Ch. 4: “What is First-Year Composition?”

Downs’ chapter was incredibly interesting to me, and he addressed many of the issues that appear to be common for everyone involved with first-year composition courses.  To put my own (lack of) expertise and experience in place with many of the other people in class, I don’t teach any of the ENGL 103 sections, so I am sure my opinion is skewed and may differ drastically from others.  That said, my point-of-view comes more as a student (who took a first-year comp class seven years ago) and not as someone who teaches these classes.

Many of the points that Downs makes throughout his chapter seem to be inherent, but they deserve much more recognition and exploration.  The passages that I found most interesting focused on the fact that many first-year composition courses worry much more about form than they do about function.  He writes, “Another implication: If FYC teaches only transcription of existing ideas into print, its focus can be on form (grammar); but with invention in play, FYC must also consider content” (Downs 55).  While I agree that it is absolutely necessary for MOST freshmen to clean up grammatical and stylistic errors, this cannot be the only focus of the class.  Freshmen need to learn how to write about a topic (whether it interests them or not, which I am sure comes up quite often regardless of the material that students are assigned) with clarity and succinctness.

To put what I am saying in a more palpable place: the professor who taught my FYC class basically had the class mapped out and did not allow the students to actually grow as writers.  What I mean is this: on my first paper, I got a C.  On the second, I got a B.  And on the final paper, I got a B+.  Truth be told, I don’t think my writing improved.  I didn’t approach the second and third assignments with the intent to “write better” and implement what I had learned, which wasn’t much.  Many of the other students in the class noticed the same trend in their grades: they started off doing “good enough” work, and finished up the course with a high “B” or B+…but never an A, because we were freshmen in an FYC class who did not write well enough to merit an A–yet.

This approach ruined the class for me.  It was formulaic and bland, and I genuinely felt that there was nothing I could take from the class except the necessity to try harder on the next paper simply to improve my grade.  This is a dangerous position to put students in, and I think that this professor ultimately failed at making me a better writer–or prepared to write papers in different disciplines throughout my undergraduate career.

Downs also points out that having a set approach to teaching a FYC course is dangerous and could limit a student’s ability to grow.  He writes, “FYC is meant to teach universal rules for good writing, stable and immutable” (56).  If a professor does take this kind of approach, they are already limiting the product that a student may be able to produce, because any writing that does not fall within these sets of rules may be punished with a poor grade.

What Downs seems to be getting at is that these classes HAVE to prepare freshmen for the writing they’ll need to do over the next four years, regardless of the nature of the assignment or the subject matter.  For me–again, from an outsider’s perspective–this chapter was incredibly interesting and raised many questions and concerns that I would never consider about FYC.


Author: mikefitzpatrick03

Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at Salisbury University Arcadia University '14 Former college basketball player and SAAC rep

One thought on “Ch. 4: “What is First-Year Composition?””

  1. I too was quite interested in the passages you identified about educating students in style versus content. As a freelance English tutor, currently in training to become a professional tutor, I have long struggled to help students understand what, exactly, makes a good piece of writing. Too often, students uninterested or unskilled in writing believe that stylistic elements set better writing apart from their own, when in fact their structural elements are more often the problem. Students credit prose, grammar, breadth of vocabulary, and other cosmetic devices for the perceived quality of a paper, and will strive to improve these – or find a tutor who can improve those aspects for them. In doing so, these students unfortunately neglect structural elements like constructing a thesis, making an argument with evidence, and logical sequence of the piece.

    The emphasis of FYC on those cosmetic errors only worsens the problem. Professors of FYC must understand that students unversed in writing are in much stronger need of structural training than correction of such cosmetic errors.


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