Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Whence This Quote?

I'm reading a book right now with this fun line:

"Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole."

Can you identify it?  I'll reveal the source later. Hint: the copyright is 1937.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Discouragement Remedied

Thanks to Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute, an educational enterprise, for the article "Freshman Comp, Then and Now."

R.V. Young describes freshman composition as a course begun after WWII when college professors realized students had simply not been taught to write, nor to think, in high school. He started teaching freshman comp as a young professor in the early 70's, and he describes a rigorous course with about twice the number of papers we required at FSU and Auburn University and Tallahassee Community College a decade or so later.

What he describes as discouraging 21st Century practice was certainly in the wind at FSU when I began teaching--lots of student peer review, an emphasis on social topics rather than literature. But we still required a lot of writing and the writing required a lot of evaluating. I learned to meet my students at the level of writing they presented, then call them up to better thought, smoother expression, more delightful presentation. At Auburn there was a distinct difference, a throwback to Young's earlier experience--we wrote almost exclusively in response to literature and essays from nice anthologies, with the terms of composition arranged according to the genre to be written about. But those stock freshman comp essays--"I Stand Here Ironing," "I Want a Wife," and an extract from Malcolm X's autobiography--were part of the already-P.C. essay anthology. (By the way, the Malcolm X piece is great, very inspiring, about old-fashioned self-education.)

Composition as a remedial activity in mid-Century gave way to writing laboratories as remedial preparation for composition, and the writing laboratory I taught in at Los Positas College in Livermore, California in the early 1990's was designed so that students could earn partial credit and take TWO terms to get through the material. Tuition was so cheap--$50-$80 for the course for the student, but representing much more in state subsidies--that the college gained additional revenue for those "unable" to complete the work in one term. It was not too much work. But in two or three classes I taught at LPC I had only one student who really was on track to finish in one semester--she faded away in the last weeks, feeling a need to give her attention elsewhere because she could come back to this one-credit course and complete it the following term.

So much for the discouragement.

The encouraging part is that I'm currently teaching Composition II for the Veritas Press Scholars Academy, using Lucile Payne's The Lively Art of Writing, essentially unchanged since Ms. Payne published it in 1965.  This little book has a definite modern composition flavor, but modern in a 1960's sense. The essentials R.V. Young describes from his experience as the right way to teach composition--those essentials are there in Payne's work and will be in the writing our students do this year. Chris Finnegan and I are working together to enrich the course even further with the essential activity (we believe) of examining and imitating master writers, including, in our first class meetings, Francis Bacon, Janie Cheaney, and Washington Irving (as presented by Francis Donnelly in a century-old writing text). And most of these students will be using their writing skills in their Omnibus courses, where they engage with the Great Books.

So these secondary students will, with the secondary students I have taught over the years through Writing Assessment Services, learn writing the way those post-WWII professors would have wanted it taught--so that they will have no need of freshman composition, except perhaps as a means to reinforce their skills . . . and to encourage their weary composition instructors.