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Freshman Composition Introduces Writing as a Process that is Central to Learning and Life

Having faculty from political science, chemistry, math, and music teach first-year writing is part of Moravian’s writing-across-the-curriculum effort

Bethlehem, Pa., November 8, 2006—What is the most often taught and taken course in American higher education? If you answered “freshman composition,” you would be correct. Based on an informal survey of colleges and universities listed in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” issue, more than 85 percent of four-year colleges require a first-year composition course. In 2004 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), more than 2.6 million freshmen and –women were enrolled in four-year institutions. If 85 percent of them took a required freshman composition course, and if there were no more than 25 students in any one section, American colleges offered almost 90,000 sections that year.

At Moravian College in Bethlehem, one semester of freshman composition—“Writing 100”—is required of all students except those who score a 4 or 5 on the Advanced Placement English test. This fall more than 230 students are enrolled in 14 sections of WRIT100. At Moravian, the enrollment ceiling is 18 students per section.

Yet, for all its commonality, “freshman comp” is not widely understood. Why is it so nearly universal? What are its purposes? What do students actually do in this course?

Regardless of approach the course is regarded as an opportunity gateway to the world of higher education, to writing beyond college, and to active citizenship.

Like good writers, good teachers know that the expectations students will have to meet depend on audience. That's why freshman composition classes help students learn to analyze the expectations for writing in college and develop the writing strategies to meet them. In a book addressed to new college students (The Transition to College Writing), Professor Keith Hjortshoj of Cornell University writes “[F]reshman writing courses usually serve the purposes of general education: to help you write, read, and think more effectively in all of your other courses.”

In this role, freshman comp is a gateway for new students to the kinds of writing, reading, and thinking important for college success. It also serves the academic needs of the university, which, despite rapid changes in communication media, still rest upon the written and printed word as the record of knowledge.

For example, the required first-year composition course at North Carolina State University, English 101, is called “Academic Writing and Research.” N.C. State’s catalog describes the course as providing “intensive instruction in academic writing and research … and strategies of academic inquiry and argument.” English 101 also involves “[e]xploration of literate practices across a range of academic domains, laying the foundation for further writing development in college.”

At Purdue University, one version of the required first-year course is "Writing Your Way Into Purdue," in which students do writing assignments that are focused on Purdue people, events, and issues, according to Professor Shirley Rose.

 "Successful completion of these assignments will help students not only to develop the writing abilities necessary for academic success, but also to develop an awareness of their ability to influence others' opinions, work with others to develop a consensus on local issues of significance, and contribute to positive change in their most immediate social and cultural contexts,” Rose says.

Across the country, Arizona State University describes its required first-year writing course, English 102, as one “designed to help students develop sophisticated, situation-sensitive reading and writing strategies. Students make arguments in formal and informal settings. Special attention is given to evidence discovery, claim support, argument response, and their applications to academic debate, public decision making, and written argument.”

Moravian College’s Writing 100 course “introduces writing as a process that is central to learning and life,” according to Professor Joel Wingard, who directs the course. “Because Writing 100 focuses on college-level reading and writing, students will begin to sharpen the critical reasoning skills needed for success in any academic discipline at Moravian,” he says.

Freshman composition courses may also offer students an opportunity to think long-term about how writing will enable success in college and the workplace. The preface to a book for class use by Professor Dominic Delli Carpini, director of freshman composition at York College of Pennsylvania, reinforces these connections. In Composing a Life’s Work, he says the book “seeks to recreate and reinforce the link between the desire to find a satisfying line of work and the process of active … rhetorical inquiry that drives a liberal education.”

Arizona State’s reference to “public decision making” suggests another purpose for the first-year writing course – preparation for citizenship – which gives students another opportunity to think beyond the academic world. Because students will not always be students, when they graduate they should be prepared to engage in the public dialogue that sustains democracy.

At the University of Kentucky, for instance, Professor Deborah Kirkman says that 30 percent of first-year students taking the required English 104 course this fall are enrolled in sections that focus on the theme of “Citizenship, Responsibility, and Community.”

First-year students at Longwood University in Virginia are required to take a course designed, according to the school’s website, “to help develop citizen leaders for the common good by promoting critical thinking and analysis in all aspects of … students' lives.”

At West Chester University in Pennsylvania among the options first-year students have to satisfy the composition requirement is a course called “Writing for the Public Sphere” in which they participate in conversations about issues of public concern. Professor Seth Kahn of WCU reports that his students have worked on such projects as “how issues of social class affect the funding of public universities, with effects even on student organizations and clubs” and “how misunderstanding sexual orientation can produce a hostile work environment even when heterosexist managers believe they’re being sensitive.”

At Moravian, there is no common focus across sections of the freshman composition course. Unlike many colleges, Moravian’s composition course is taught by faculty representing a range of academic disciplines. “Having faculty from political science, chemistry, math, and music teach first-year writing is part of our writing-across-the-curriculum effort,” Wingard says. Each professor decides on the topical focus of his or her particular section. A fall 2006 section that seeks to prepare students in writing for citizenship, is one taught by Professor Barbara Liebhaber of the Music Department. Her course tries to address this goal through the study of popular song lyrics of the 1960s and of newspaper editorials on topics similar to those in the music of Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix. Liebhaber’s students have recently been working on writing op-ed pieces for a newspaper about current topics of interest. but not all do.

Whatever the approach of a first-year composition course, first-year writing teachers generally believe that it is a primarily writing course, not a civics course. Professor Denise David of Niagara Community College in New York and her colleagues Rita Pollard of Niagara University and Barbara Gordon of Elon University (North Carolina) have offered what they call “primary traits” of the course. These are

    * The development of writing ability … is the primary objective.
    * Students’ writing is the most important text.
    * The subject of the course is writing.

David, Gordon, and Pollard say the third trait has three implications: classroom “time is devoted to the subject of writing and not to some other subject; classroom talk is about the subject of writing; [and] teachers and students assume roles appropriate to the study … of writing.” If these traits and implications really operate in the freshman comp course, students’ literacy improves, no matter which world the writing addresses.

Consistent with these traits and implications is the “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition.” First published in 1999 after three years’ work by a committee of the national Council of Writing Program Administrators, this document articulates what its authors believe to be the learning outcomes of the course, divided into four areas: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; processes; and knowledge of conventions. Each area lists four to seven particular outcomes and lists two to four things that “faculty in all programs and departments” can do to build on the abilities students bring with them from their first-year writing course. As of 2005, nearly 70 colleges across the country – ranging from state flagship universities such as Arizona State and the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill to small private colleges such as Atlanta Christian College and The College of New Jersey had adapted the Outcomes Statement in whole or in part for their freshman comp programs.

One teacher of freshman writing, Toby Fulwiler at the University of Vermont, has said, “I’ve always considered teaching [freshman] writing to be among the very best jobs in the university.” He says it’s best “if you value teaching small classes where your primary business is helping students learn to think imaginatively, reason critically, and express themselves clearly.”

Fulwiler sees “an opportunity” in freshman composition – an opportunity for students and teachers alike. “The opportunity,” he says, “is to help students learn to write in their own voices about a variety of issues for different audiences, and to help each other along the way.”