The Freshman Comp Lie

Someone in the uncharted wilderness of social media once suggested that higher education is the world’s biggest, most advanced multilevel marketing scheme.

I don’t know if I agree completely, but it isn’t far off the mark. I think this is especially true of English departments which is ironic since that’s my own stock-in-trade. Seriously, English departments exist solely to create more English teachers who then go out and create more English teachers.

I’ve argued for probably twenty-five years now that Freshman Composition is obsolete. Unfortunately it’s also a cash cow. Many institutions have two required semesters of it. The problem? Nobody needs two semesters of freshman comp. I seriously doubt anybody truly needs any of it.

By and large, students learn to write in Freshman Comp by using various rhetorical approaches. This typically starts with narration/description, something that’s essentially useless in college. Nobody wants to read about anyone who had some significant effect on you or anything else any English teacher might ask you to write a story about. You don’t get extra points for bringing to life the mesmerizing features of some chemical reaction in your lab abstract.

The other approaches are, in no particular order, definition, classification, comparison/contrast, process, and cause/effect. I would argue that these can be boiled down to one thing: classification. Once you can separate a topic into categories or types, you can do any of the others.

What’s comparison/contrast but types of similarities or differences? What’s process other than classifying something into its individual steps? But there’s more. Once you get out of Freshman Comp, you’ll likely never write this way again, especially not in the tired, played out five-paragraph essay format. Nobody does that, at least nobody who writes for a living or takes writing seriously to any degree.

The fact is, everything anyone needs to know in order to survive writing in college can be taught in a week, tops. I’m reasonably sure I could do it as a weekend seminar. Does that mean everyone comes out writing on a professional level? Of course not but nobody needs to. This is college. Students aren’t paid to write professionally.

“But that’s just Freshman Comp,” I hear you saying. “What about teaching literature?” Okay, what about it? Why does somebody getting an IT certification need to be able to discuss symbolism in “The Minister’s Black Veil?” They don’t.

Is literature important? Sure it is to some of us. For others, the internal combustion engine is far more fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with that. My brother as well as a dear friend of mine are both master artists with a wrench.

Will you appreciate literature because someone made you read it? Probably not. Is your life made richer by appreciating art? Of course but does that art have to be fiction, poetry, or drama? It does not. Will you be just fine if you never read literature? Of course you will. Are you missing out on a few things without an awareness of art and literature? To be sure but that’s a you problem.

If you think I’m just jaded about this, I urge you to check the size of any English department at any institute of higher education. What you will find is one of the most bloated departments in the place. Why? Because somebody has to teach all those damn Freshman Comp courses. I can’t possibly be the only person who sees the scam here.

My suggestion, especially at the community college level is this. Lose the English department entirely. You don’t need it. What you need is some basic instruction which should be part of student orientation. Then you have a handful of faculty who run a writing center where students can come in and tweak anything they have to write for any class that requires writing.

It saves students money since that’s two classes they don’t have to take and at least one laughably marked up textbook they don’t have to buy (oh, don’t you worry. We’ll get to the extortion racket that is the textbook publishing industry soon enough). It saves the school money because there are fewer faculty on the payroll.

Yeah yeah, how ever will the poor lambs learn how to format an essay? The same place most of us really learned it. Buy an MLA handbook. Google it. Go to one of the many online writing resources run by some big university English department (a resource that should be kept since it too makes lectures obsolete) because I have news for you my fellow English professors. As teaching faculty go, they don’t need most of us.

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