Daily Bread

In her 1990 “A Personal Essay on Freshman English,” revised and published in 1998, Sharon Crowley writes,

In fact, I wager that Freshman English will continue to exist in its traditional form for a long time to come, despite the efforts of leftist composition teaches to alter its focus toward social change. I have several reasons for suspecting this. First, the traditional required course reassures taxpayers that their children are getting one final guaranteed dose of “correct” English. Second, Freshman English is a cheap way for university faculty to salve their guilt about their own teaching, which is discipline-centered and which forces students to accommodate to the discipline’s ways of knowing or to fail. Third, the emergence of composition studies has enabled a few writing teachers to do research, to publish professional discourse, to get grants, rank, and tenure, and thus to assume power in English departments and university politics. Freshman English is our daily bread. Newly enfranchised professionals will want to think twice before tampering with a sure thing. In short, I doubt whether it is possible to radicalize instruction in a course that is so thoroughly implicated in the maintenance of cultural and academic hierarchy. (235)

I suppose one of the worst things a novice, yet-untenured WPA can do during the first semester steering a large-scale writing program is to read every last word of Crowley’s Composition in the University, again. Another worst: to bring the new cohort of first-time writing teachers along on that reading. Worst meaning best, of course.

Here’s more:

The repetitive and repressive curriculum of Freshman English is directly linked to its institutional status as a required introductory-level course. Freshman English is attached to a huge administrative enterprise on almost every college campus in the country. Its very size subjects its administrators, teachers, and students to unprofessional and unethical working practices on a scale that is replicated nowhere else in the academy. (229)

But that’s where we’re headed this afternoon in ENGL596. Crowley’s rationale for the get-rid-of-it polemic resonate still today, and what better than an encounter-cumdissoilogoi (if you’ll please forgive the Latin-Greek mix!) with Crowley’s well-defined, hard-set stance to resolve, for now, why and to what ends we are doing what we are doing.


  1. Wow. Wish I could sit in on that class. Alas, I will be in the writing center in the COT. If only you could live stream it. 🙂 Crowley’s points seem to hit close to home, especially re: institutional expectations and with the current state of PTL’s (not just at EMU, but everywhere) and course caps. Does this make us a radical program, for concerning ourselves with the social influences and implications of writing? Sort of wishing there was a map of FYWPs that put programs on a spectrum.

  2. PTLs are gradually increasing in number (e.g., more sections are in their hands over the past two years than in previous years), but the program isn’t in an especially $trong position right now for supporting their professional development, unfortunately. PD for graduate assistants is, on the other hand, just about as good as anywhere (our 60-hour August Workshop is longer and more substantive than most, I would argue). I’m not sure this adds up to anything radical, though. That is, I wouldn’t describe this program (at the moment) as especially front-running or bleeding edge, at least not in terms of curricular design, technological infrastructure, or teaching methods. We’re fairly traditional, even playing it safe, from what I can see, though we are making an earnest attempt to redraw some things, and we’re in a good position to do so over the next few years.

  3. Hmmm…maybe I should pick up Crowley again.

    I hear you about the difficulty of being a untenured, young WPA running a big program, trying to make peace with an institutional structure that considers FYW exactly as Crowley explains it: a service course, a skills course, and a way for the rest of the faculty to wipe their hands clean of teaching writing/reading/research/whatnot and point fingers back to FYW when their students aren’t performing like they “should” be. Coupled, of course, with overloaded, undertrained instructors.

    It certainly is difficult to marry our graduate training in the discipline with the realities of so many writing programs, programs that respond to and report to a wide net of stakeholders and influences outside and beyond the discipline. You wonder if now you are just repeating the cycle and becoming part of that problem.

  4. Yes, that’s it exactly, Laura. As I’m sure you could guess about me, I don’t have any interest in (nor much patience for) repeating the cycle or becoming part of the problem, but I am understanding just how hard it is to shape a program. We have surprisingly few points of contact here, which leaves us at the mercy of (read? unread? half-read?) email communications for making things happen. We have many dedicated instructors, too, so I hesitate to make it seem like there is a grey rain cloud over the program. Things are sunny enough (albeit still rather budgetless). It’s much more the case that–with our current configuration–it is proving exceedingly difficult day in and day out to counter/reverse misnomers operating more or less powerfully among institutional stakeholders (e.g., administrators or faculty in other programs who imagine this program’s work as the basest form of service predicated on formalist assumptions about writing).

  5. You hit it on the nail – I had no idea how hard it is to shape a program. You would think that studying the Syracuse program would give me insight into the time it takes to shift a culture and construct a new identity for a writing program, but I think Syracuse was luckier than most programs because it was given a top-down administrative directive to build a new program, and it was semi-protected from outside influences in the first couple of years because the program was placed under the Dean, not under the larger English department.
    But now I’m trying to make small changes through emails, short 45-minute meetings a few times a semester, and extensive notes and marginal comments on the edges of syllabi and assignments. I don’t know if it’s working – it doesn’t seem to be fast enough for me, but at least there is collective buy-in for what I’m doing across the department and among the instructors. As Louise wrote, the people you have are your most important resource – more so than budget, space, and time. Invest in the people.

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