It's true, as Joanne Jacobs protested, five years ago, that trendy ideas suitable for making metrofexuals, self-styled progressives, and sixties leftovers comfortable with their prejudices have displaced reading real writing, which is the writer's analogue to studying blueprints and trackside photographs before you commit to building a model railroad.
Researchers write up their theories; adjuncts do the teaching.That works well for getting a feel-good degree with lousy future employment prospects, but read the lament of a victim studies graduate who Ms Jacobs linked to.
Since theorists believe reading and writing are different skills, literature has been banished from composition classes.
Theorists believe grammar and usage conventions are unimportant, unteachable and “may even be damaging to minorities.” They tell adjuncts not to mark errors on student papers: Students “best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and ‘peer-reviewing’ their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.”
I could have benefited from more politics, history and literature classes — to learn more about the world in general, rather than one tiny little sliver of the world. There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life. The lowbrow-yet-stylish topics we discussed — whether or not Eminem is sexist and racist, for example — will be out of date 10 years from now. I probably could have learned a lot about sex work and labor abuse by reading magazine and newspaper articles on the subjects. But learning more about colonialism? Globalization? The World Wars? Important books? Religion? Supreme Court decisions? That knowledge would have provided such a better foundation for me as a writer than what I think I received from gender studies classes.Economics is arbitrage, indifference, and exchange. Football is blocking and tackling. Essays are made up of paragraphs composed of sentences using words. And aspiring writers aren't getting enough practice using words to compose sentences that form coherent paragraphs and argue a point.
Maybe this is just a case of the grass being greener elsewhere. In any case, I can’t very well go back to 2001 and change how I spent my money and my time. Today I just find myself playing catch-up, reading the great books and researching great moments in history that I should have learned in school.
In the trenches, North Carolina State's R.V. Young doesn't see that happening.
Over the almost four decades that I’ve been a college English professor, I have seen many changes, some good and many bad. One of the worst changes is the transformation of the freshman composition course.To Professor Young, the E-T-T-S moment is the introduction of composition "theory" into composition courses (but with the theorists rarely working with the apprentices, as Ms Jacobs has remarked). But that "encountering for the first time" signals the root cause of the problem.
After World War II, when a surge in prosperity brought an increasing proportion of high school graduates into institutions of higher education, it became evident that many of them were incapable of reading and writing their native language adequately for academic work. They were not illiterate; they knew their letters and could read documents that conveyed information or instructions of on a simple, one-dimensional level. They could write out their thoughts in a rudimentary, colloquial fashion.
What they could not usually manage was to grasp the nuances of a sophisticated work of literature or follow the logic of a complex argument. They were even more perplexed at the prospect of constructing a consistent, focused argument of their own expressing such understanding as they had attained of the subtleties of literary and intellectual discourse. Their high school English hadn’t taken them far enough.
English departments in colleges and universities were, therefore, assigned the task of raising students to a level of reading and writing adequate for serious academic work. They tried to accomplish that by means of an essentially remedial course, freshman composition.
The emphasis of the course, as the title indicates, was on writing; but reading was also a crucial feature, because of an implicit assumption that learning to read challenging works of literature would enhance a student’s writing skills. Freshman composition thus became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language.
I no longer teach freshman composition; in many quarters, literature professors are considered unqualified for that task since they have no training in “composition theory.”In the current business model of higher education, the student-as-customer sees freshman composition as a hurdle to be gotten out of the way, and the department-as-profit-center sees writing intensive courses as too expensive to offer, or a forlorn hope in the presence of budgets that encourage reliance on freeway fliers and other false economies. Thus students get no additional practice at "realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language" (just read any railroad's Book of Rules to see what that looks like), although they might play at making up presentation slides.
How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.
How good do you think Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers would have been if they only practiced Thirty-Six and Forty-Nine once a week, rather than fifty times a day? The generalization to understanding arbitrage and exchange, or clear writing, is straightforward.