In my experience with developmental composition classes, most of the teachers and most of the students involved are pretty frustrated. Many of the problems stem from the fact that students were not well prepared for academic writing much earlier in their learning careers, either in underfunded and badly mismanaged American schools or in non-English learning environments (naturally enough). Beyond that, sometimes the lack of progress seems inexplicable. I suspect, though, that a great deal of it comes from a fundamental error in how composition is taught.
Here’s an interesting essay: “The Term Paper Artist,” by Nick Mamatas. Mamatas is a writer who worked for several years as a term-paper ghostwriter (he notes that it’s technically legal, but fails to mention that it’s undoubtedly cause for expulsion or a grade of F at almost any university). Go ahead and read it if you want–I’m about to spoil the punchline, which is what I consider to be the dirty little secret of American college composition courses. Mamatas writes:
I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.
It’s because students have never read term papers.
Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see … Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” … That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.
YES. This is one of the reasons I have very little interest in teaching developmental or standard composition/college English. Generally, instructors present students with writing models taken from either popular or classic essays, usually either literary or journalistic in nature. These essays are often well written and sometimes even appeal to students. These essays almost never resemble the college in-class essays, take-home essays, term papers, or research papers that students are expected to write. In some classes students don’t even see essays at all, only pieces of literature provided as “prompts.” What on earth are they supposed to do? Essays may have become second nature to teachers, but they’re really quite artificial constructions. Students can’t produce them out of whole cloth.
We know that students need lots of models in order to produce output that resembles the models. We know students need to read lots of well-written English in order to produce well-structured English. Why on earth do we give them literary/journalistic input and expect academic output? Students would be a lot better off reading exemplary student essays than reading Pulitzer Prize winners.
There seems to be massive resistance to changing this approach. To be fair, there are a handful of composition textbooks out there that include student essays, but they seem to be less popular, or if they’re used, the teachers don’t emphasize the student essays. I’m not sure why–I suspect a misguided belief in the inherently enlightening nature of Great Writing, which I think is nonsense, or perhaps the longings of literature teachers who would really rather not be teaching developmental courses at all. (I can’t blame them, but it just means we really need more full-time specialists and TESOL professionals.) Whatever the reason is, I think composition teachers need to take a good hard look at how many essay and full-length term paper models they are providing to their students. If the answer is “none” or even “less than half of the course readings,” it’s probably time to reconsider just what is being taught.
(Of course, if academic writing bears little resemblance to any writing found outside of academia, there’s another question to be asked–why invent a genre and enforce its rules and train people in it if it only exists during the short time period of college life? But let’s not open that can of worms right now.)