English Composition 101

This isn’t strictly on the topic of word and phrase origins, but it’s a topic I have recently gained considerable experience in. John Warner has penned an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc...) Papers,” and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more.

The one thing I would add to Warner’s article is that I take considerable time walking the students back from attempts to writing in an academic register. They become so focused on achieving the right tone and vocabulary that logic and clarity are crushed. They try to achieve the register they read in scholarly articles, but their mastery of basic argumentation and clarity is so shaky that they end up producing gibberish. When they abandon their attempts to write in a particular register, suddenly their ideas shine through. (And I am constantly pleasantly surprised by the inventiveness and quality of their ideas.) Which makes me muse that perhaps what is needed is a two-semester sequence in writing. The first semester, taken early in the undergraduate career, would be basic writing and argumentation. The second, taken midway through the undergraduate years, would be writing a research paper. Teach the fundamentals of clarity and argumentation first, and then after they’ve achieved a degree of mastery over that, teach them how to integrate source material into their own work. This second course would be discipline-specific. Yes, it’s more time spent on a non-substantive course, but writing is so very important, and most undergrads won’t end up working in the discipline they study anyway. What’s most important is they come away from university with the skills to think and express themselves clearly.

And there is one thing I would change about writing instruction and advice books—I would stop focusing on how to write a good sentence. My experience is that university students know how to write good, grammatical sentences. The one exception are foreign students who have a tenuous grasp of English. Native speakers and those for whom English is a second language but have come up through the US or Canadian secondary school system can write a decent sentence. (Maybe they have a bit of a problem with proper punctuation, especially comma usage, but that’s minor and easily fixed.) Again, when they commit aggravated assault on sentence structure, it is almost always because they’re attempting to write in an unfamiliar register. (I suspect that those who teach at community colleges or open enrollment schools might have a different experience, and those students may genuinely not understand how to write a good sentence. If that’s true, an approach appropriate to that audience is required.)

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