Revisiting Composition 121

At the College of Lake County (CLC), where I currently teach, English 121 (or Comp 121) is the first semester of freshman composition. Other colleges or universities may call it English 1010 or something like that.

This last spring, in order to get an idea of ways to improve instruction, the faculty who oversee the comp classes organized a limited assessment of several hundred research papers written by 121 students. About 30 instructors participated, including me. The assessment focused on how our students integrate sources into their papers, and the list of criteria we used looked something like this:

  • Understands topic/issue
  • Presents sides of issue both ethically and persuasively
  • Uses appropriate sources to support arguments
  • Introduces sources well enough that the reader knows who said what, why they said it, and why the reader should care that it was said
  • Cites sources correctly, in text and on Works Cited page
  • Explains why each source is pertinent to the topic/issue

In reading those student papers and cross-checking our assessments, we found that some students are doing very well, many students are doing some things well, and some students are doing appallingly bad work.

Of course, the next question was, “What can we change about the way we teach 121 in order to improve student performance in this area?” We instructors were asked to volunteer if we wanted to be part of an experimental group that assigns fewer but longer papers in 121, so that we could spend more time teaching the research process, source use, and citations. I volunteered, so I’m now one of seven instructors changing our syllabi accordingly in preparation for the fall semester.

(I was also invited to take part in a different project, wherein I also teach a one-credit class for certain of my 121 students who got borderline grades in the prerequisite noncredit class, so I will probably blog about that in the future, too.)

Anyway, the Gang of Seven met yesterday to discuss ideas for revising our 121 curricula. Our two full-time faculty bosses, Cathy and Kathy, are two of the Seven. Cathy emailed the group before the meeting to suggest that we read a couple of pieces and prepare to discuss our responses to them at the meeting:

Barbara Fister argues that the problem with the traditional approach to teaching college reading and writing – i.e., writing the research paper – is that we focus too much on aspects of the process that do not matter to anyone in real life: “we questioned the emphasis on painstakingly citing sources correctly when it detracts from more important issues such as asking interesting and genuine questions, understanding evidence, and communicating persuasively.” She also cites college professors who

examined the double standard that we impose on students (are we so careful of whether we need a colon or a comma in that part of a citation? Would we reject an article submitted to a peer-reviewed journal over trivial mistakes in citations? Is the whole point to get students to confess what they don’t know?).

In his post, Jerry Nelms says that we should be teaching immersion in a subject rather than focusing on the mastery of an artificial genre like the college research paper, which encourages superficial encounters with vast bodies of knowledge as well as the inaccurate and misleading use of sources.

The frustrations felt by Fister and Nelms echo the discussion our assessment group had last spring. The notes from the meeting include this observation:

We had an interesting discussion about some of the questions on the Assessment Reflections sheet and on materials from the Citation Project, which found that first-year composition students tend to read source material superficially and quote from just the first couple of pages of a source. One set of questions that faculty raised and discussed were: Are we explicitly teaching writing or are we spending too much time discussing issues and readings? On the other hand, if we spend all semester teaching technical issues, do you get to critical thinking and writing?

My next several posts will address various points of these discussions.

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