by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Nan Miller writes for the Martin Center about the problems linked to college writing courses.
Freshman composition occupies a unique position in a college curriculum. It is the only class required of about 90 percent of enrollees whose diverse aptitudes and prior writing experience present a challenge for instructors every semester.
In Why They Can’t Write, instructor John Warner of the College of Charleston proposes a course he says will minimize the challenge for instructors and have students writing “clearly, persuasively, even beautifully” by semester’s end. His “dream” is to have his course “adopted in every classroom across the country,” but this classroom veteran hopes that the Warner model stays just that—a dream.
Before I say why Warner’s approach raises concerns, I’ll note that there is much to admire in his attitude toward teaching composition. A Yale professor once called the job “a torture to body and soul,” but 20 years in the classroom have not dampened Warner’s enthusiasm for teaching or his commitment to students, who may experience “overwhelming anxiety” during their college years. No other class requires as much one-on-one student/teacher interaction, and instructors who take an interest in students out of class will indeed boost their in-class performance.
Warner is also forthright about the commitment students must make if they are to improve their writing. He tells students that “writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” He adds that writing well will “deliver lasting pleasure and knowledge” to students who do the hard work.