Look What Freshman Composition Has Become


“Real learning takes place outside the classroom,” the late communist history professor Howard Zinn famously said.  Zinn practiced what he preached and led his students at Spelman College and Boston University on marches and protests.

The 1960s saw plenty of teach-ins and marches by students and some radical professors.  But even then it would have been hard to imagine how the staple of first-year coursework, Freshman Composition, would be used to turn students into activists, subverting the idea of “composition” itself and leaving some students free of any ability to write.

Little Writing, But Plenty of Activism

Indeed, as I learned from reading an article in the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, freshman composition provides an opportunity to display “bravery.”  In “Social Action and the Status Quo: Bravery in First Year Composition,” Susan Gail Taylor refers to the Rhetoric in Action project at the University of South Florida where she was then teaching as a graduate student.  The project asks students to engage in activism and then offer their “personal narrative of social action experience.”  Although the website states that students should use the “writing process” and “academic conventions,” much of what they do seems to go far beyond “composition” as traditionally known.  Students, instead, are asked to share first-person experiences in “multiple genres,” such as “letter, website, video, artwork, flyer, pamphlet, panel, demonstration.”

Taylor has given her students assignments at “Take Back the Night” and “Slut Walk” events.  She has had them videotape themselves discussing how they have overcome personal challenges.  Some students appear to resist, but Taylor tells colleagues, “I’ve developed a few ways to counteract possible hesitation and prepare my students to inspire others with their actions. For instance, I typically choose a social issue and have students organize and lead flash mobs in efforts to raise awareness.”

In “brief moments,” of flash mobs–90 seconds to 3 minutes–“students are faced with the power of their own voices (both literally and figuratively).”  (One wonders about the “power of the voice” of the student who disagrees with such causes.)  Students, Taylor claims, “are challenged to step outside of a traditional essay that discusses action and instead are tasked with becoming the action, thus inciting them to discover their own capacity for bravery and resistance.”

Bravery?  In her YouTube video of the SlutWalk on September 16, 2011, her mostly female students chant, “what I wear does not mean yes.”  The male voices make an odd counterpoint towards the end, as does the image of a couple guys reluctantly tagging behind a few paces. Taylor writes under the link: “They made awesome choices in their posters, they were loud and they were proud. Rhetoric was definitely in action! :)”

She explains her pedagogical purpose: “I want to show students how the power of language and the power of action can intersect: they select our chants and the information we use, they design the posters (which I provide), and they choose the locations– all in an effort to have even one person be affected by their work.”

Well, yes, this is a form of persuasion, but certainly outside the bounds of legitimate rhetorical persuasion.  Such an assignment seems to verge on illegality or coercion, and certainly has little to do with the “art of persuasion,” as described in Aristotle’s Rhetoric–the foundational text.

Taylor, however, does not seem to be outside the current academic mainstream.  The 35,000-member National Council of Teachers of English publishes, among  other books, Writing Partnerships by Thomas Deans, which tells composition teachers how to combine “writing instruction with community action.”

Deans traces the recent evolution of composition: “As a discipline, rhetoric and composition has adopted the broadly defined ‘social perspective’ on writing,” having “evolved from studies of the lone writer to more contextual understandings of composing; from a narrow, functional definition of literacy, focused on correctness, to a broader definition; from an exclusive focus on academic discourse to the study of both school and nonacademic contexts for writing; from presuming white middle-class culture as normative to analyzing and inviting cultural difference; and from gatekeeping at the university to facilitating the advancement of all students.”

Betraying the Original Purpose

Freshman Composition was intended to provide remedial help to students as campuses opened up to a broader mass of students–to the chagrin of traditionalists who wanted to maintain standards. It has been a service course, intended to equip college students with basic writing skills, to be transferred to other classes and then into the workplace. Advanced students could opt out by demonstrating their ability in writing tests, usually some variation of the standard five-paragraph essay. Increasingly, though, students have required remedial help for a course intended to be remedial. I know from teaching such courses that the remediation goes back to sentence-level grammar.

At the same time, I’ve seen the changes Deans notes: the emphasis on group work and peer review, the politically contentious topics almost exclusively from a leftist perspective, the addition of “visual literacy” as a category of literacy, and the multicultural sensitivities, not only in topics, but in language use.

The shift away from composition instruction to activism is evidenced in articles published in the organization’s journal, the College Composition and Communication and in the journal Pedagogy.  Similar books, such as Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened GenerationRhetoric of Respect, about “academic-community writing partnerships” and  S.U.N.Y. Press’s Making Writing Matter: Composition in the Engaged University, offer strategies for transforming classrooms into activist sites.  A professor writes in the foreword to Affirming Students’ Rights to Their Own Language, “For many of us, the assertion of student language was inextricable from our national and international quest for social justice.”  Major textbook publishers, like Bedford, are responding to market demand with single-themed readers on SustainabilityMoney Changes EverythingFood Matters, and Composing Gender (the last with a cover photo of a female ballerina holding up a male ballet dancer).  The upcoming annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication is filled with panel discussions on activism; a featured speaker is Black Panther-turned professor, Angela Davis.  Her biography notes her “activism,” from when she was a “youngster” to her work today as an advocate of “prison abolition.”

The radicalization is finessed by statements like Deans’–that the field is expanding beyond a “narrow, functional definition” and shifting from “gatekeeping” to “facilitating the advancement of all students” (emphasis added).  In plain English, this means that standards for writing are being eliminated.  Furthermore, writing itself is being replaced by visual and auditory forms of persuasion, often in mobs.  These are called “brave” actions.

Deans attempts to spread a patina of academic legitimacy over such activism by claiming there is a “coherent and substantial theoretical framework” for it. He cites the progressive education theorist and philosopher John Dewey and Marxist theorist Paulo Freire.

Deans also ludicrously claims that such activism goes back to the ancients.  He states that Aristotle’s Rhetoric was intended to “intervene in the public sphere,” (maybe), and not necessarily be used in today’s “school settings,” but he ignores the fact that freshman composition is being to taught to young people who should be acquiring knowledge and skills.  That is why they are in college in the first place.  He also misleadingly refers to Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian in the same way of needing “to connect rhetorical practice to civic responsibility.”  He even uses the “sweep of U.S. history–from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to Jane Addams and John Dewey”–to support “experiential learning.”

Indeed, if we did go back to Jefferson and Franklin, two men who did have a sense of civic responsibility, we would find an opposite approach, one that values study, introspection, imitation, and debate before taking on the adult duties of “civic responsibility.”  Franklin in his autobiography describes how he educated himself by imitating the master stylists in the Spectator, by reading widely, and by debating his peers in the Junto club.  In such education, the effort is made to gain a perspective outside one’s own limited circle.  Shouting in mobs is the opposite of what Aristotle, Jefferson, and Franklin had in mind.

We have radical professors promoting the idea that students’ own language is good enough, that there are no models for them to read and emulate, that they are to be change agents, participating in mob actions and demonstrating their “bravery” for credit.  The end results are sure to be confused, narcissistic, indoctrinated illiterates.

(Photo: Students at the 2011 USF Slutwalk. Credit: Strange Beaver.)


  • Mary Grabar

    Mary Grabar is a visiting fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

10 thoughts on “Look What Freshman Composition Has Become

  1. Students with barriers to education are much more invested in learning legitimate writing techniques when the motivation to do so is intrinsic (to make their voices heard) rather than external (to meet the standards of an academic discourse with which they are unfamiliar and, without critical reading, thinking and writing instruction, unable to become familiar). The majority of post-secondary students will not go on to grad school and do not want to become professors. They will stop writing essays as soon as they graduate. They will, however write letters, website content, video scripts, commentary on works of art, flyers, pamphlets, panel presentations and material for demonstrations of their personal and political values. One hopes a class in basic composition could adequately prepare them to do so, given the necessity of literacies (the ability to learn on one’s own) beyond simple reading and writing.

    Despite the hysterics about colleges not teaching writing any more (lol), this post is a handy source of links to composition teaching resources. Thanks!

  2. The Entire Educational establishment in this country needs to be taken down. We have endured 30 or more years of this kind of nonsense. the results are a disaster. The business community says recent grads do not have the skills they are looking for. The drop out rate in high schools is astronomical.
    The whole system is a giant fail.
    It will take some brave leadership at the state level to challenge the educational establishment but it must be totally purged of anybody who thinks this kind of teaching is acceptable.

  3. A dumbed-down populace is easily mislead and controlled. Ignorant people are susceptible to the tyranny of unscrupulous politicians.

  4. What all this will result in is a generation incapable of preserving the republic. They do not know the meaning of “social” or “justice” for they have been “reframed” to “hear with their eyes and think with their feelings”.

  5. Communication is the transfer of information or ideas from one brain to others. If a common language is not used, this transfer will be impossible. Thus, these ideas are not taching people to communicate, thay are teaching them to spew emotional content in an effort to coerce or confuse. No wonder our culture is so scattered and confused these days. Order is a useful thing, else nothing would function: our cars, computers, cooking, music, all depend on order to a great extent. Promoting chaos in education is promoting chaos in society at every level, and this is what is happening. What amaazes and concerns me is that such “education” institutions are providing this insanity at twenty to fifty thousand dollers per year. And they think Oh Bummer Tax is a bargain, and the solution to our “problem”? The communist plan is to drag society into chaos, then come along with the “final solution” to “fix” it all, thus taking over. If this is what we want, such “education” is a great way to get us there. I suppose we’ll be relying on hard working and intelligent Mexican immigrants who will learn our language better than these “university students”, and thus fill our needs for building society’s necessary institutions.

  6. Mary: This scares me. I have two granddaughters in college. I gave them each Burt Prelutsky’s “Sixty Seven Conservatives You Should Meet Before You Die,” a very good read. I gave the book a hard sell. I hope that they read it. Thanks for your work.

  7. “What I wear does not mean yes”. OK, I will accept that, if you will accept an individual walking around with a sheet over his head does not mean he is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. After all, there are other distinct possibilities as to why the person is wearing the sheet (he is cold, his face is disfigured, he is an actor practicing a role etc etc). I don’t have a problem with experiencing something before writing about it (though that would seem to seriously cramp the possibilities for subjects of an essay). But I DO have a problem with the social manipulation/engineering that seems to accompany these theories, in terms of word view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *