Our last writer profile had particular resonance for me, as it touched upon several concerns about teaching, especially during the first-year in college, that have troubled the field of composition for years. Those concerns can perhaps be summed up as the struggle between approaching writing as an art or as a technology. If you approach it as a technology, then you will be inclined to assume that certain processes, approaches, or tools can be applied universally, in all writing instances. A teacher in junior high school might assign students to write essays that feature five paragraphs, including an introduction, a conclusion, and three “body” paragraphs. The teacher may assume that such practice will convey the very important lesson that any writing they do will need a consciously imposed structure, and that lesson may indeed be absorbed by many of the students. But the same teacher has to be careful that the students learn another lesson as well, the one that states that no two writing situations are exactly alike, not even the press releases for which our last subject relied on a handy template. The same form can’t be applied to every function; the maturing writer recognizes this truth and makes adjustments. And the minute such adjustments are made, the writer is beginning to act artfully, not as a technician.
Testing hinders teachers in conveying that second lesson, because tests, in order to possess reliability (that is, yielding the same results consistently, no matter the time or place when administered, or the subject to whom it is administered), must be standardized. As our last subject testifies, the standard for large-scale testing of writing ability among school children in Pennsylvania is the five-paragraph theme. The inherent error is not that a higher score demonstrates competence in executing such a theme—it would be such a demonstration. The error is that test administrators may then conclude that the student with a higher score is a demonstrably better writer than the student with the lower score. Instead, they can only conclude one student is more adept than another at imposing one structure onto a set of sentences. That student has demonstrated mastery of one technique, and one seal who can balance a ball on his nose better than the other seals may not be anywhere near the best swimmer or fish-catcher of the lot. Moreover, as our subject points out, the student who does well on such a test may be hard pressed to discover another writing instance when the learned technique will be just what is needed to persuade a reader or to effect some action.
The use of index cards to record and organize notes or bibliographic information is another instance of a learned technique that may work for a particular academic task but not for others, or for other writing that demands a reliance on sourced information to complete its aims. If a student takes from the technique the lesson that care, accuracy, and thoroughness are important for successful completion of such writing, then learning the technique has value. But if the student assumes the technique will be the best way to approach any instance of such writing, then the student has learned exactly the wrong lesson.
At this point the reader may ask what the above has to do with college writing instruction. Well, for far too long the accepted assumption within colleges has been that first-year composition courses should function as preparation for writing students will do once they move on to courses in their major programs. Differences from discipline to discipline in modes of argument, information-gathering, forms of writing, and even accepted styles of expression are conveniently ignored. Instead, professors and students within particular disciplines proceed on the assumption that successful completion of the first-year writing course will mean success in writing within the discipline. And if it doesn’t work out that way, then something must be wrong with either the first-year course or the instructor who taught it.
So, while I’m suspicious of what the subject says about introductions and conclusions, I find myself nodding in agreement when she asserts that each major program should contain a required writing class, and that students in first-year composition should be given experience doing writing that goes beyond the academic paper so common to such courses. Instead, I am inclined to think first-year composition courses should draw inspiration for the type of writing experiences provided from what we are learning about the writing experiences of our graduates, as they use writing to influence readers and to induce actions in their civic and professional lives. That is not to say first-year composition can’t be of value to a student’s subsequent academic writing, but only if technique is not seen as a skeleton key that unlocks all doors. Technique is what the artful employ, after making judgments about when and how it should be employed.