[As the Fall semester of my 13th year at Fitchburg State commences, a series previewing some of my courses and other plans for the fall. I’d love to hear about your fall classes and plans in comments!]
On two of the many vital skills that first-year writing courses teach.
There’s been a good deal of discussion of our first-year courses at Fitchburg State in the last couple years. Some of it has echoed and extended a familiar and long-standing refrain: that our students don’t know and don’t learn how to write sufficiently (in their first years and/or at any time before they graduate), and that we need to address this deficiency. Despite its familiarity, I believe that refrain can indeed lead to important discussions about where and how we teach writing across our college and curriculum. Whereas I have much less patience with what has become a second main thread of discussion: that at least some of our first-year writing courses should be shifted away from English Studies and toward faculty and departments across campus. I believe such arguments almost always betray a striking lack of awareness of what happens in first-year writing courses, and not just in terms of the teaching of writing (although yes). They also seem largely unaware of the many other things we work to teach in these courses, a set of interconnected skills that make first-year writing classes some of the most demanding and important to teach.
For one thing, first-year writing courses are among the most consistent spaces where students learn and practice how to read at the college level. Partly that means the skills required to read tons of pages of difficult material efficiently yet effectively, and to take notes on or otherwise process and retain that material enough to work with it in class and assignments (and, ideally but certainly, learn it for long after the class has ended). But it also means reading a wide variety of genres and media—over the course of my Writing I semester, for example, students read, discuss, and analyze personal essays, short stories, song lyrics and poetry, multimedia and digital texts, and scholarly essays. Each of those genres and forms requires different approaches and skills, and I’ve designed my assignment sequence to help students practice working with each of them, while at the same time helping them develop such writing-specific skills as argumentation and thesis-building, the use and close analysis of evidence, and the incorporation and citation of sources. That’s a great deal to ask of any one class (or even a two-part sequence of classes like our Writing I and II courses), but it’s an unavoidable and vital aspect of first-year writing nonetheless.
First-year writing courses are also something else, though: one of the few places where all first-year college students are introduced to what it means to be a college student. (FSU is currently developing a First-year Experience program and course that might take on some of this pararaph’s content, so watch this space for further discussion of all this!) There are many, many many, aspects and skills that comprise that complex lesson, so I’ll just highlight a few here: what materials to bring to class and how to make the best use of them; how to navigate phones and other technology in the classroom; the appropriate tone and style to use in emails to professors; and how to use and benefit from one-on-one conversations with faculty, whether in conferences or office hours. I believe too many college faculty (including myself, much of the time) forget just how much our students need to learn about all of these topics, perhaps because many of us (again, including myself) came from environments and privilege that had better prepared us for college life. But their success depends in significant part on whether and how they learn these so-called “soft skills,” and First-year Writing I remains (and will likely always remain) one of the key places where that learning begins.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall courses or plans you’d highlight?
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