Deconstructing Composition

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment



Colleges and universities pride themselves on producing erudite citizens. Nevertheless, by nearly available benchmark, they are failing in this regard, although they don’t seem to realize it.

“While M. B. A. students’ quantitative skills are prized by employers, their writing and presentation skills have been a perennial complaint,” Diana Middleton wrote in The Wall Street Journal on March 3, 2011. “Employers and writing coaches say business-school graduates tend to ramble, use pretentious vocabulary or pen too-casual emails.”

“Meanwhile, the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test, says average essay scores on the GMAT fell to 4.4 out of 6 in 2010, from 4.7 out of 6 in 2007.” Actually, the problem starts long before the graduates arrive at business school, if they ever get there.

“Over the course of the last 30 to 40 years, composition teaching has been taken over by a kind of cadre of theorists who keep coming up with new, different sorts of social science-based ideas of how students learn,” English professor R. V. Young told the Carolina Journal’s Mitch Kokai. “They have banished literature from the writing classroom.”

“I have heard many of them say that reading and writing have nothing to do with each other, which sounds to me like saying talking and listening have nothing to do with each other.”  Young teaches at North Carolina State University and also edits the journal, Modern Age.

“In freshman composition nowadays, they do some reading, but it’s always contemporary and, in my view, rather shallow, timely things about popular culture,” Young told Kokai. “They are not asked to read and reflect upon what we would call the classics of Western literature and thought.”

“I’m using literature rather broadly here.”

“Most people don’t care if anyone reads the Great Books anymore but they do care about writing.” Scott Jaschik, the editor and founder of InsiderHigherEd.Com, told an appreciative audience at a Modern Language Society meeting in Philadelphia in 2006.  Elsewhere at the MLA that year, professors pondered other ways in which they could sever the link between the two.

“We’ve moved away from standardized English to the language that students use at home, on the street and with their friends and it has helped us,” Penn State professor Cynthia Glenn said. She did not say whether it has helped her students.

“The way we’re teaching freshman composition, we are basically steeping the students in the world they’re already in, the student world of texting and twittering and pop culture and that kind of thing, so they’re trapped in it,” Dr. Young said.

“To the best of my knowledge there was no overt abandonment of an explicitly “advanced” course (so defined in contrast to high school composition) in favor of something simpler,” Dr. Young observed in an e-mail to us.  “Instead, there was a conscious effort to replace a course based on teaching old-fashioned grammar, logic, and rhetoric by means of essays based on careful reading of classic literature and other works of acknowledged excellence with an effort to teach composition in conjunction with assumptions about learning based on ‘cognitive science’ and by means of a deep involvement with popular culture.”



Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

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