested in the kind of writing that we do ourselves—may complement or constrain the kinds of writing we teach, along with how we represent the act itself.

Introducing that June symposium, I noted that I’d played with its title, revising from “The Future” to “The Futures.” It’s hubris and folly to predict (or fret about) any single future for college writing. There are multiple. That’s true not only in the sense that multiple possible timelines are subject to how certain butterflies flap their wings in a climate ruled by chaos theory. It’s also the case that what college writing becomes emerges will occur discontinuously by college, sector, and circumstance. There is “college writing,” of course, but there’s also “college writing” at UC-Santa Barbara, at Notre Dame, at Syracuse, at The University of Denver—and at Red Rocks Community College and Illinois State University. But the fact of multiple potentials for multiple sites doesn’t obviate the value of and responsibility for imagining what those futures might best be.


Doug Hesse is founding executive director of writing and professor of English at the University of Denver. Currently he serves as past president of the National Council of Teachers of English; previously he’s been chair of CCCC and president of WPA. Hesse is author of over 65 essays and co-author of four books, including Creating Nonfiction, with Becky Bradway, and the Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers. He has presented over 130 readings and talks, more than 35 of them as keynote speaker. His scholarly interests are creative nonfiction, writing pedagogy, the organization of writing programs, and national literacy efforts.

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