Sunday, July 18, 2010

Question for my American peeps!

In Australia we don't have "composition" courses at our universities. You, as I understand it, do.

All I really know about these classes is informed by my extensive knowledge of academic blogs, so my understanding might be a little bit biased. (Y'think? Yes. You talking to yourself? Yes.) As far as I know, composition courses are usually taught by adjuncts or TAs in the English department, in many places are compulsory for students from all disciplines, not just literature or language majors, and involve lots of practice in writing academic-style texts. (Please correct any misapprehensions here.)

So I was recently talking to some fellow post-PhD wannabe academics, and we were commiserating about how even the scummiest low-level underpaid adjunct jobs are hard to come by. We need more badly paid teaching positions that are only semi in-our-fields and for which we are overqualified! Yeah! And since these guys are in English, they suggested that we could create sucky jobs for all of us if we could only persuade the university to bring in composition courses. They then talked to their HOD, and they seem interested, and it looks like the English department might be willing to try it in collaboration with linguistics (i.e. me).

My questions to you are the following:

  • Is this a really bad idea?
  • Do composition courses work? Do students improve their writing skills through direct instruction in composition more than they would just be writing regularly in their own disciplines over the three year undergraduate period?
  • Assuming that there is no way in hell we would be able to make these courses compulsory, how could we avoid turning them into English-for-second-language-learners classes? (We have a large non-native English speaking population here, and for obvious reasons, composition courses are likely to appeal to them more than they would to the average student).
  • The English department people are considering trying to attract public servants to these courses too (public servants taking one-off university classes are a lucrative and sought-after market in this city, as their departments happily pay full fees). Do you think it would be possible to create some sort of coherent writing course that would work for both academically-oriented undergraduates and professional public service writing? (Personally, I think it sounds really difficult, but perhaps not impossible, given creative course design).
  • If you have taught composition, do you focus on academic writing as a genre, or more generally on constructing coherent, grammatical, well-phrased texts?
  • Anything else we should be bearing in mind?


Rebecca said...

I'm not an academic, but I'm very interested in seeing what you get in response. I would, however, like to address the point about academic/public service writing.

My daughter had an excellent English teacher in 11th Grade (The one before graduating year, for non-Americans) who taught composition in a way that allowed my daughter to nail that part of her college entrance exam AND get regular praise from supervisors in her workplace afterwards.

Even she was surprised how easy it was to recall what she was taught and apply it correctly. As I recall, my daughter cited topic sentences and paragraph structure as the main things.

In my experience, good writing is so rare that it should be highly valued. Also in my experience, it's a difficult thing to do well, even for someone who reads extensively and so is often exposed to decent writing. I don't know exactly what that teacher did, but I wish it were compulsory everywhere way before college.

Good luck.

Bardiac said...

I don't know if it's a bad idea. BUT, unless you've had specific training in teaching composition, you aren't overqualified. That's one of the HUGE problems with composition courses in many schools in the US: they're taught be people 1 year out of undergrad with minimal training, or by people 30 years out of grad school, also with minimal training. And by many in between with minimal training.

The "do comp courses work" question is hugely important. I don't know that they do overall. My guess is: not as well as we wish they would.

I actually think turning them into second-language learner courses (assuming you have the training to teach those) would be great. It's not the same, but there's a ready market of people who really CAN improve their writing, no?

I'd look into creating courses for the public service folks specifically, rather than for students and public service folks. At our university, we'd do that through an extension program. Do you have those?

I focus on teaching students a variety of writing process strategies, and then try to teach them to recognize a variety of academic genres, and to think rhetorically (about their audience's needs in a text, for example), and also to think about organization, thesis statements, and so on (because those are important in US essay expectations).

IF I do my job well, students leave my course knowing that some strategies work well for them and being able to recognize the genre of work being expected of them. IF I do my job well, they actually use the strategies that work for them, prewrite, draft, and so forth. Most students need a lot of reinforcement in other courses, though.

Feel free to email with more specific questions; or I'm sure lots of folks would be happy to show you their syllabus, assignments, etc. (I would, too.)

Jim said...

Here at Princeton all undergrads are required to take a one-semester writing seminar that is usually taught by grad students or recent PhDs (who make ~$24K and $50K respectively). Each potential instructor proposes a seminar topic based on his/her expertise when applying to the program, and so the hiring process is a combination of finding the right people and the right topics that will attract enough interest. The website is worth checking out:

I have a friend who has taught in the program for several semesters and seems to like it, although it's very intense. Princeton's system is very regimented and Writing Center administrators work with each instructor to create comparable syllabi with identical assignments. You can see her syllabus (all 19 pages of it, which I understand is standard) here: (a .doc file)

As for whether it's effective or not I can't say. I've graded papers written by juniors and seniors who went through the program that were laughably bad, but maybe they would've been worse without it.

StyleyGeek said...

Sorry, Bardiac: I didn't mean overqualified to teach comp. I meant overqualified to hold a job that brings in less than minimum wage and has no job security.

Also, we DO already have second language English courses. So the problem would be distinguishing this from those. Especially if the majority of students are there to improve their English, I can imagine that Australian students might feel they are in the wrong place and drop out or avoid the course in the first place. And the idea is to try to improve writing skills for students in general, not just one population.

I agree that the minimal training issue could be a big deal. That's part of the reason why English people approached linguistics about this, because they want to include discourse analysis as a perspective from which to approach one's own texts.

Jim, the Princeton courses sound very interesting. I'll look up the links you mention.

Rebecca, I wish I knew what that teacher did too! Of course, it's possible that your daughter is just naturally a good writer...

Bardiac said...

Doh, I misunderstood what you meant by overqualified. Sorry. I'm a goof sometimes.

Let me know if you want to talk about syllabus stuffs.

Rebecca said...

My daughter is actually a good writer. But even good writers often have a difficult time getting things right, especially in a short period of time.

I think, basically, what that teacher did was explain to the students, in a way that was easy to understand/remember, how to organize their writing. Because I do remember my daughter mentioning that topic sentences seemed to be a key to getting everything to fall into place.

It's been a few years, but I'll ask her what she remembers about it.

StyleyGeek said...

No worries, Bardiac. I phrased it badly and your interpretation was perfectly reasonable, just not what I meant.

I would love to see your syllabuses (syllabi? syllabubs?) if it looks like we are actually going to run these courses. I'll get back to you.

Adrienne said...

Well, I am Rebecca's daughter. She mentioned the topic to me and thought I may lend my thoughts as well. First off, I strongly believe in composition training and do not believe it should be combined with ESL classes. As the one professor mentioned even with the classes, some students had laughable papers, imagine what they may have been like with out any sort of instruction. A decent composition course can be helpful to both creative writing and professional. As my mother said, it is all about structure.
I have always enjoyed my English classes beginning in elementary school right through my university studies. Though I believe I may be a decent writer because I do enjoy it, my thoughts often came out rather erratic on paper. My junior year of high school it was my English who taught me how to write in a more comprehensive manner. She kept it very simple and I have been able to take this and either tweak it or build from it as necessary, but this is how I have always began any of my papers since her class.
It came down to three basic parts. You have your introductory paragraph; the body of the paper, which may consist of 3-4 paragraphs; and finally, your closing paragraph. The introductory paragraph was about 4 or 5 sentences consisting of an opening sentence on the subject and then a few sentences containing your thoughts on the subject. Each of those sentences would then be your outline for the body of your paper. Sentence two would be the subject of paragraph two, sentence three would be the subject of paragraph three, and so on. Then you would have the closing paragraph, which will resemble your opening paragraph by summarizing your body.
As I said earlier, if taught well, a composition course can be used for both creative and business writing alike. I just recently finished taking management training course in which we covered different types of business writing. During a speech writing course an instructor had one simple tip for us, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you have just told them”. Essentially, it is the same layout I learned in high school. I have used this in academic papers, in speeches, and in business proposals. This format can be the perfect foundation for any sort of writing.
I think the importance of composition training is for the most part overlooked. Yet we write daily: emails, memos, business proposals, speeches, reports, and more. Proper training could make all of these things more concise, easier to understand by the reader, and sometimes even easier to write.

Adrienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
StyleyGeek said...

Thanks, Adrienne. I'm glad your class was so helpful to you, and I completely agree that strong writing skills are important. I hope it is true that formal instruction can improve students' writing skills.

That said, I would hope to go a little beyond the teaching of topic sentences and the five-paragraph essay. I'm glad these were helpful to you, and I admit that they are good starting points, but I would love it if my students were also able to dissect their own writing for tone and style as well as structure and content, to "read between the lines" of other people's texts, and to adapt their writing structure for different purposes, matching style and structure to content.

I get the feeling that you might have learned how to do this sort of thing through osmosis, as many good students do - or perhaps it was taught to you as well, but you didn't mention it in your comment. But so many students get the idea of topic sentences, and can put together an introduction, body and conclusion, yet fall down on so many of the other things that make good writing, and only have one setting for their written "voice".

Rebecca said...

"But so many students get the idea of topic sentences, and can put together an introduction, body and conclusion..."

That has so not been my experience. Naturally, you will be teaching far more complex academic writing than 5 paragraph essays but, as Adrienne said, the basic structure can be built on. And, as you said, it's a good place to start.

But I really think that the root of the problem is that most people do not know this concept. Either they have not been taught, or have not grasped it. It's possible that most instructors share your assumption that students have already mastered it.

But I can't suggest strongly enough that you start there, and don't move on until you're sure that every student knows how to organize and structure their writing. Because without this, no matter what else a writer has, whatever they produce will turn out to be a hot mess.

Adrienne said...

I did go on to take more courses that focus on different types of writing and believe further training should not be neglected. I only mentioned this simple structure because it is so often overlooked by both teachers and students. Most teachers feel because it is so simple their students must already know it. It is an incorrect assumption. If your students do not understand the basic structure then they will not comprehend any more in detail training.
Once a student is able to write a basic paper then you introduce personal style, tone, and structures specified to different purposes. You should not expect to necessarily have this clumped into one course. There are introductory composition classes that give that simple structure you assume all your student know, there are creative writing classes, critical writing, business writing, scientific writing, and more. The point is the importance of teaching. My point was the importance of not overlooking the basics.

Rebecca said...

You can see we feel strongly about this. :)

I believe most American colleges and universities require all students to take 2 semesters of composition. So Comp 101 would be the place for learning, and practicing, the basics. Comp 102 could go on to tone and analysis.

If this course is to be aimed at recent high school graduates, and professionals who have been out of school for a while - or haven't attended college, then I would expect most of them to need the most basic instruction.

It seems to me that so many high school students graduate without knowing how to spell, barely knowing how to read and have no idea how to write coherently. Between e-mails and texting, professionals seem to have lost whatever writing proficiency they might have ever had. I am constantly appalled at the e-mails I receive from people I do business with.

Again, this is obviously a subject close to my heart. But I suppose it's possible that the quality of education in Australia hasn't reached the dismal levels it has here in the states. In which case, you should be able to hit the ground running. I'd check with maybe Admissions, or the English professors who deal most with Freshmen, and see if they can give you an idea of what to expect.

In any case, best of luck. The world is in desperate need of better writers.

StyleyGeek said...

Thanks. That's interesting to hear. I guess I've been "lucky" with my students in the past. I have taught courses where essays are required, and though the writing I receive is often not what I consider university level, the basic structure often hasn't been the problem. Perhaps Australian high schools do teach the idea of topic sentences, intro and conclusion successfully.

Most often, I find the problematic essays have the formal structure of a university level essay, but the tone and style of an email to friends, or a bizarre mixture of styles and voices that looks like they tried to do some sort of impression of "academicese" but couldn't maintain it for the whole essay.

The structural problems are often not that topic sentences are lacking, or that there is no intro or conclusion but rather that the student puts material in the introduction or conclusion that should be elsewhere, and/or that the flow of ideas, well, DOESN'T flow but rather goes backwards and forwards and around in circles.

But I agree that it is essential for students to master the basics before moving on, so I imagine we would start by making sure they get the idea of a basic essay structure and topic sentences before doing anything else.

It is also possible that for whatever reason, linguistics students are better writers than those from other disciplines, so maybe I've been protected from the worst offenders!

Rebecca said...

I think there's probably an excellent chance that linguistics students are better writers than those from other disciplines. And I know exactly what you mean about not being able to maintain a formal tone throughout a document. I've had many wtf? moments reading what should have been professional writing due to exactly that. But your point about the flow of ideas going back and forth and around in circles is a big part of what we're talking about.

If the intro is made up of the correct sentences, then the following paragraphs should be logically coherent, and the conclusion should practically write itself. So getting students to frame their their thoughts in a way that they can write the correct into is THE big honcho in writing basics.

Then they have to practice doing this over and over again, on a variety of subjects, until they get into the habit of almost thinking in outlines. I'm a firm believer that coherent writing can be taught, although some will certainly find it easier than ogher. But it does take a lot of practice. It's so worth it, though.

And, if turns out that the general student population is much worse than you expected it to be, that would surely be hefty ammo for your arguments in getting the administration to offer the course, right? Again, best of luck with this.

Anastasia said...

Chiming in late...I have no experience teaching comp but my cc did have a comp requirement that I think worked well. We wrote a series of different kinds of writing--talked about audience, tone, and style. At the end of the course, we submitted a portfolio of different kinds of writing--personal essay, explanatory, research paper--to a panel, where they were reviewed blindly. If we passed, we were allowed to pass 101, which was a pre-req for any upper level course where we were going to do any writing.

My advanced comp class was also quite useful and something that I think could be used at an intro level. It was based on ancient rhetoric. We wrote short papers in a variety of formats--enconium, invective. What kind of words do you choose to convey praise vs. critique? What language is descriptive and not evaluative? That sort of thing.

We used this book:

I don't know that anything was more useful to my writing than that class. And I do think it would have worked at an introductory level.

In both classes, I can see in hindsight that my profs were equally teaching us how to read, which sounds like what you're talking about.

Again, not a teacher of writing. Just an English major. :)

liz said...

Composition courses work. Says the person who took one at age thirtysomething and, even though I hated the prof for other reasons (she was flaky), got a ton of help from the course.

liz said...

The course I took was mainly focused on first draft/peer review/revising/peer review/revising/final draft.

One thing we did was write everything we already knew about a topic we were going to research, so that we would know what parts of the paper didn't require citations.

We learned how to cite sources, and had to provide hard copies of all the sources we used.

dance said...

Very belatedly---how much writing happens in the Australian curriculum without comp? Context: Composition courses are common in the US because a typical 200-level history course might require a final, a midterm, and one 5-7pp essay. My grad school had a Second Writing Requirement to ensure that undergrads left having done at least 20pages of writing in a class---and a req was *needed*, even history students didn't always fill it twice. My current U doesn't have a long writing req at all. Yet employers often say people who can write are the employees they want and need. Etc. But in the UK tutorial system where students are writing weekly, composition would be unnecessary. I'm not sure what Australia is like.

dance said...

That is to say, Comp classes here are replacing the basics that students don't get elsewhere---but they might need to do something entirely different in Aus/NZ.

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, they don't usually get opportunities to write weekly here. More standard is two or three papers due during the course, and maybe an essay-based final exam in some classes. In linguistics, they would have one or two papers at most, and the final exam is not essay-based. So they don't get much practice at all, and not much opportunity to use any skills they pick up from the process of writing the first essay.