I tell my students on the first day of class when we go over the syllabus that it will not be the most stimulating conversation they have ever had. And I am always right. The first day of the semester, at least for me, is always an example of me attempting to put my best foot forward, but the result is always the same. At the end of the lengthy 50 minute lecture on when things need to be turned in, how many points you lose on your final grade for excessive absences, and that a participation grade doesn’t merely imply being physically present I always get the same terrified, doe-eyed looks.
The same terrified glances become even more pronounced when I bring out my black filing box that I use to store their final folders. I tell them plainly that at 10 minutes past the hour the box closes and doesn’t reopen, even if your folder isn’t in there. This seems unusually harsh for the students at the beginning of the semester and at first there are still students that rush in at 10:11 out of breath and pleading. But after the first series of papers the late arrivals all but completely cease.
Last semester, at the conclusion of one of my 1301 courses, a student approached me and made the statement that, although she thought the course was challenging, that one of the most rewarding aspects was that it made her more responsible. She claimed that my policies regarding tardiness, absences, and late assignments forced her to be more accountable in both her other courses and her part-time job. What the student seemed to take away from the class was not only a working knowledge of composition, but an introduction into academic life.
Thinking back on these things brings up a seemingly trivial question that has nevertheless been agonized over for a number of years: what precisely is the purpose of Freshman English beyond the teaching of composition?
In “The Problems with Freshman English (Only)” John Trimbur makes a number of scathing critiques in regards to the way that Freshman English is taught throughout the nation. Above all he claims that Freshman English should:
“…help entering students survive in a hostile environment, crack the academic code, repair the damage done by high school English teachers, and enjoy writing. It should meet institutional needs by increasing retention and adding value to the ‘freshman experience,’ as well as certifying literacy levels and protecting the credibility of the undergraduate degree. Not only that, the course should meet employer needs for workers who can ‘communicate effectively,’ multitask, operate computers, and work on teams. It should respond to whatever literacy crisis is happening at the moment, negotiate differences in the ‘contact zone,’ denaturalize the media and mass culture, and stop the decline of public discourse by making a generation of slackers into responsible citizens who read the newspaper, vote, and participate in community service” (14).
In my opinion the first sentence of Trimbur’s statement resonates particularly because it addresses an often overlooked purpose to Freshman English (or at the very least one that didn’t occur to me before I started teaching). Trimbur’s first remark that a purpose of Freshman English is to “help entering students survive in a hostile environment” is interesting because it speaks to the dual nature of many of the policies and assignments that we include in our 1301 and 1302 syllabi. I can remember on a number of occasions while having my students write their Discourse Community Analysis how, not only did I begin to see how they were learning to incorporate the rhetorical appeals and intricacies of the argumentative strategies we discussed, but more importantly how it helped propel them into intelligent and tolerant classroom discussions with their peers.
On so many occasions I have read that the purpose of Freshman Composition is to introduce students to college writing. However, isn’t it just as true that the purpose seems to be the introduction into college itself as well? As Trimbur mentions, one of the goals of Freshman English is to “repair the damage done by high school English teachers.” Though I do not take such a harsh stance, isn’t it true that, along with teaching students that academic writing doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but is contingent on a specific audience, that we also try to impress upon our students the fact that this is college and that success in any course relies on personal responsibility and diligence, as does life.
In “Tips for Freshman Academic Success” Paul A. Heckert lists the following things as crucial for incoming college students:
With the exception of Heckert’s ambiguous workout routine listed above, most of the aforementioned suggestions are things that we teach, although sometimes indirectly, in Freshman Composition. I have personally begun to include workshops in my classes that are devoted solely to making schedules that outline when they are able to work on their 1301 and 1302 assignments, while making sure that manage their other courses and work schedules.
However, I think one of the most important things to remember from Heckert’s piece is the idea that 1301 and 1302 instructors need to avoid being “helicopter parents.” Though I think it is interesting and helpful to think of Freshman English as an introduction into academic life, it is essential to recognize that attempting to regulate too much is detrimental. One must remember that when the black box shuts, it stays closed.