I’ve spent that last couple of weeks designing my section of English 100, or what other colleges and universities call freshman composition. It’s the course some students don’t want to take and it’s the course some graduate students and professors don’t want to teach. Freshman composition is also the course some administrators want to abolish. These perspectives on the one class just about every undergraduate takes before they graduate have been around since its birth at Harvard University in 1894. Yet freshman composition hasn’t run out steam partly because “the literacy crisis” (basically, the idea that our students can neither write a coherent sentence on paper nor read and comprehend an actually coherent sentence) never goes away, partly because composition and rhetoric has established itself has a discipline, and partly because freshman composition constantly transforms itself.
I myself have always enjoyed teaching freshman composition because programs, at least in the two I’ve taught in, offer a lot of freedom for designing the course, and that freedom, I think, is needed to show students that being placed in the course isn’t a bad thing. If you’re really daring and creative, you can make composition rewarding and fun for students. As a way to jumpstart my designing English 100, I’ve begun to ask myself this question: “How can I make my class rewarding and fun for my students and for myself?” I usually begin with what I think are fundamental aspects of writing that my freshmen should takeaway from my class:
- Adapt to new rhetorical situations and writing genres
- Learning how to write is a lifelong process
- Language is contextual
- Writing is design
- Readers will remember your ideas; they won’t remember your perfect comma placement
- Writing shapes our perception of reality
Writing is design and writing shapes our perception of reality are big concepts for me. Writing is design is a very broad way of saying, “Hey, we don’t just write essays; we also communicate using images, sounds, gestures, and spaces. Strangely enough, I’m really interested in both analog and digital ways of communicating.” But that also sets the foundation for design thinking. Writing shapes our perception of reality points to the real world consequences of what we write. It’s hard to see that because students write in a controlled environment, so I try to bring in personal accounts from the real world that detail how writing has shaped their lives, the people around them, entire countries . . .
My goal here is to show students that they aren’t just working on skills of utility; they should understand that there are consequences to writing and that its a bit more nuanced than they think, and, most important, they often engage in these consequences and nuances all the time. In this way, I want my students to reward and meaning from my course. I hope that exploring these concepts will help students see writing in a different way and take that perspective with them in other courses and beyond.