In today's NYT, Stanley Fish opined on a subject near and dear to his heart: freshman composition. Before I continue, let's pause for a moment and ponder the real revelation here: Stanley Fish, the world's most famous English professor, teaches freshman composition. So now you know: the next time someone sneers that faculty bigwigs don't teach introductory courses, point him to Stanley Fish. Of course, he'll then complain that we're letting Stanley Fish near impressionable undergraduates, but what can you do?
Onward. Fish complains that our students cannot write English (not a new complaint, as anyone who has spent time around faculty mailboxes quickly realizes) and that the enemy is us: "Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are." Freshman composition courses have become a haven for "content," in the form of what Fish calls "big ideas." Fish claims to have solved the problem by eliminating content from his writing courses; not a reader in sight, apparently. Instead, his students spend the semester developing their own language--an exercise that teaches them to understand sentence construction.
The "build your own language" exercise strikes me as an interesting one, and I'm sure it does teach students how to recognize a wild adverb when it races across their path. I spend a lot of time on grammar when I teach freshman comp, so I appreciate Fish's emphasis on mechanics. (I even spend time on grammar in my literature courses; after all, you cannot do formal analysis without being able to recognize the forms!) Still, as Sean McCann notes, Fish cleverly avoids the central question: "does the assignment in fact make students better writers?" But Fish also avoids the pink grammar handbook in the room: do students actually learn to write in freshman composition?
If you're in an English department, you soon discover that freshman composition is supposed to be a one-time vaccination against such dread diseases as Runonsentenceitis and Missingtopicsentencesyndrome. Alas, if we really want students to write well, then we need to administer frequent booster shots. Most students suffer amnesia at the end of each semester. In the fall semester, they learn to distinguish Petrarchan sonnets from the Spenserian variety; in the spring, that knowledge vanishes mysteriously, never to be seen or heard from again. Similarly, your freshman comp course may spend weeks on the inscrutable nature of the independent clause, but that doesn't mean that the students will recognize one the next time they take a course in the humanities. At best, freshman composition introduces students to the basics of mechanics, style, and organization; it cannot "teach students to write." Students can and will learn to write if their instructors constantly remind them of those introductory lessons. And when I say "instructors," I mean all instructors--even the ones who shriek in horror at the sight of the St. Martin's Handbook.
Nobody ever "learns to write," just as nobody is ever truly "well-read" or "cultured"; we are always "learning to write." We need to ask questions about freshman composition, certainly, but we also need to think about how writing fits into the rest of the curriculum.