March 6


How I Teach College-Level Writing

1. The Intro
2. The Theories
3. The Diagnosis
4. Why I Teach Cool
Do you ever receive an email that makes you so happy you forget to reply?

Over the Christmas period, an instructor at a college in Alabama reached out to me and asked how I taught my Composition 102 course, “Inquiry into Cool.” I’m quite proud of how I designed that course, and I wanted very much to respond, only I was about to have my wedding party in New Orleans. When I got home to Knoxville and a bunch of unexpected stresses, the email slipped away. By the time I recollected myself enough to respond, the semester was long underway, and I was too late.

I’ve wanted to write about teaching Composition for a while on this blog. It’s what I do for a living, more or less, and I imagine it’s something many of this blog’s readers teach, or have taught. That email has encouraged me to begin.

However, readers of this blog who live somewhere other than the United States probably have no idea what “Composition” is. In England, during my time as an undergraduate, I never took a single standalone writing class. My degree was in History, and so all my classes were in History. My History professors gave me varying amounts of advice about how to write better, but only in the service of my history papers.

In the US, however, most students are required to take two classes in Composition: English 101 and English 102. “Comp” is understood to be among the first courses first years take. According to everything I’ve read, Composition classes date back to the late 19th century, when Harvard stopped requiring its students to study “Latin Composition.” Harvard dropped the Latin but kept the Composition, creating a new class focusing on English essay writing. Because the most prestigious high schools wanted to send students to Harvard, they started teaching preparatory classes in Composition, too. From there, the idea of a college-level Composition classes spread through America’s entire education system.

Composition plays into the ideal, generally accepted in American universities, that students should receive a broad humanistic education, taking a range of classes across the arts and sciences, as well as the “major” they choose to specialise in. Composition also proceeds from the assumption, or hope, that as students have to write formal essays in college, the skill of essay-writing can be taught on its own, independently from the actual classes students will have to write essays in. Composition is meant to prepare students to write essays in History, in Business, in Psychology and so on.

Thirdly, nowadays Composition is also thought of, more unfortunately, as a remedial class, a way to get students up to a basic level of writing, one that their high school education did not provide them with.

Beyond these general principles, there is a vast range of approaches and techniques and outlooks deployed by the many thousands of Composition teachers across America. The field has been developing for decades, and over time, fashions and technologies have appeared, become orthodox, and then fallen away. “Writing,” after all, is a very big subject, even if we confine ourselves to essays alone.

Imagine you are planning your first Composition syllabus. Do you think — I learned to write by reading fantasy and sci fi novels, so I should have my students read a few novels, and discuss them? Or do you decide: they have to write essays, so let’s read some of the world’s best essays? George Orwell, perhaps. Or do you see writing as primarily about communication, expressing ideas and engaging in conversation, and so you plan for debate sessions where the class as a whole will discuss Ferguson, global warming, and so on? Do you consider yourself, in such discussions, to have a moral obligation to teach students what you think is true and correct, or do you studiously avoid revealing your own political concerns?

Alternatively, do you decide to help students be creative, giving them writing prompts, encouraging them to put more of themselves into their writing, to find their own voice? Do you focus on the process of writing, requiring students to hand in outlines and rough drafts and post-essay reflections, or do you focus more on the end product, correcting grammatical mistakes, making sure everyone follows MLA citation rules? What about style? Shouldn’t a good essay be interesting? And do you only teach the college essay, or do you help studenrts write blog posts, posters, ad copy, resumes?

Whatever your inclination, you won’t make that decision in a vacuum. Every English department has a take on how it teaches Composition, and syllabus choices can be surpringly fraught. In some colleges, putting novels or short stories on the syllabus will be considered a rebellious act: you should expect resistance from your superiors. In other colleges, your colleagues will expect you to teach stories and other literature.

Some universities have a fully developed pedagogy, which you, as a new arrival, will need to learn. At the University of Tennessee’s award-winning Composition program, there is a particular focus, in Composition 101, on the techniques of classical rhetoric. In Comp 101, we teach our classes about ethos, pathos, logos, about understanding the rhetorical situation, about the triangle of text, writer, and reader, and about an awareness of audience. Students, the logic goes, need to apply the skills of argument across many fields and situations, and so the terms and outlooks of classical rhetoric, updated, developed, and adjusted, are the best ways to teach those general skills.

In most colleges, someone will hand you, if you ask, a sample syllabus, and it might be in your interest just to teach it. But in practice, almost every teacher I know likes to design her own syllabus. Partly that’s just from personal satisfaction, and partly it’s from wanting to teach better. Over time, you read theories about learning and skill acquisition, you see some approaches work in the class and some things not, and you develop next term’s course with those successes and failures in mind.

In my next post, I’ll offer a few of the theories that have shaped how I now teach Composition. Some of these come from scholarly, scientific studies, some from my own experience. These theories are, I believe, “true,” in the sense that they adequately describe reality. But they don’t, in themselves, lead to a particular pedagogy or approach. They are too broad to tell you what you should teach and how.

So in a third post, I’ll describe what I actually do in the classroom, how I design my courses. I’m very curious to hear what you think.






composition, essay writing skills, getting into college, how I teach college writing, rhetoric

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  • I can’t wait to hear what you do in your class.

  • Massively enjoyed this. Wish I had had this for my own purposes in college. (I now cringe, wondering how well put together my own writing was back then.) Maybe I am over-stating this, but I think this should be included as a general curriculum requirement class for all high school students. Perhaps you garnered this method from a textbook elsewhere, but, if not, please consider writing a text book for students. (Are text books passe? Is the web-verse the new portal for critical thinking and hands-on, interactive learning resource?)

    • Textbooks are still very much the thing. They are increasingly electronic, but not web-based. I would love to write one: I don’t know if I have the authority, connections, expertise to do so, though.

      So happy you liked the post.

  • I’m quite curious to read what you do in your class. The range of pedagogical approaches for a course like this vary so widely it can be difficult as a newcomer to find footing. I’ve experimented several ways and have yet to find a “tried and true” method with the type of success I’d like to see.

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