The Black Box and the Purpose of Freshman English

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:

  • Take responsibility for yourself. You may be on your own for the first time. No one will wake you up in the morning, remind you to go to class, make you start that assignment early enough, or bail you out when you screw up. It is your responsibility to do what you need to do.
  • Motivate yourself to do well. Without the motivation, you won’t do the work, and you will fail. The motivation to do well has to come from you. If you are truly not motivated, consider postponing college and working at whatever job you can get. Then start college when you are motivated to do well.
  • Get counseling, if you need to resolve personal problems that are keeping you from doing your best, . Most colleges have a counseling center.
  • Go to every class. If you were up too late last night studying or socializing, you will be tempted to turn off the alarm and skip that early class. Drag your tired body out of bed, get dressed, and get to class. If you attend regularly, professors will be more understanding if you really are sick or really need to miss class.
  • Do the work. Do all assignments to the best of your ability and turn them in on time. Read the syllabus to find what your professor expects, then meet the expectations. Plan on working at least two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Doing well at anything in life requires hard work.
  • Do the work efficiently. Find a study technique that works and use it. What worked and allowed you to get by in high school might not work in college.
  • Solve your own problems. You will have problems; that’s part of life. Don’t call Mom or Dad to fix everything for you. Get help when you need it, but part of becoming an adult is learning to do things for yourself. (If you are a parent reading this, stop being a helicopter parent. Give your son or daughter the gift of adulthood.)
  • Find a balance. Work hard, but have fun too. Make friends. Find time to play. Just don’t play so much you neglect your work.
  • Exercise regularly. Your brain is part of your body, so you cannot have a good brain in an unhealthy body. Be physically fit. Avoid gaining the freshman fifteen. If you have a regular exercise program, keep it up. If not, start walking, running, or some other aerobic exercise.

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.


  1. Excellent piece, Charlie.

    Some compositionists buck at the notion that we are somehow more responsible for students’ academic socialization than other instructors. They see this as yet another attempt to make FYE a “service course” whose primary function is to prepare students for other, more important courses across the curriculum. They contend that composition is a full-fledged academic discipline in its own right, and it shouldn’t be subservient to other fields.

    I disagree with this position. I’m as annoyed as anyone with the low status of composition, but the fact is we’re granted a unique opportunity as instructors of small, required courses for first-year students. Privileging student needs, rather than defending disciplianary turf, is a more humane approach.

  2. Charlie,

    I really enjoyed reading this piece–it captures the dilemma I always find myself in: am I the students’ teacher, or their mother? Before class starts I sometimes remind students to eat well, dress appropriately for the weather, and get enough sleep. Sometimes problems develop when I express a holistic interest in their college success-they use “outside” concerns like not having gotten to sleep enough for doing subpar work.

    I agree with Jim that I’d rather be a mix of parent and teacher rather than just teacher, though. Many of my students seem in need of support and kindness, as well as an awareness of their lives outside school, and it doesn’t seem ethical to neglect those elements.

    Interesting thoughts, and thank you for sharing!



    P.S. I also agree strongly with Heckert’s concerns about the importance of exercise-we should all go to the gym or jog daily!

  3. For my own part, I find it tough to keep my metaphoric black box closed once I’ve shut it. I completely agree with you that instructors need to avoid being helicopter parents, yet sometimes I find myself doing things like e-mailing students reminders of due dates, reminding a student who’s missed four classes that she will fail if she misses one more, and checking up on students who haven’t shown up in a while. Are these helpful practices, or do they foster dependency? (Whoa, got some Rick Santorum language creeping in there.) It can be difficult at times to reconcile the University’s (and my own) desire to increase retention and help students succeed with my competing desire to set clear, commonsensical rules and then leave it up to students to meet with their responsibilities without any prodding.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  4. I am intrigued by the “terrified” looks.

    I am struggling with figuring out when (and how, really) to shut my own black box. And by black box, I mean tattered leather satchel. I feel very aligned with the same questions Kathryn asks in her comment.

    I think Heckert’s list is really nice and I need to share it with my own students; some real gems in there. But I also think his list extends beyond freshman–my own academic success still hinges on each of those items. Thank you for including this.

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