Monday, September 29, 2008

Chapter 2. The parallel postulate

For two years now Umberto's school has been contemplating scaling its two-semester first-year composition sequence to a single semester. His position was not an unfamiliar one to most of last week's conference-goers: many schools have made similar moves in the last so many years, including UNC Asheville, at which first-year seminars have been granted writing-intensive status in order to, in part, take away the sting of divesting ourselves of a second semester of introduction to academic writing. (Whether the sting is fully unstung will help make up a later chapter of this series.)

Having made a cursory assessment of the pros and cons, and having heard his administration hem and haw for the better part of two years now, Umberto's head was spinning. He came to the conference looking for answers.

Much of his presentation last Tuesday afternoon could be summed up in three words: "at what price?" What do the students lose in not having a second semester of focused, intentional writing instruction? Will a single semester only short-change them in terms of content? Will halving the time they spend in practicing academic writing significantly affect their proficiency? Will it do irreparable damage to eliminate one of the few courses in which students at a large comprehensive university might receive personal, one-on-one assistance with their instructors?

On the other hand, there are potential benefits to the move. Umberto's handout mentions several: "the promise of more resources," "the promise of a WAC [writing across the curriculum] program and a WAC director," and "the promise of fewer part-time dependence (staffing and space)."

What to do, y'all?

Judging from the tone of the follow-up discussion a half-hour later, the collective mind of the room had already been made up. Nearly everyone seemed to believe that the more attention students paid to writing early in their college careers, the better off they were in the long run. It was taken as gospel that more is better, that students require two full semesters of meaningful, intensive instruction in academic writing in order to gain the confidence and proficiency they need in order to succeed as writers.

After several minutes of heated exchange on the issue, Nora played a daring devil's advocate and suggested "why not get rid of first-year writing instruction altogether? What proof have we got that it works?" As an adjunct to this insinuation my own colleague Euterpe, having with me weathered the yearlong storm of assessment of our writing intensive courses, suggested that Umberto might consider designing a similar assessment for the first-year program at his own school. There was further discussion on these ideas.

After a few minutes Leona ripped a gauntlet from her hand and flung it at my face: "I don't want to put Patrick on spot," she said, placing me on the spot, "but one could make the same argument about first-year math programs! How can it be that we're sitting here talking quite seriously about cutting first-year composition programs altogether, while the same case isn't ever made about corresponding courses in other fields?"

After several more minutes of heated debate on this and related points, Euterpe, ever the mediator, stepped in to smooth down ruffled feathers and suggest adjournment for pre-dinner refreshments. As the room emptied I approached Leona.

"Touché," I said. "You're absolutely right: the same case can, and has, been made. At our own school we've watched Precalculus shrink from its onetime incarnation as a two-semester course to its current single-semester format."

I told her of the difficulty I'm facing now: I'm finding myself pressed for time as I attempt to navigate an unfamiliar content-driven course with clumsily-designed student-centered methods meant for deeper yet more leisurely engagement of the course's concepts. ("Coverage!" bellows the beast.)

Leona patiently let me unburden myself to her, though surely she hoped to sidestep me and make for the pinot grigio that was chilling in the canteen in the basement of the South Lodge, not a hundred feet away. "I'm just not familiar with the course, never having taught it before," I confessed. "I'm not sure at what pace to teach, I'm not sure of the effectiveness of the techniques I'm using, and I find myself traveling entirely too slowly. I'm already a week 'behind' where I'm 'supposed to be' by now."

(By the way, here's a tidbit for my students, any of my students, in whatever class I'm now teaching or ever have taught before: I'm a veeeeeeeeeeeery slow teacher. It's just the way I am, I like to spend much time on few concepts, discussing them more deeply and thoroughly than I would were I to whip on through without so much as a by-your-leave. Occasionally students will tell me the pace of the class seems fast. This might be because I write fast, for which I compensate by making my typewritten notes available on-line. In any case, if you think we're moving fast, my friends, you ain't never seen fast before. We're moseying, ambling, out for a collegiate constitutional. Don't worry, I'm planning on speeding up. I like the slowness. I won't let our pace worry me if you don't let it worry you. It's been working well for me for a decade now, and I don't intend to change it at any time soon.)

A two-semester Precalculus course makes much more sense to me, but there are practical reasons why this dream is not likely to come true. For one thing, we just don't have the person-power to pull it off: we're scrambling as it is to schedule all of the Nature of Mathematics sections we need, to say nothing of Calc I and Calc II. (The latest round of budget setbacks likely means we'll have another lean year or two, since it's dollars to donuts that the faculty search we'd planned to run this year isn't going to make it.)

This chorus is common to both math and writing: my fellow conference-goers intoned a long and dirge-like litany of budget cuts, over-enrollments, and staffing shortages. For instance, East Carolina University was faced with a surplus of 1500 freshpersons this past year, fodder for several dozen unplanned composition courses taught by twenty-some hastily-hired instructors. (All this and a $6 million budget cut!) North Carolina State University saw a dip in funding yet its writing program administrators have to cope with ever-rising enrollment at a school committed to growth.

Assessment aside, I suspect that every one of us present at last week's conference would agree: in math and writing both, surely two is better than one, and one better than none at claim otherwise is to stake a daring claim indeed. More than most any other topic discussed at CWPA, the trial of Two v. One made me feel close to my colleagues on the other side of our metaphorical quad.

Anyone who's read this blog for more than a month will surely know that I believe that math and writing are not so different after all. "Lost in translation: demystifying mathematical writing" is the title of one of my talks at this past May's International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference. In this talk I aimed to show that what makes good math writing good is more or less the same as that which makes good writing good in general. (Repeat after me the Four Cs: correctness, completeness, clarity, and composition!) My hope was to show writing folks that we're not so different, they and I:

1. We all work in a rich and robust linguistic medium. (Mathematics, though hardly a universal language, as many wrongly claim it is, is a language nonetheless.)

2. We all conduct our business in an economy based on metaphor and imagery.

3. We all value clear and critical argumentation, and strong composition and communication.

4. We all deal with colleagues who often have little understanding of the ways in which meaning is constructed in our disciplines.

5. We all deal with a studentry largely underprepared for the complex tasks we charge them with, and we all therefore exert Herculean efforts in remediation.

6. We all perform tremendous "service" to every other department on campus, at levels unparalleled by any of our colleagues in the college. After all, students may need to take a single course in a laboratory science, and to satisfy this requirement they might select a course in physics, or chemistry, or biology. Students may need to take a single semester, or even a full year, of a foreign language, and they will generally have several languages from which to choose (there are eight at UNC Asheville). Most liberal arts universities have "core competency" or "intensive" requirements, but the student can often meet most of these requirements by taking courses entirely within her major.

On the other hand, every student must take at least a semester of composition, and every student must take at least a semester of mathematics: writing programs and mathematics departments are thereby burdened with boatloads of "service" courses whose delivery requires that departments either retain a large number of adjuncts and lecturers or direct the efforts of its full-time ranked faculty towards teaching introductory courses.

This last point came up over and over and over at CWPA. While I am certainly not opposed to teaching the odd introductory course (I despise the term "service"; thus the ever-present quotation marks), many tenure-track faculty are opposed, and vocally so. At CWPA Leona related a story about a colleague of hers at her previous institution: predictably, this colleague had expressed great interest in teaching first-year composition courses during her interview. Once hired, her interests "changed," and she lamented that she hadn't been given a chance to teach a literature course. Clearly she felt her creative talents were being wasted.

While such an attitude is condescending and does little justice to the intelligence of first-year students and others who enroll in introductory courses, the following question is a fair one, and was asked more than once last week: should a school entirely eliminate its first-year composition requirement, whither the expertise of those faculty formally trained in composition and rhetoric? Few schools offer undergraduate degrees in these fields, and if first-year programs are scrapped, these folks' services may be rendered redundant.

This last question and its offshoots (In what way does the teaching of composition dovetail with the teaching of literature? Can one direct meaningful undergraduate research in composition theory? Are there parallel issues in mathematics or other "hard" sciences?) and possible responses will be the topic of the next essay in this series.

If any of my writing friends are still blundering through this blatherskite, I hope that they'll free to chime in by posting a comment or two. I have a feeling I'm going to need their help in understanding my own next post. Stay tuned!

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