The Ideal First Year Composition Classroom

Reading Peter Elbow’s early essay, “A Method of Teaching Writing” (1) reminded me of the idealism that fuels the First Year Composition curriculum. Elbow refers back to Aristotle, suggesting that the real test of a composition is the effectiveness for its audience (123-4). Elbow goes so far as to make the case for student workshops as the assessors of such effectiveness. While I don’t disagree with the idea of peer workshops, or with effectiveness as a foundation for a rubric, I do find this highly subjective, though crowd-sourced, criterion to be something of a fantasy.

Anyone who has taught First Year Composition will know that not all students are going to come to class prepared. Freshman writers and readers are not yet in a position to effectively assess the work of others. The focus tends to devolve to a discussion of grammar, spelling, and similar sentence-level errors. These students are in their first semester of university-level work and are, for the most part, overwhelmed. They are struggling to get their work done. They are not ready to crowd-source a grade for a fellow student. I know Elbow did not directly make this suggestion, instead favoring a portfolio-based assessment of the student’s work at the end of the semester (which I will discuss in a moment), but having students share and read each other’s work every week is a little taxing — especially when an instructor is confined to a specific curriculum. Elbow’s ideas are entrenched in an idealism that is perhaps characterized by the freedom to construct his own curriculum. Perhaps his students were better prepared for university-level work.

As instructors, we are all aware of the necessary evil of generating a grade. Students are painfully aware of this too. Our current students have been taught to work towards standardized testing and very specific, standardized rubrics. They, for the most part, want to put in only as much effort as is required to achieve a certain grade. As much as we might wish to disabuse them of this notion, to focus on the delight of words and rhetoric, these students still have their GPAs very carefully in mind. Elbow’s suggestion of a portfolio of five redrafted and finalized essays strikes me as good common sense (125). Rather than grading each step of the writing process (thesis statements, summaries, quotation integration, drafts, etc.), why not walk students through the messy process free of the dangers of a bad initial grade? In the case of my own classroom, the problem would be that several students would opt to not spend the necessary time going through the brainstorming and revision process. No matter what we do, there will always be certain students willing to only put in the minimum effort. And much as this may grate on the nerves of the composition instructor, how many of us have done the same thing in a Bio 101 course? The trick is to make it matter. The question is how to do so beyond just the incentive of a grade. I haven’t quite figured this one out yet beyond marking participation grades and attendance.

1. Elbow, Peter. “A Method for Teaching Writing.” College English 30.2 (1968): 115-125.

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1 Response to The Ideal First Year Composition Classroom

  1. Sarah, I agree with you that most freshmen writers and readers are not prepared to critique their peers work at a university-level. However, freshmen writers and readers will never reach that university-level if they don’t at the very least practice critiquing their peers work. Instructors can demonstrate and teach their students how to “properly” critique their peers work. Also, I think instructors need to stop obsessively worrying about the student who doesn’t come prepared to class and doesn’t complete the assignments. The students knows what he/she is doing, and if the student doesn’t want to put in any effort, then that is his/her choice. Instructors need to put more of their focus on the students who want and are willing to work and put in the effort. Instructors need to help the students that they can actually help and make a positive impact in those students’ lives.

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