There are many different names for it — English 101, Freshman English, Freshman Composition, First Year Composition — and just as many ways to teach it. Many colleges teach it as a literature course where students read poems and plays. Other colleges focus on library research and term papers. Some prefer a classical approach, emphasizing rhetoric, persuasion, and critical analysis of published works. Some instructors must follow a rigid curriculum provided by their English department while others are free to create their own course.
No one does it the same way, so here is my approach:
The first year of college marks the student's entrance into two communities: the academic community and the civic community. They have arrived at an institution where people engage in research and debate that advances human knowledge. They have also recently become adults with the right to vote and the responsibility to engage in civic affairs. Involvement in both academic and civic communities takes place primarily through writing, so my composition classes are designed to teach students both forms of discourse.
101: Academic Discourse
I believe freshman composition students should be exposed to the heart of the academic enterprise: research and the sharing of information and ideas. In addition to learning how to conduct library research and write a term paper, they should read journal articles, consult with research librarians, meet graduate students, learn how to participate in research as an undergraduate, and attend a symposium.
Our goal should be to prepare students for their future classes but also to make them comfortable participating in the primary business of a university: research and scholarship.
102: Public Discourse
If an institution requires a second semester of composition I believe that course should teach the conventions and expectations of public discourse. The primary purpose of civic debate is the solving of shared problems and so my Composition 102 course asks students to find a problem within their community, investigate its causes and consequences, identify relevant stakeholders and their interests, propose solutions, and then use writing to build consensus around a solution.
We should teach students how to write a persuasive essay but also familiarize them with participation in civic debate through writing.
Brilliant writers break conventions. They reinvent genres, transform them, even invent whole new forms. But before you can become a chef you must become a cook, and cooks follow cookbooks. I think introductory classes should teach the cookbook.
Academic articles follow a strict formula: Title, Authors and Affiliation, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Acknowledgments, and Literature Cited. Every paper contains the same headings in the same order so readers can quickly find the information they need. Learning to write for academic discourse largely means learning the journal article and conference paper genres.
While essays for public discourse are more diverse than academic writing, a few genres nevertheless dominate: the op-ed, the call to action, the open letter, and so forth. Mastering a popular genre makes the form and structure of one's essay invisible. Readers have many expectations for these genres, and writers need to meet them if they want their ideas taken seriously.
Multiple draft requirements are as must a labor issue as a pedagogical issue because they place enormous burdens on composition instructors who are overwhelmingly grad students and adjuncts. If an adjunct who teaches 4 sections of composition with 18 students each assigns 3 drafts of 3 essays, that adjunct must then read and score 648 essays per semester. With 22 students per class (my experience) that number jumps to 792. This is why English adjuncts are the most overworked and underpaid instructors on American campuses. In this light it is not surprising English adjuncts lead unionization efforts across the country.
With respect to pedagogy, requiring students to submit multiple drafts with the expectation of "substantive revision" between each is most appropriate in advanced composition and creative writing classes where students are ready to move past the cookbook. Multiple ungraded drafts promote consequence-free experimentation, rather than forcing students into creativity-killing formulas. It provides the freedom semi-experienced writers need to grow.
In a freshman composition class filled with novices however, they are painting by numbers. Their goal is to communicate an idea as efficiently, simply, and clearly as possible within the expectations of a prescribed form. Following a formula is the point, especially in academic writing. Multiple drafts do not make sense in this context. Either the student followed instructions or they did not.
Like requiring multiple drafts, peer review is part of popular composition pedagogy and it too works best in advanced writing classes, especially graduate courses. In a freshman class it's the blind leading the blind.
However, freshman students are good are critiquing ideas — just not the execution of those ideas. In my courses students critique each other's ideas for topics, choice of audience, choice of stakeholder, and so forth. Occasionally I conduct a "guided workshop" where students exchange papers and check each other's work for specific features while I point out those features on a sample paper projected on the board.
Many writing instructors theme their classes around a topic and assign readings related to that topic for critical analysis. Too often these classes become more about that topic than writing itself.
I only assign readings to explain concepts and as genre examples. Students study examples in order to discover the features of a particular genre and as a class we create formulas based on their findings. In other words, we discover the cookbook together. Having students uncover the features of a genre themselves is more effective than simply handing them an outline or checklist.
Freshman composition is not a public speaking class, a software class, or a design class. I don't believe in assigning in-class presentations for many reasons (their educational value in comp is dubious, students hate them, they are impossible to grade) but mostly because graduate students and adjuncts should not be expected to teach PowerPoint and graphic design, for which they are not qualified, in addition to their already substantial workload.
The syllabi and lessons provided here assume students know English syntax and grammar and are familiar with high school basics like introductions, conclusions, transitions, thesis statements, et cetera.