Composition in Classes

Outside the Discipline of English

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Florida English Journal 2.2 (1978): 29-32.
Reprinted in M[oving] O[ut] (October 1979: 1-3) and in Faculty Forum (2.2 (1980): 22-25).

© 1978 by Florida English Journal; © 2004 by Louie Crew

    We in the discipline of English very much need the help of our colleagues in other disciplines if we are going to have our graduates competent in the skills of English composition.  Obviously the ultimate responsibility for formal instruction in composition rightly stops with us.

    The major way professors in other disciplines can help is by requiring writing in their courses and by demonstrating to the students that performance as writers is important.

    We are aware that effective use of composition not only requires much time in the marking of papers, but also threatens to take emphasis away from objective tests, a facility with which students also urgently require.  If students write more essays, how will they have time to develop skills in the more pervasive standardized objective tests?  We urge that all teachers seek a balance of emphasis on both skills as essentially complementary rather than antagonistic.

    Composition is best used for sharing information that one is not trying to quantify.  There is little doubt that when testing how much data a student knows, a well-designed objective test can far more efficiently sample the course content and provide statistically  reliable quantitative comparison of any one student's performance with the performance of the other.  Composition tests better demonstrate non-quantitative skills, such as the ability to register a strong personal opinion.  For example, a student in a college chemistry lab may be helped to understand an experiment more fully if asked to write an explanation of it for a high school textbook.  A student in business might be helped to understand finances much better if asked to write up an interview with a local unskilled laborer who has sent nine children through high school while keeping them all fed and clothed without welfare assistance.

    Composition can also give valuable adjunctive service to objective courses by being teh means for students to share their subjective responses to objective inquiry without the professor's having to devote whole classes to such discussions.   For example, a biologist teaching the techniques needed to discover the facts about the pollution of a specific water supply may generate more interest for the project by asking students to share in a brief paper their feelings about the social responsibilities of all persons affected by the water supply, including the officials of the polluting company, who claim that they render a service by employing many who would have to be terminated if the anti pollution measures are required, the farmer whose field depends on the contaminated water, the major whose campaign fund has been made bountiful by the job-creating polluter, etc.

    It is important to remember that composition work in classes outside English need not he limited to the essay examination or the full report.  Short exercises in class are excellent ways to increase students' attention, particularly if such exercises are frequent enough that students anticipate the much of the time.  Brief writing assignments can also provide a helpful shift in pace.  Compositions or portions of compositions actually written in class are much more accurate measures of students' skills in writing than are papers written outside class.  We sometime encourage plagiarism when we never expose ourselves to the student's down-home style as an important index of the degree of skill we can expect on work done outside of class.  Many students have the clear impression that professors want to hear the professional jargon with they can copy more than the lucidity they can accomplish on their own.

What's an Essay Worth in an Objective Course?

    Some teachers are reluctant to use composition assignments in objective courses because they require more subjectivity in evaluation, particularly if one assigns a letter grade.  Several solutions are possible, most notably, dispensing with the letter grade.  One may also award a specified number of bonus points for work deemed meritorious.  In either case, a course grade of Incomplete can be assigned until the writing is completed.

    The important service is not the grade, but the other kinds of evaluation the student receives.  The teacher's marginal comment and peer criticism have more efficacy that a grade in stimulating a better performance on the next draft or the next writing assignment.

    Every teacher must decide how much to value accuracy with spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  I personally like to insist on accuracy, though I have never been able to specify just what a comma is worth, just what a spelling error is worth, etc.  When possible, I simply withhold grades until mechanical standards are met, allowing as many rewritings as are necessary.  Professional writers certainly often have to rewrite to meet an editor's specifications, and foolish indeed would be an editor who altogether rejected an otherwise good article merely because it did not yet meet some formal requirement.

    Obviously  policing mechanical revision requires time and hard work.   Some teachers report that random portions of a revision are adequate indices of the student's thoroughness in revision, and that student who now that the teacher will check any part thoroughly are likely to revise the entire paper to be safe.

    In whatever evaluation process used, it is important to emphasize the student's achievement as well as the student's deficiencies, even if we cannot give equal time to both.  Too many potentially good withers never realize their talents because exclusively negative grading has conditioned them to see writing as an exercise in failure.  The same is true of professors, a large portion of whom never write after their final degree because they are permanently wounded by their first few rejection slips.

    The more frequent the writing assignments, the more encouragement to the students.  Students who know that they will have to write for a course only two or three times a term make an easier investment of their anxieties by trying to find ways to cheat.  (Some studnets report that they never have to be evaluated on composition again after their first-year courses in composition.  It is hard to persuade them that those courses are really important for them!)  By contrast, students who know that the professor will read something they have written at least once a week, even if only a one-sentence response, are more likely to invest their anxiety into doing the assignments themselves.

    Learning to write is very much like learning to play tennis.  Three of the best tennis practice sessions will not help much if they are spread out many weeks apart wit no other practice.  Shorter sessions held more regularly have greater efficacy.

    As in tennis, the writer plays the whole game, writes the whole composition, almost every session, with only a few sessions devoted just to the art of the serve or the art of the opening paragraph.

    One does not have to know everything about tennis to be a good coach, but rather needs the art of heuristically employing what one does know.  A good writing instructor will not likely want to point out more problem areas than a student can reasonably handle in one revision session.  Too many teachers mark papers with a vengeance, as if their main concern is that their students be overwhelmed by how much the teacher knows.

    A teacher or coach should carefully avoid speaking as an authority about procedures ourside one's area of expertise.  The most helpful instruction is often not about what is exactly right or absolutely wrong, but about what seems to be effective and about what is less so.  Teacher who talk most frequentlyabout spelling, punctuation and grammar sometimes do so mainly because those are the clearest issues, not because they are really the source of good composition.  Our students deserve our close attention to what they are saying and to their rhetorical strategies as much as our attention to their spelling, punctuation an grammar.

Some Specific Assignments That Have Worked

    Several assignments that have worked for me might be adapted to courses with different content:

    Since writing is more of a sport or an art than a science, teachers can afford to experiment.  There was probably no one tennis drill that was absolutely essential to Arthur Ashe's becoming a champion, on one set of coaching strategies that obviated all others.  We can best encourage our students by continual innovation, by always remaining alert to the assignments which best tap their talents.


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