If your experience duplicates mine you’ve witnessed in your classrooms a malady that is provoking complaints from educators and general public alike: college students somehow make their way through four years’ of coursework without learning to compose coherent essays on any of the subjects listed on their transcripts. I propose to identify two causes for the deficiency and to suggest remedies.
One cause lies in separating instruction in composition from all other fields of study. A teacher does not know a student’s mind until that student displays in the written medium his mind at work. Only in the effort of approaching a subject by exhibiting a course of reasoning upon that subject can a mind reveal itself. Every subject whether in humanities or in the physical or social sciences requires analytical reasoning together with respect for evidence. So whatever the field of study proper to a particular course, formal essays, much better than tests or the ill-formed verbal exchanges that pass today for ‘conversation’, answer to the necessity of bringing teacher and student to perceive what is– as well as what isn’t– understood. A remedy appears obvious though rarely do college curricula provide it. Do not rely solely on lower division composition courses to teach Joan and Jonathan the discipline of coherent thinking attested by incisive writing. Across the curriculum make formal essays a requirement for every course. Thereby the entire faculty may come to acknowledge that teaching composition is a calling common to each and all.
A second cause I detect in a false assumption directing composition courses of the sort presently adopted by English departments. Young faculty charged with the drudgery of teaching composition have been led to suppose that students learn to write by their being set loose upon subjects already familiar to them. Since the object is to learn how to communicate do not complicate the task by imposing an unfamiliar subject. The result, predictably, trite maundering padded to reach the minimum amount of verbiage the syllabus stipulates. What is thought to be already known will not provoke analysis, nor stimulate the grappling with issues for which no prefab answers are ready to hand. How might departments of English come by better prompts to brisk thinking? They can reconceive instruction in composition to make it integral to introductory courses in pre-modern literature. Set students to write analytical essays in which they confront unfamiliar texts, say, Homer’s Iliad , or Paradise Lost, wherein they encounter unfamiliar issues, say, conflict between honor and justice, or divine providence working good from evil. Preoccupation with contemporary topics promotes dependence on preformulated opinion that obstructs fresh thinking conveyed through trenchant writing.