Rethinking First-Year Composition

Why do we teach first-year composition (FYC)?

I’ve recently been thinking about this question as I read part two of Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s edited book Naming What We Know. Part 1 of this text introduces threshold concepts, or concepts that define writing studies, while Part 2 offers ways that teachers and administrators can use threshold concepts in curriculum and program design. I was particularly drawn in by Chapter 7: Threshold Concepts in First-Year Composition. As a teacher of first-year composition for the past six years, I am always asking myself what function the course serves as part of a larger college education.

Is FYC where students learn to become good writers so that they can handle the rest of their college coursework? Such a goal seems reasonable. However, what we know about threshold concepts in writing studies complicates this goal. As Doug Downs and Liane Robertson write in Chapter 7, FYC is about “helping students examine prior knowledge” (p. 105) about writing. In other words, FYC helps students to understand how their previous knowledge of writing can apply or transfer into this new college environment.

Indeed, students may arrive at college with many misconceptions about writing. For example, Downs and Robertson write that students may believe the following:

  • Good writing is good writing, regardless of the situation.
    • Writing scholars know that writing is about human interaction, so the definition of good writing changes depending on the situation. (i.e., Writing as human interaction).
  • Good writing is so clear that it will be equally understood by all readers.
    • Writing scholars know that, in fact, texts exist outside of writers, so both writers and readers decide what a text means. (i.e., Writing as textual).
  • Good writing communicates ideas and knowledge.
    • Writing scholars know that writing not only communicates ideas and knowledge; writing also creates new ideas and knowledge. (i.e., Writing as epistemological).
  • Good writing is the result of careful editing.
    • Writing scholars know that writing is an “ongoing and iterative process” (p. 109) of developing new ideas, not a one shot deal. (i.e., Writing as a process).

These four threshold concepts — writing as human interaction, writing as textual,  writing as epistemological, and writing as a process — can provide the foundation for a FYC course designed around interrogating students’ misconceptions about writing (Downs & Robertson, p. 108).

I like this idea of focusing FYC around the four threshold concepts above, specifically if teachers pose those concepts not as new things to learn about writing, but as messy problems or questions (see previous posts about Bean’s work on messy problems to teach critical thinking).

Could the threshold concepts above be posed to students as messy questions, such as the ones below?

  • Why do people write?
  • Why is some written communication more successful than other written communication?
  • Do ideas exist and writers merely capture those ideas, or do writers create new ideas through the act of writing?
  • How do the things we read and write come into being?

Perhaps these questions could help FYC instructors to engage students in transformative learning that helps students build identities as novice college writers.

Readers, I’m interested in your thoughts:

  • Are the above questions related to the threshold concepts in clear enough ways?
  • Do you think these questions could spark interesting dialogue in your classrooms?
  • How can we create assignments that get students to engage with these questions?

1 thought on “Rethinking First-Year Composition

  1. writingwithvetter

    Great discussion, Krista. I really appreciate the questions. When I think about my first year composition students, however, I wonder if these questions would be too broad/abstract for them. I have a hard time imagining how they would respond; but maybe these questions could be asked as open-ended prompts and then following up with a more specific activity or assignment that further illustrated or put into action the threshold concept.



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