It has been three weeks since our last blog posting and for that I apologize. The school term has begun and all manner of obligations have gotten in the way. We will resume the profiles of speech writers later this week. But today I would like to address an issue pressing upon our English department that may sound familiar to some readers.
Ever since I came to Slippery Rock, more than 23 years ago, the English department has taught three courses required of every undergraduate—two first-year composition courses and an introductory literature course. The first semester composition course has been dedicated to helping students become more fluent in their writing, more used to drafting and revising their work, and more aware of the necessity of adjusting to different audiences and writing situations. The second semester course focuses on researched argument. Even though we have exempted, via the evaluation of writing samples, an increasing number of incoming students from the first-semester course in recent years, the great majority of our students still take both courses before they move on to upper division courses.
During the past decade, our university’s budget has become increasing strained, primarily because of waning state support. Class sizes for the introductory literature course have stood at 49 students a section for quite some time, virtually eliminating the possibility of giving students extensive writing practice within that course. Still, our department has held onto the two composition course approach while other universities have given up on it, and I believe that at present we are the only member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to feature such a requirement.
At this moment, however, things are about to change. This summer the system’s Board of Governors decided that general studies programs should contain a minimum of 40 hours (one-third of the required 120 hours needed for graduation), presumably in response to pressure for increased course work in student majors. Our general studies program, known as Liberal Studies, currently requires students to complete 48-49 credits. So now the discussion within the university is on about how Liberal Studies might be revised, which most faculty members seem to accept as meaning a cut in the number of required hours. And dropping one of our required first-year composition courses is becoming a likely prospect.
Our provost has suggested that perhaps developing a “competency” in researched writing could be taken over by major programs developing a writing component within a course or courses that addressed that learning goal. Under this proposal, major programs could still allow our College Writing II to address the competency, or they could develop their own writing component. Other universities, we know, have taken a similar approach, and scholars of writing-in-the-disciplines may look with favor on placing such an emphasis on major programs.
The difficulty for English faculty is that we are wary of the funding considerations which seem to be driving this movement towards WID. It may be educationally valuable if a Writing Across the Curriculum program is created to support the development of a discipline-based writing curriculum, but not if such a curriculum is seen as primarily a cost-saving move that will receive no funding in return. The English faculty, of course, also worries that the elimination of one composition course will be followed by the further loss of tenure-track positions, a process that has already begun. Instead of having faculty who could be employed to strengthen our undergraduate programs in literature, and creative and professional writing, we would be left with just enough to again meet the demands of teaching two required Liberal Studies courses instead of three.
English faculty members have already bandied about some other ideas for adjusting to a shift in the Liberal Studies. They include:
· Creation of a single-semester composition course that would combine the learning goals of the two existing ones in some way.
· Revision of the current Interpreting Literature course so it could feature researched writing. Such a revision would require a fairly drastic cut in the enrollments, from 49 to something like 25.
The English department at Slippery Rock is well aware that its concerns about the role of writing in the undergraduate curriculum, and the trend of diminishing the role of the liberal arts in that same curriculum, are hardly unique. And some in other institutions may even be envious of how we have hung on to our requirements as long as we have. Your comments are welcome, from the Slippery Rock community, from students, from alumni, from folks with different affiliations but similar concerns.