The Value of Freshman Comp

Lynne Murphy has a nice blog post over at Lingua Franca on whether or not a first year writing course is useful to a university student. Murphy comes down squarely on the side of yes, as do I.

Murphy observes that students in Britain don’t know how to structure an argument or, for that matter, a paragraph. From my limited, but growing, experience at a Canadian university, I agree with her assessment. The problem is not, as most grammar manuals would have it, how to write an intelligible sentence or use standard punctuation. The students have that down. (Well, maybe not punctuation, but that’s a mechanical exercise and relatively easy to correct.) My students also tend to have problems with register, tone, and the academic style. Many don’t realize that there are different registers to writing and that the style they write in an email to friends is not the one to be used in an academic paper. Those that do recognize that there is such a thing as an academic style try to imitate what they read in critical literature and the result is usually a mess. They don’t have the basics of writing a coherent essay down yet, and they couch those troubled arguments in stilted and hypercorrect language. (When I see this, I tell the student to just try to write a clear essay in plain English. Mastering the style of academic discourse will come as they continue to read critical literature.)

When I was an undergrad, I placed out of freshman comp. Due to my test scores and advanced placement credits I was permitted to jump right into the English literature courses, but I opted not to skip the class, and it was one of the best decisions of my undergrad career. I did not do so because I thought it would be an easy A, but with forethought my eighteen-year-old self had seldom exhibited, I determined that writing was an essential skill and no matter how good I was, I could always get better. Since I’d had excellent writing teachers in high school, I had mastered the basics and in the university composition class I was able step back and view my writing more objectively and to understand different purposes and approaches to good writing. For the first time I considered factors such as audience in crafting my writing. I’m sure the class was equally valuable, albeit in another way, to those students who were still having trouble with the basics.

One thing that I would disagree with Murphy on is whether North American and British universities are all that different. When I was applying to grad school, the comp requirement was something I looked at, because as a grad student I would be expected to teach composition if it were offered. I found that North American schools, or at least the ones that offered PhD programs in English, split about 50/50 as to whether or not they offered freshman comp. The University of Toronto does not, for example. There are remedial and ESL writing courses available to those that need them, but there is no general requirement for freshman comp. Perhaps there should be.

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