Composition’s Dirty Little Secret

In my experience with developmental composition classes, most of the teachers and most of the students involved are pretty frustrated. Many of the problems stem from the fact that students were not well prepared for academic writing much earlier in their learning careers, either in underfunded and badly mismanaged American schools or in non-English learning environments (naturally enough). Beyond that, sometimes the lack of progress seems inexplicable. I suspect, though, that a great deal of it comes from a fundamental error in how composition is taught.

Here’s an interesting essay: “The Term Paper Artist,” by Nick Mamatas. Mamatas is a writer who worked for several years as a term-paper ghostwriter (he notes that it’s technically legal, but fails to mention that it’s undoubtedly cause for expulsion or a grade of F at almost any university). Go ahead and read it if you want–I’m about to spoil the punchline, which is what I consider to be the dirty little secret of American college composition courses. Mamatas writes:

I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It’s because students have never read term papers.

Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see … Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” … That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.

YES. This is one of the reasons I have very little interest in teaching developmental or standard composition/college English. Generally, instructors present students with writing models taken from either popular or classic essays, usually either literary or journalistic in nature. These essays are often well written and sometimes even appeal to students. These essays almost never resemble the college in-class essays, take-home essays, term papers, or research papers that students are expected to write. In some classes students don’t even see essays at all, only pieces of literature provided as “prompts.” What on earth are they supposed to do? Essays may have become second nature to teachers, but they’re really quite artificial constructions. Students can’t produce them out of whole cloth.

We know that students need lots of models in order to produce output that resembles the models. We know students need to read lots of well-written English in order to produce well-structured English. Why on earth do we give them literary/journalistic input and expect academic output? Students would be a lot better off reading exemplary student essays than reading Pulitzer Prize winners.

There seems to be massive resistance to changing this approach. To be fair, there are a handful of composition textbooks out there that include student essays, but they seem to be less popular, or if they’re used, the teachers don’t emphasize the student essays. I’m not sure why–I suspect a misguided belief in the inherently enlightening nature of Great Writing, which I think is nonsense, or perhaps the longings of literature teachers who would really rather not be teaching developmental courses at all. (I can’t blame them, but it just means we really need more full-time specialists and TESOL professionals.) Whatever the reason is, I think composition teachers need to take a good hard look at how many essay and full-length term paper models they are providing to their students. If the answer is “none” or even “less than half of the course readings,” it’s probably time to reconsider just what is being taught.

(Of course, if academic writing bears little resemblance to any writing found outside of academia, there’s another question to be asked–why invent a genre and enforce its rules and train people in it if it only exists during the short time period of college life? But let’s not open that can of worms right now.)





7 responses to “Composition’s Dirty Little Secret”

  1. syllepsis Avatar

    I can’t speak for other Writing Studies departments at other universities, but at my school model essays are heavily emphasized as part of the curriculum. All of our writing textbooks for the introductory courses have sample student essays included, and most of us either write model essays for our students or show them sterling examples of student work that we’ve gotten permission to use. For our 101 course, writing in different genres is emphasized and the school adopted a customized reader full of example essays to complement each unit.

  2. Clarissa Avatar

    Hi, syllepsis! That’s excellent. I really think that your university is ahead of the curve. That shouldn’t be the case, but I’m afraid it’s true. (Then again, maybe California’s just behind the times–everything here is so underfunded.) Either way, I’m glad to hear about your program. Do the students get a chance to look at a longer term paper before they have to write one, by the way, or is that left to later classes?

  3. syllepsis Avatar

    I don’t think it’s any accident that our curriculum has been designed by pretty well-regarded Rhetoric and Composition scholars.

    When I was a wee undergrad at a different school, I was exposed to the Reluctant Literature Professor composition course design, and I think I learned a lot about what not to do.

    For our introductory writing course, they complete four short 3-5 paper, and then turn in a portfolio of revised essays along with a reflective introduction that evaluates their skills as a writer and how they’ve developed. Only one of those papers is research oriented, a synthesis essay. In English 102, they write longer papers more focused on controversial social and academic issues, with the final requirement being an 8-10 page research paper. While 101 has a common syllabus, the instructors have more flexibility in 102 and I’m not sure everyone adopts modeling as heavily as a teaching technique. I always spent a class session or two discussing sample essays before I had my students do peer reviews.

  4. syllepsis Avatar

    As an addendum, I’ve been speculating on why using models isn’t more widely practiced. Part of it might be fear that the students will rely too heavily on it, leading to plagiarism issues. But I think the primary factor is the time and effort it takes to either write sample papers that fit your prompts or track down students who’ve written good papers to get their permission to use them as examples.

    I think having a specialized reader with a variety of essays that exemplify the genre that they’re working with is ideal, but that takes a lot of institutional support.

  5. Clarissa Avatar

    Yes, I think inertia and the fact that it’s easier to do it the old way has a lot to do with it. That’s not necessarily laziness, either; time, money, and energy are in really short supply at a lot of institutions. I have one composition textbook here somewhere that includes a lot of student writing. I’ll review it on the blog if I ever find it again…

  6. chico Avatar

    Hi, I’m a undergrad in Japan, majoring in English literature. Writing a graduate thesis is required for all the students, however, we don’t even have the “writing course”. Since 8 times of guidances is required to take in oder to earn credit, I took the first one the other day and the teacher handed me some printed papers which explained how to decide my thesis, how to write it as well as some of “good” examples. I was totally at a loss where to start but I can’t afford to postpone to deal with it, either.
    I’m also into Todoku and through emmie’s blog, I found this incredibly educational blog of yours. This dirty secret of composition is my life saver. I’m not exaggerating.
    Perhaps it might be more understandable if I explain my circumstances. I’m a single mum, having two part-time jobs, trying to earn teaching certificate in Japan through corresponding course. Since i have a incredibly understanding and supportive daughter and family, my life hasn’t been stressful, but it is not so sweet, either since I hardly get any advice from anyone for my study. Writing research papers have been quite struggling and I often have to revise them a few times. Which has been time-consuming and extremely tough for a part-time student like me. The most struggling part has been the fact that only I can depend on are textbooks I get from the uni. and references I find in a local library. Sometimes I can take lectures at the uni. and get some advices from teachers but not as often as I need. I’ve been feeling like I’m trapped in a dead end but the tip for writing gave me such a eye-opening tip for this lonely learner. Since I can read heaps of resourceful articles on the net, I’ll read them as much as possible and learn from them as well. This gets too long to thank you but i hope you’ll forgive me for I’m overjoyed to read your brilliant blog. Thanks again.

  7. Clarissa Avatar

    Hi, chico! Aw, you’re too kind! I understand how you feel about your thesis because I’m in a kind of similar situation with my second master’s thesis. :/ Send me an e-mail if you want to talk more sometime — clarissa (*at*)

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