Revolution Lullabye

September 10, 2006

The Punishment of Freshman Composition

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 3:27 am

After reading the three articles, I was instantly struck at the irony of the freshman composition debate: it was conceived as a punishment for students who failed the Harvard entrance exam and, in the next 120 years, it was regarded as a punishment by the unfortunate, overworked instructors who had to teach it year after year, semester after semester. (Crowley 72) Why, then, would I choose it to be my life-long profession? I have several answers swimming in my head for that one. I don’t see it as punishment. Hopefully, my students don’t see it as a punishment. It has the possibility of so much more than the drilling of correct usage or even instructing of persuasive organization. It can be a vehicle in which to introduce students to the responsibilities they have as the educated elite to be active, engaged citizens. I truly believe that commitment to learning and service.

I was impressed by Collin’s notetaking system, so I’ll try it here:

Robert Connors. “Overwork and Underpay: Labor and Status of Composition Teachers since 1880.” _Rhetoric Review 9.1 (1990): 108-25. Rpt in Selected Essays of Robert J. Connors. Ed. Lisa Ede and Andrea J. Lunsford. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2003.

Composition, unlike literature or really any other academic discipline, has historically required intense individual contact between students and instructors, resulting in perpetually overworked instructors, and the huge workload and low status of the job has made it an “untouchable” field staffed primarily by women and young PhDs.


1. Co-education helped transform the study of rhetoric from the public sphere (speaking) to the private sphere (writing).

2. The number of students flocking to the universities both democraticized them and created this composition mess. It’s interesting that the problems cited in the title of this essay – overwork and underpay – are a direct consequence of opening higher education up to the middle class and, later, “the masses.”

3. Women were attracted to the field because of the close, nuturing contact with students.
1. Is the teaching of composition really that much more time consuming than other disciplines? I’d like to know what other fields say.

2. Why was the field created if nobody liked it? Was it a grassroots movement from the overworked, underpaid instructor class? Who were the compositionists and rhetoritians when everyone wanted to escape composition and teach literature?

Good Quotes

“Rhetoric has changed in a hundred years from an academic desideratum to a grim apprenticeship.” (181)

“While teachers in other fields were dealing successfully with the larger numbers in their classes by evolving techniques of discussion and lecture, composition teachers were tied to the reading of thousands of themes.” (188)

“Composition teaching and literary teaching are not comparable in their demands on a teacher. This is hard to talk about, given the way our departments function.” (195)

Top Five

Baldwin, C.S. “The Value of the Office-Hour in the Teaching of Rhetoric.” Educational Review 8 (1894): 290-93

Hill, Adam S. “An Answer to the Cry for More English.” Twenty Years of School and College English. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1896.

Hopkins, Edwin M. “The Labor and Cost of Composition Teaching: The Present Conditions.” Proceedings of the NEA. 1912. 747-51.

Campbell, Oscar James. “The Failure of Freshman English.” English Journal 28 (1939): 177-85.

Stewart, Charles A. “Appointment and Promotion of College Instructors.” Educational Review 44 (1912): 249-66

Crowley, Sharon. “The Invention of Freshman English” (pp. 46-78) “Terms of Employment” pp. 118-131

Freshman English was constructed as a punishment for those students who failed the written entrance exam at Harvard and regarded by its instructors as a drudgery: a course that did not apply to their research and that regelated them to the underclass of their departments.


1. The German university system prized research (the creation of knowledge) over pedagogy. This separation plagues composition today. It is why we feel like we need to legitimize ourselves, because truthfully under that model, we don’t belong at the university.

2. The roots of freshman composition in the classical college curriculum as rhetoric. It was redefined with the entrance exam requirement.

3. Most colleges do not require an exit exam – so we want them to just go through the motions of the course, be taught “skills,” but do we know what it looks like when a student masters them? And can they possibly be mastered in a semester? If not, what’s the point of the freshman course?

4. I like her claim that English departments owe their existence to freshman composition – and their funding as well. 🙂

1. I don’t think that instructors today are “squeamish” about imparting their views to students about what a proper, upstanding citizen should think and care about. Isn’t that an underlying goal of the diversity intiative at SU, in a way?

2. Crowley seems to argue that teaching a standard, correct version of English is insulting to students and against the democratic turn in the history of the university. But don’t students want to learn how to read and write in the standard format, so that they can get good, high paying jobs in society after school is over? Isn’t it still true that a man is known by the English he keeps?

3. I disagree with Crowley’s ending statement in “The Invention of Freshman English.” You can have a freshman English course that allows for students to become aware citizens who want to change the world. I believe that that is a possibility within the realm of traditional rhetoric. The course needs to be reconcieved, not thrown out. It’s an amazing opportunity – you see every entering student at the university. Imagine the possibilities with that!

4. I like teaching. I like that being part of my identity. I would hate to be a researcher and a researcher only. That’s why I got into composition – for the love of the teaching and the opportunities I saw through that.

Good Quotes

“But the teachers of other subjects did not need to justify their fields of study at the university level, and so they had no need to establish entrance exams that could be failed by the bulk of would-be matriculants. The entrance examination in English repeatedly and continually created appropriate subjects for the study of English – subjects who were visibly, graphically, unable to meet Harvard’s standards.” (71)
“The point of the required course is not to acquire some level of skill or knowledge that can be measured upon exit; it is instead to subject students to discipline, to force them to recognize the power of the institution to insist on conformity with its standards.” (74)
“Universities apparently value introductory composition so much that they insist it be universally required, and yet they make inadequate provision for its teaching.” (118)

“First-year composition has always been staffed by people identified as teachers rather than scholars.” (121)


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