The failure of schools from kindergarten through college to impart basic literacy skills is becoming so obvious that even academics are starting to acknowledge it.
“A big complaint from composition teachers is that other professors complain that their students can’t write,” Dr. Thomas Lawrence Long said at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Dr. Long teaches composition at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, VA.
A survey of 133 faculty members at TNCC revealed that 70 percent of those professors surveyed assigned writing assignments of at least five to ten pages. One-third of these professors assigned essays.
“Those professors who complain about their students’ writing will not put in extra time teaching writing,” Dr. Long notes. “At Chico State [in California] the professors refused to do so based on their union contract,” according to Dr. Mary Boland of Cal State-San Bernadino.
“A course labeled writing-intensive is a snare and a trap because it makes writing someone else’s problem,” Dr. Deborah Holdstein concludes. Dr. Holdstein teaches at Northern Illinois University.
The MLA, which the professors addressed, is the largest conclave of English professors in the United States. Long known for its left-of-center orientation, the annual confab is a central hiring zone for struggling Ph.D.’s seeking university berths as well as an out-of-town tryout venue for professors seeking to introduce new “progressive” courses.
Indeed, judging from the comments of this MLA panel on composition, the “relevance” content of college composition courses is not likely to give way to fundamentals of writing and communications anytime soon.
“The matter with composition is that we have a mission but not matter,” Dr. Long said. “The mission is to improve critical reading and writing skills.”
Dr. Boland derides criticism of composition courses that is based on whether rules of grammar are adhered to in those classes. “We’ve got to reject the commonplace but bankrupt idea about literacy and composition,” Dr. Boland told an appreciative crowd of 50 at one of the MLA panels on composition. “Academic freedom is at stake.”
Dr. Boland views as “superfluous” and “harmful” the insistence of English language traditionalists that college composition courses focus on such concepts as “How to write footnotes and works cited, triteness, topic sentences and parallelism” as well as “cogency and audience.”
She claims “conservative elements” that voice such concerns shut down writing centers at the University of Rochester, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas at Austin. Not only does she admit that the “conservative elements” she warns of on campuses are far from numerous, but the examples she gives of their efforts are a decade old.
As to what should be done to upgrade composition courses on campus, none of the panelists disagreed with Dr. Holdstein. “We need a well-funded university-wide effort,” Dr. Holdstein concluded.
“Marx was right. He has the same birthday I do so I’m prejudiced.”
Oliver Stone has the same birthday I do but I have never regarded him as an oracle.
By the way, none of the panelists noted that 30 years ago, composition was a high-school subject, not a college class.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.