Things I Know 138 of 365: English 101 ain’t got nothing on us

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?

– Langston Hughes

The ENG 101 syllabus of one of my former students states the following:

Students who pass the course will be able to do the following:

  • Use appropriate rhetorical development (such as analysis, comparison/contrast, interpretation and argument) to respond to the central ideas of an assigned text
  • Paraphrase sentences and short passages from reading texts
  • Analyze a written assignment
  • Develop essays of varying length and complexity that incorporate ideas from texts
  • Use a variety of sentence patterns, indicating a generally mature style
  • Evaluate effectiveness of their own writing via feedback from professor, peers and self to produce a rigorous revision
  • Use vocabulary that conveys meaning accurately and appropriately for a college student

Fantastic.

Awesome.

Super-sweet.

The thing is, I send my students out of my classroom with those skills. I send them out of the classroom with more than those skills.

As we fast-approach the end of the school year, my senior students are practicing their ability to analyze texts at their linguistic, semantic, structural and cultural levels and then apply various schools of literary criticism to find deeper meaning.

To their future professors, I say, challenge them.

We have been. It’s fun; trust me.

I’ve read plenty of articles denouncing the abhorrent linguistic skills with which college freshmen enter their university experiences.

Get over it.

Perhaps the problem lies not in the skills of the students but in the work they are being asked to complete.

On this same syllabus, the workload of the course is outlined:

In this class, you will write and revise 5 full-length essays plus write an in-class essay for a final exam. These will range in length from 3 pages (early essays) and gradually lengthen to 5 pages (last take-home essay).

My favorite implication in the above is the idea that an essay of 5 pages in length is somehow superior in content than an essay of 3 pages in length. I love the COSTCO approach to writing in bulk. It’s an excellent lesson to teach our students that more writing equals better writing.

Of particular note is the fact that the learning described in this syllabus will bore students to tears. Many high school teachers have gotten the memo that technology and 21st-century learning open up the ability for our students to learn and produce artifacts of their learning in varied and complex ways. And, we’re doing it while sticking to the content of yesterday as well. My G11 students will have written 12 analytical essays by the end of the year. Each of those papers will have centered around a thesis statement that is unique, inciteful and debatable – not to mention self-created.

Professors should also know they’re working and revising on google docs with peer feedback, building a portfolio of work on which they reflect at the end of each quarter. Their writing process is transparent, collaborative and authentic.

When the syllabus states, “Essays must be submitted to me in paper form (not email)…” I want to email the professor asking, “Why?” I reconsider, remembering this professor’s aversion to such correspondence.

My argument is simply this, whomever is designing the curriculum and pedagogy for the nation’s ENG 101 courses, know that we’ve been bringing our A-game for the last four years, and we’re sending you students who will be expecting the same from you.

5 thoughts on “Things I Know 138 of 365: English 101 ain’t got nothing on us

  1. Your assumptions about the length issue is uncharitable. Most students are frightened by the longer essay format and worried about how to achieve it, knowing they will be required to do so in 300 level courses. To me the course is building basic skills and then showing how to use those skills to build the longer-format essay. While I might have quibbles about the value of one type of essay or another, there is no doubt that university students will need to write those, and so it seems like a reasonable expectation.I've taught English 101 in a state university, I can tell you that the evidence of a majority of students having achieved those objectives in high school is very, very slim. In my experience, there would be 2-3 students in a course of 20 who could write an essay already and we could workshop refinements in style and sophistication, but the majority did not demonstrate any experience with process or individual thesis development, let alone structural conventions. In surveys about what they had done in high school English classes, their recollections showed an alarming lack of agreement about what a high school student ought to be doing in an English class. Based on those surveys, what you describe as high school teacher practice is nowhere close to standard practice. While there is lots of room for improvement in university pedagogy, saying 'get over it' and 'challenge the students' shows a lack of understanding of the situation.

    • Mark,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      Your point that students are frightened by longer essays is well taken. It
      also raises more questions for me:
      1. How do we know fear is the reason?
      2. Is the fact that student will need to write those types of essays down
      the road ceding more curricular and pedagogical ground than is necessary or
      productive?

      What parts of the usefulness and diversity of English are being left alone
      for the sake of those essays? I can understand its initial selection
      centuries ago as the preferred mode of communication of learning, but now it
      strikes me as tremendously limiting. Admittedly, I'm uncertain how one would
      have the kind of cross-curricular conversation I'm implying would be
      necessary to shift away from the long paper as the gold standard for
      evidence of student learning. This doesn't remove the importance of such a
      conversation.

      I wonder if you could speak to the collaboration between those professors
      charged with teaching English 101 and those preparing pre-service English
      teachers in your experience. It seems to me that both of those camps living
      under the same roof would make for a natural link toward a communication of
      expectations and suggestions for what skills and understandings are hoped
      for from the classrooms of each new generation of teachers.

      This also speaks to the question of communication between universities and
      high schools. If the language we're both using is woefully incongruous, then
      we're not work toward the students' best interest. I'm not suggesting a
      relationship where high school teachers relinquish their curriculum in favor
      of what is asked for by universities or vice versa. Instead the conversation
      about what learning can look like, which I assume will be difficult and
      heated, is one I'd love to have. Its absence was what led to the post. My
      use of “get over it” and “challenge the students” came more from the
      frustration of this conversational vacuum than anything else. I hope you
      take it as a mark of that frustration than of my ignorance.

      Thank you, again, for helping to fill that void and for giving me more to
      think about.

      – Zac

      • You make some very good points here. The academy is conservative and self-serving, so the fact that professors earn tenure through academic writing means that type of writing becomes the currency of the academy. As fewer students do liberal arts and pure sciences, that might start to break down, but it will be slow.In the late 1990s I was on a commission with HS teachers and college profs to go through some of this. It was mostly the professors handing down stuff. As HS teachers, we struggled to get much traction because it was fairly obvious that their concerns were valid. As Debbie says, your course is not the average experience. If your MA program gives you a chance to do observations, you will likely be surprised by what you see.

  2. I was simply going to say that, based on MY experience, SLA is very much the exception, NOT the rule. Your school and your class in particular Zac, is NOT by any means the universal experience. I had an AP English teacher in high school who made us write an essay in class every WEEK on a topic we received just before we started writing. (The most memorable topic to me was, “The Importance of Something Small.” I wrote about the dot as period and decimal!)  Oh, and we lost a letter grade every time we used passive voice, just to FORCE US to learn to use active voice!  We hated him – and that exercise – at the time. But now? We STILL talk fondly about “Harvey” and the incredible effect he had on our education. And you'd better believe we were ready for the future (and especially for the SAT's). That exercise made me a better THINKER and a better WRITER.I was APPALLED when I got to Miami University 24 years ago and saw how most of my peers were writing. I doubt that situation has changed much, sadly. Oh, and passive voice? Sometimes appropriate, and often used, but still makes me cringe sometimes!

  3. Pingback: Things I Know 140 of 365: We’re doing some great work at Autodizactic

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