Last semester, one of my students in my introductory composition course wrote a paper on the production and use of industrial and biological nitrogen fixation fertilizers. For the first time in my teaching experience, I felt that I had to do some research and extra readings in order to comprehend the content of the paper and provide feedback to the student. Luckily, I found lots of helpful information on the subject of the paper (thanks to Google), which gave me the knowledge that I didn’t have before and allowed me to appropriately respond to the student’s essay. And although this experience turned out to be a success, I am not sure if all writing instructors would have enough time and resources to invest in each of their students’ paper the way I did in that one.
So perhaps many teachers can relate to Spack’s (1988) arguments about teaching students “general principles of inquiry and rhetoric” (p. 29) instead of giving them tasks that “we ourselves cannot master” (p. 47) and thus doing students a disservice by not being able to provide appropriate feedback due to our “lack of control over content” (p. 37).
Providing Clear Objectives
However, while teaching students particular strategies and giving them tools that they can use in their future writing in different disciplines, we also need to make our objectives and purposes transparent. For example, Maimon mentioned peer review as a way of helping students become “socialized into the academic community” (as cited in Spack, 1988, p. 45). Although peer review can indeed help achieve this goal, I would be surprised if students were aware of it. Therefore, we need to make it clear to students why we do certain activities or why we assign certain tasks. For example, in my classes, I sometimes directly ask my students in the middle of a task, “Why are we doing this?” just to make sure that we are all on the same page.
Making our objectives transparent will not only help students in their future academic and professional experiences, but it will also help them stay more motivated, which in turn will make our own lessons rewarding experiences. For example, when I teach students how to write a research proposal, I like to discuss other types of proposals that they will most likely write in the future, as well as proposals that I myself have written and the successes that I had with well-written proposals.
At the same time, I believe it’s helpful for composition instructors to be aware of writing genres that students will encounter after they finish their first-year composition course as well as writing skills that they will need the most. Two years ago, I attended a conference session where presenters shared the results of the survey that they conducted to find out reading and writing expectations of college professors for students. The data collected from 157 faculty representing 114 departments from 30 U.S. institutions were able to impart the researchers with a greater understanding of how to better prepare second language writers for academic success. Similar to this national survey, local institutional research needs to be done to determine the needs of students in a particular institution and even in a particular major.
In addition, writing instructors could also conduct classroom-based research to examine the effectiveness of their courses in preparing students for their future writing experiences in college. For example, I have always wondered how effective my composition course is in terms of preparing students for their discipline-specific writing at the university. As an instructor, I wasn’t sure what kinds of writing students were expected to produce beyond the first-year composition course, but I had a keen desire to make this course as effective as possible. So I undertook a small-scale study whose purposes were to examine teacher and student perspectives on the effectiveness of the first-year composition course in preparing students for discipline-specific writing, to gain a better understanding of discipline-specific writing students have in college, to examine composition teachers’ awareness of discipline-specific writing students have in college, and to propose suggestions on how to improve first-year composition to better prepare students for discipline-specific writing in college. Although the scope of the study was rather small, I was able to gain valuable information that helped me modify the course.
We don’t have to be proficient in students’ majors to make our composition courses effective. Teaching general writing skills and making it clear for students how they can use them in their future writing is the best we can do to prepare our students for discipline-specific writing. Many freshmen may not be fully aware of the writing expectations in their content courses; therefore, the composition course can and should be the gateway into their academic experiences at the university.
Spack, R. (1988). Initiating ESL students into the academic discourse community: How far should we go? TESOL Quarterly, 22, 29–51.