Point-of-View—Composition: A Worthwhile Endeavor
This edition’s “Point of View” Column is provided by Michael Bryant, who teaches English Composition and Critical Thinking at Moorpark College.
Those of us who teach composition spend inordinate amounts of time poring over written documents composed by many students who would rather not be writing at all. We craft comments that might somehow be helpful to students whose main goal is to complete the required assignment with the least amount of discomfort possible. In the midst of each compositional assessment, we search for the vibrant phrase or the original thought that helps make the effort of both writer and reader seem relevant. For all intents and purposes, the time and energy devoted to the composition classroom is a worthwhile endeavor. There is evidence of this worthiness in the fact that most colleges and universities across the country require students to enroll in some form of lower division introductory writing course, such as the English Composition class that I teach.
For me, the composition classroom is a unique place and creates a distinct set of circumstances. For the most part, I am faced with a classroom full of students who, by virtue of their having fulfilled the requirements to enter the class, already know how to read and write. Because of this, many of them are at least a little miffed at—if not highly resentful of—the fact that they are required to enroll in a college level composition course at all.
Indeed, some of my students are raising or have raised families; some are employed, full or part time, utilizing whatever skills and abilities are required of them in their places of employment, and quite often this involves some writing. Consequently, the notion that they are required to take a class in writing in order to advance in their academic studies does not sit well with many of those who enter my class for the first time. In fact, quite often, my composition class is the second or third time some students have attempted to complete this curricular requirement, not necessarily because of any inability on their part in knowing how to write, but more often due to their inability to endure a classroom structure where they feel the very purpose of the class is largely without merit. After all, they have been reading and writing for the majority of their lives.
Therefore, my first lecture to each new classroom full of students is a discussion about their resentment. I let them know that I am aware of their dislike, disdain, disgust, discontent, and general disinterest in the class. This is my blanket statement, and although there are often a handful of students who do enjoy writing—and, on occasion, one or two students interested in pursuing an English degree—overall, there is a great deal of resistance in the beginning. As a class we talk about this resistance.
I explain that the majority of institutions of higher learning in America require students to enroll in a freshman composition class of some kind. I explain that if they research the course requirements for virtually any accredited educational establishment in the country, they will notice one of the must-take courses to be a lower division writing requirement, and often, an accompanying upper division component as well. Obviously, colleges deem these courses to be of major importance. I go on to explain that the very idea of reading and writing is fundamental to American democracy. I share with them my own belief that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as written documents, hold the very core of American principles and ideals, and these documents demand that reading and writing be upheld as foundations of the American democratic process.
I explain that writing is dangerous, that writing is subversive, and how, during the period of America’s existence when slavery was part of this nation’s fabric, the very act of teaching a slave to read or write was against the law and was harshly punished. I share with the class how some of the most celebrated contemporary writers, such as Salmon Rushdie and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, were issued death threats because of their writing. Even as recent as May of 2011, Chinese writer Liao Yiwu was denied permission to leave China because of his written observations concerning the Chinese government. I emphasize that writing is a very personal and powerful act and is in no way a frivolous endeavor. I conclude the discussion by emphasizing that most writing scholars regard reading and writing as a union. Improving and enhancing one will most often improve and enhance the other.
This is my beginning approach to the class because I know that the composition classroom is most likely one of the first classes students are taking in order to get their prerequisites “out of the way” or one of the last classes they must take in order for them to “move on.” Rarely is English Composition a class students look forward to, yet it is such a fundamentally important course that they could be required to take it at any college or university in the country.
My job, as I see it, is not just to help students gain a more critical sense of language, but also to appreciate their roles in a democracy whose future success depends on the literacy and critical thinking of its constituents. Yes, composition is indeed a worthwhile endeavor.