Why Do College Students Find Composition Classes Such a Pain?
No one will ever admit it at a meeting of composition faculty, but it is no secret that students commonly find taking a composition course a painful experience. Moreover, this is not some recent development which cranky old people can chalk up to “these lazy kids today,” but rather seems to have been the case for as long as composition classes have been around. Thus did William H. Whyte quip off-handedly in his 1955 classic of sociology The Organization Man that “As anyone who has ever tried to teach composition knows, the student who has yet to master it would give anything to be done with the chore.”
It seems to me worth discussing just why that is. For the time being let us aside the familiar problem of the teacher who gets underprepared, lazy students cynical toward schooling in general; and the student who gets an undertrained or unmotivated teacher working with a questionable textbook and questionable teaching strategies. These situations are, of course, ever present. But even more fundamental is the essence of how composition classes work, what they demand of students, how students experience them, when they are taught at their best to receptive students as well as when they are taught badly to the underprepared and unwilling. As it happens, even here one does not have to search very far for factors that can make even a reasonably willing and able student to feel ready to “give anything to be done with the chore.”
Five strike me as particularly noteworthy.
Reason #1: Composition Classes are Mandatory.
First and foremost, composition tends to be mandatory. This may not seem terribly unusual. After all, the core curriculum in colleges tends to feature many different requirements. However, in fulfilling a math, science or humanities requirement students usually have a range of options. In practice, at least, these tend to include options which are easier than others, giving those students unenthusiastic about course work in a subject area a relatively simple way of meeting the requirement, and then moving on with their college career. (Not a math person? You can take “Finite Math.” Or maybe even just a computer course.)
By contrast, it is likely to be the case that everyone has to take the same “composition 101” course, and often a “composition 102” afterward, no wriggle room available in their situation. This means that a great many students who would not choose to take composition — because they do not see it as relevant to their later studies and personal career plans, or simply because they do not like it — are forced to do so, and for not one but two semesters.
All by itself, this is enough to fill composition classes with students dubious about it. The fact that many find the class more difficult than they were led to believe it would be does not help.
Reason #2: Composition Classes are Skills-Centered.
Composition is not a subject where one amasses facts, and gradually learns to process them, the way they might in a science or history course, for example. A well-taught science class would teach them, alongside some of the basic facts of the field, something about thinking scientifically (give them a firmer grasp of the scientific method, for example), while a well-taught history class would teach them something about how to think like a historian (as by teaching them to evaluate sources and use the information they get from them to reconstruct what happened in the past, how, why). However, the base of facts would at the more basic stages be primary, the subtler skill secondary.
By contrast it is the extreme opposite in composition, the mental skill almost everything. This means that the emphasis is on brain-work that, while demanding and essential, proceeds in a slower, fuzzier fashion than the memorization of facts.
For example, a student cannot learn to write a good thesis on demand just by memorizing a textbook definition of a thesis (which tends to be badly written anyway). Instead they have to assimilate that knowledge, typically by coming to a deep understanding of how thesis statements work through close reading of many of them, and then practicing the writing of thesis statements over time. Some will learn to write more quickly and master writing more thoroughly than others, but the principle holds for everyone.
Making matters more complicated, writing skills are not separable from other skills like reading and critical thinking. A student who is not an able reader and critical thinker is unlikely to improve their writing without also acquiring those skills, and unfortunately K-12 education show less specific attention to those other skills than they do writing. Indeed, a student’s first serious encounter with the terms “close reading,” “critical reading” and “critical thinking” is likely to be in that composition classroom. Naturally, having their grade depend on their ability to do these unfamiliar things in which they have not previously been trained (rather than repeat what they have been told on demand) is likely to come as something of a rude shock.
Reason #3: Composition Classes Require Students to Be Intellectuals.
In a composition class a student may be presented with a text such as, for instance, a brief article about the marketing of American food brands in Europe in the 1990s, and told to read it closely and critically, discuss it, write about it.
The situation may seem odd. What does the marketing of food brands have to do with composition?
Strictly speaking, nothing whatsoever. But one must have something on which to exercise, to practice, the reading, thinking, writing skills the class is intended to teach, and an article on the marketing of food brands is not necessarily worse than any other for the purpose — the intellectual activity involved in engaging with the material the real point of the activity.
In that stress on reading, thinking, writing for the sake of reading, thinking, writing, students are asked to “be intellectuals” — to take an interest in subjects that may not have immediate practical use to them — for the purposes of mastering the skills a composition class sets out to teach.
This seems reasonable enough to college instructors, but it is something relatively new to many college students. Once again, their prior academic experience required more listening and note-taking, more memorization and recall on homework assignments and tests where there is a clear, correct answer (even when they may have had to give essay answers), than this more exploratory and less obviously utilitarian activity. Additionally, besides being different from their prior experience, having to read, think, write like this can also be experienced as more demanding, and less certain; more is asked of them, while they are less sure of what is wanted. And that, frequently, makes students dislike it the more, especially if they are inclined to see the demands made on them in school as essentially annoyances on the way to getting the diploma that would enable them to get a “good job.” The reality that anti-intellectualism is a very significant force in contemporary culture also encourages cynicism toward this kind of course work, to which classes in the arts and humanities (like composition) are particularly vulnerable.
Reason #4: Grading in Composition Classes is Not “Subjective” — But Can Look That Way.
As might be guessed, perceptions of the grading of their work in such courses hurt rather than help matters. Students commonly think of English, and especially its writing component, as an area where the grading criteria are subjective, because there is often no single answer to an essay assignment, and because quantifying the assessment of writing seems such an uneven process.
Yet, this is not at all the case. Anyone will concede that such matters as spelling, grammar and the conventions of citation are not subjective. Whether one uses the spelling “sale” or “sail” in a piece of writing is not a matter of personal preference — and the objective element in the assessment of a piece of writing does not stop there. Even aspects of prose style can be judged objectively. For example, there is unlikely to be any doubt about whether a sentence (for example, “The door was opened”) is written in passive voice or active voice, and whether the use of passive voice instead of the preferred use of active voice was justified by any practical advantage in communication. And of course, contrary to what some may think, even the more “intellectual” aspect of the work can be assessed in a fairly objective way-as with the matter of whether a paper has a thesis in it, or whether a thesis is being supported by evidence rather than merely being asserted.
In fact, composition can be rather like those famously “objective” subjects, science and math. A student writing an argumentative paper has to consider a possible position about the world, examine the evidence for and against it, and draw a conclusion — just as in the scientific method, where one forms a hypothesis, tests it, and evaluates the result of the test. They have to explain their reasoning to their reader — “showing their work,” like a science student writing up a lab report, or a math student demonstrating how they arrived at the solution to a problem. And in organizing what they have to say they are likely to rely on clear-cut and rigorous thought-structures like the three-pronged thesis statement, the five-paragraph essay, or the “comparison and contrast” pattern of development — in a word, formulas.
The fact that composition is skills-centered and places a high stress on rigorous reasoning, rigorously assessed, would by itself be enough to make it an unpopular subject — just as math so frequently is. However, there is an added complication here, namely that while students find the class difficult because it is rigorous in these ways, they do not recognize it as being so.
Despite what students are supposed to be learning in these courses they are likely to persist in the view that composition, English and the humanities in general are “soft” subjects, in which grades are handed out arbitrarily, or close to it. This is partly because of the manner in which students are assessed, and grades handed out. In a math class the teacher’s choice and wording of test questions, or their readiness to award credit for partial work or grade on a curve, are as much a matter of individual judgment as anything an English teacher does in their class. However, the apparently right-or-wrong nature of the answers on the test, and the quantitative scoring, do much to diminish the sense of arbitrariness — a 65 on a math test (superficially) harder to argue with than a “D” on a term paper.
Reason #5: Composition Classes Require Students to Revise Papers.
It is bad enough to get a grade one does not agree with. It is still worse to get a detailed, critical examination of their work — and be forced to acknowledge that examination by having to go back and modify the paper in substantive ways.
That may not sound like a big problem to those who don’t write, but really, it is. The truth is that even professional writers with lengthy experience of being edited and published often find revision a painful, even wrenching experience (often, much more so than producing a piece of writing in a new piece of writing to replace the old entirely), to the point of resisting it when possible. It is therefore not really surprising to find that first-year college students are unenthusiastic about it, and likewise resisting it. Asked to revise their paper they will limit themselves to the most actionable adjustments the instructor ordered. If told their paper lacks organization, for example, that its thesis is less clear than it might be, presents its supporting arguments in no particular order, and contains much that is irrelevant to anything they might be saying, they will often ignore all that and just fix the indicated comma splices — thinking of the instructor as their editor, not their grader. (Indeed, they often get angry if fixing the comma splices does not get them an “A,” which they insist that every teacher they ever had gave them.) Meanwhile even those who make an honest, serious effort, may still fall short of the grade they hope for. This makes them still more frustrated with and resentful of the process. And in the end, an instructor is likely to find that no aspect of their interaction with their students is more rancorous than this one.
So there you have it, five major reasons — the mandatory, skills-centered, “intellectual” nature of the class, with its supposed “subjective” grading and burden of revision — that make students dislike it as much as they do. Having said all this it would seem that this is where the persons who has offered such comment is expected, to quote another celebrated ‘50s-era sociologist, set about “softening the facts into the optimistic, practical, forward-looking, cordial, brisk view,” not least by offering some solutions to the problem they have raised — preferably solutions that they can apply all by themselves without help or support from anyone else to miraculous result. Alas, not only is the demand reflective of a desire to avoid facts rather than face them, but the expectation of solutions of that type is often unreasonable, with this case no exception, especially when we are discussing those problems that are most “built into” this kind of class.
Still, that is not to say that we could not be doing better. The most important thing we could do to make such classes more useful would be cultivating a societal attitude more respectful of verbal skills — recognizing that reading, thinking and writing go together, that these are skills to be assimilated rather than injunctions to be memorized, that performance here is not “subjective,” that what looks at a glance like “useless intellectualism” can be a valuable training tool — not least as part of better equipping students for this training through an improvement of teaching in grades K-12. Of course, such a change can hardly be produced overnight, even if people who have a real say in these matters care about them, which they do not. (At least in the mainstream of our media and our political life all the pious chatter about “education” is almost invariably about a plethora of other agendas, not actually securing better learning outcomes, even as a means to an end.) However, it does seem to me that clarity on the reality — the instructor understanding what they are asking of students who may not have been properly prepared for all this and may quite understandably be doubtful about the value of the class, and being frank with their students about it — can go some way to bridging the gap between them, and make a better result possible.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.