Since the material discussed in this blog grew out of a desire to assess just what ought to be taught in Slippery Rock’s undergraduate degree programs that emphasize the development of writing ability, it may be an appropriate moment to reflect on the nature of college writing programs, particularly ones that are either housed in English departments or grew out the historical burden of teaching first-year composition those same departments have carried. Actually, rather than try to have our discussion encompass all such programs, let’s work inductively from the programs housed in Slippery Rock’s English department to the discussion of such programs in the lead article of the most recent College Composition and Communication, entitled “The Undergraduate Writing Major: What is It? What Should It Be?”
When I first came to Slippery Rock in 1987, there was one undergraduate writing program, a B.S. in English Writing. It sought to introduce students to a variety of writing experiences and genres, both creative and professional. Students took technical writing and advertising copywriting, but they also took courses in writing fiction and poetry, along with literature and language courses, including a choice of survey courses, linguistics, and a history and development of the English language course. It was what the authors of the above mentioned article call “a liberal arts writing major,” an “integration of creative, literary, and professional writing” (Balzhiser and McLeod 419). A few years before I had arrived, one faculty member in the English department with a graduate degree in Journalism and some newspaper experience announced he would like to develop a minor in Journalism. Finding that this suggestion was resisted by other faculty as incompatible with their vision of the academic mission of English departments, the journalist soon took himself and his ideas for a minor over to the Communications department, where it eventually grew into a major, with graduates who are currently being featured in this blog’s Writer Profiles.
Come the mid-1990s, several faculty members decided, in keeping with apparent trends within English studies at the time, that the current writing program was too diffuse and that it should be split into two concentrations—one in Professional Writing and the other in Creative Writing. By this time the character of the department had also changed to the extent that “professional writing” was no longer considered alien to an English department’s mission. This change in perception was also influenced, no doubt, by the growth of graduate programs in rhetoric and composition, as well as technical and professional communication. Balzhiser and McLeod comment on the discrepancy in nomenclature between graduate programs often called “rhetoric and composition” and undergraduate programs that almost always feature the word “writing.” They speculate that students coming out of high school most likely would be more attracted to a major highlighting a word that was familiar to them—“writing”—rather than a word with which they had little acquaintance—“rhetoric” (417). Our motives were also governed by a sense of what students may do once they completed the degree. Graduates of the creative concentration could treat their program as more traditionally liberal arts, or as a springboard to Master of Fine Arts graduate programs. Graduates of the professional concentration could, as the name suggested, treat their program as more directly aligned with potential work as editors, technical and grant writers, or jobs in advertising and public relations.
Still, the faculty involved didn’t want to lose the sense in either concentration that students were receiving a broad liberal arts education. There was, and still is, a great deal of overlap. Students in both should, it was decided, receive an introduction to theory in both rhetoric and literary criticism. They should both experience a few major courses in literature, as well as courses in linguistics, grammar, and the development of English. Professional writing majors would have to take one creative writing course, and the creative writing majors had to take the introductory technical writing course. Both concentrations would also have to complete at least 15 hours outside the major within another academic department.
So, that’s where we were 13 or 14 years ago, before we felt prompted to make even more changes a decade or so later, and before I was prompted to devoting a sabbatical to the changes in writing that seemed to be occurring so rapidly that we, as a faculty, found it difficult to keep up. More on that later.
Balzhiser, Deborah and Susan H. McLeod. “The Undergraduate Writing Major: What is It? What
Should It Be?” College Composition and Communication. 61.3 (2010): 415-33. Print.