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Friday Interview: College Writing Instruction Critiqued

NCSU professor, Modern Age editor says current methods fail students

If you don’t buy into the notion that newer is better, or that modern ideas trump those steeped in tradition, you might appreciate the journal Modern Age. The editor of that internationally known publication is R.V. Young, professor of English at North Carolina State University. In a public presentation, Young described how “Liberal Learning Confronts the Composition Despots.” That title referred to the teaching of college-level English composition classes. Young discussed the topic with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: You used English composition as sort of the micro-example of the macro world of poor changes in the way people are taught in universities. Why did you choose English composition?

Young: There are two reasons. One is it’s the field I know most about. I’m in an English department, and I’ve taught the course. Second, however, a point I made in the talk is that everybody takes English when you go to the university. It’s the course that touches virtually every student who comes through, and it’s also that the composition course is the foundation for all the reading and writing that students will do throughout the rest of their university studies. So it’s very fundamental. Changes in it are going to affect education throughout the four-year program and beyond.

Kokai: English composition was taught in what way when you started, and how has it changed?

Young: When I started, it was taught mostly by tenure-track faculty, usually by assistant professors of the sort I was at the time. Essentially, what we did was bring to the course our training in literature: how to read rich, complex works and understand them, and then how to write about them. We used the skills that we ourselves were developing as budding scholars of writing and organizing ideas and writing as best we could in a reasonable, clear, and literate style. We taught the students in our classes almost in an apprentice fashion, let’s say. We taught them the things that we were doing.

Over the course of the last 30 to 40 years, composition teaching has been taken over by a kind of cadre of theorists who keep coming up with new, different sorts of social science-based ideas of how students learn. They have banished literature from the writing classroom. I have heard many of them say that reading and writing have nothing to do with each other, which sounds to me like saying talking and listening have nothing to do with each other. Of course, we’ve all run into people who talk without listening, but I don’t think that’s a good example. So it’s a bad idea.

Nowadays, tenure-track faculty, even assistant professors, don’t ever teach freshman composition. They haven’t had the theoretical training. They haven’t studied a little watered-down cognitive science. So instead of teaching composition being a practice that older, more experienced writers share with young novices in the field, it’s become almost a sort of pseudo-scientific discipline in which they’re manipulated into learning how to do things according to the scheme that the theorists have developed.

Kokai: With the change that you just outlined, what types of problems does that create for students and their ability to learn the type of knowledge they need when they get out of a university?

Young: In freshman composition nowadays, they do some reading, but it’s always contemporary and, in my view, rather shallow, timely things about popular culture. They are not asked to read and reflect upon what we would call the classics of Western literature and thought. I’m using literature rather broadly here. I don’t mean just stories, plays, poems, novels, that sort of thing. I would consider in this context Aristotle and Plato and John Locke, to take a nice example, as works of literature, classic works that have laid the foundations of Western civilization. If they know these works, have been forced to read them carefully, think about them, write about them, then they will be able to judge and assess the things that are coming at them at record pace over the Internet and through all the various digital media, all that information and data out there. They’ll at least have some basis for assessing it, judging it, evaluating it.

The way we’re teaching freshman composition, we are basically steeping the students in the world they’re already in, the student world of texting and twittering and pop culture and that kind of thing, so they’re trapped in it. They never get out of it. It’s as if they are being kept in an extended childhood, insofar as the content of their courses is the content of their texting and their Facebook pages and so on.

Kokai: To some extent — I’m paraphrasing you, so please correct me if I’m wrong — but I got the sense from your presentation that because these students are not being taught in the traditional way, they’re not getting the ammunition they need to confront all of the pundits and politicians who will tell them what those pundits and politicians think they want to hear.

Young: That’s exactly right. If all you’ve ever read are popular accounts of emerging issues — and it doesn’t matter if it’s someone on the left or on the right — if all you know is what people are saying right now with a specific political agenda, you don’t know the sources of Western civilization, Western politics, morals, religion, that these current commentators and politicians are trying to reinforce, change, make an impact of some kind on. So you can’t really bring a learned judgment to it.

Just take politics: If you haven’t read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics and Cicero’s speeches and people like Locke and Hobbes, people like Edmund Burke, then you don’t have a basis for deciding between, say, George Bush and John Kerry, or Barack Obama and John McCain. If you have read this long tradition, then you have a context in which to assess people who are trying to persuade you to make very important decisions nowadays. You’ve got a context for judging it.

Kokai: If we wanted to change the situation and return some of the critical thinking that is actually part of the education process — and not what passes for critical thinking today — what would change?

Young: We would have to have a far more set, rigorous curriculum than we do now. Freshman composition should be two semesters rather than one, as it is now. It should involve substantial reading in standard classic works from the past of the Western tradition. The curriculum, on the whole, should have more common courses. Students can get a degree in most institutions of higher learning nowadays, and they will have no common core at all. They may not have read any of the same books, learned any of the same skills. In order to be educated, you have to share a common fund of knowledge, an outlook, a set of skills, with other educated men and women. What we’ve got now is a huge smorgasbord.