When I went to college, the standard writing instruction was a two-course sequence known as freshman comp. I mercifully tested into an experimental one-semester “honors” comp alternative, but as a TA in the English department, I became very familiar with the standard approach, which I believe to be broadly similar to how freshman comp is typically implemented. The first semester taught “writing as such,” and the vehicle was primarily the students’ own personal experiences and reflections. The second semester taught more of the skills required specifically for college writing, including more argumentative papers and research papers — usually all on self-chosen topics.
I don’t think there are many people who would strenuously defend this approach to freshman comp, even though — and correct me if I’m wrong about this — it appears to be a kind of “default setting” for initial writing instruction at many institutions, particularly less selective ones. I’m going to throw out one possible change that I think may be helpful, and I look forward to my readers telling me why it couldn’t possibly work.
It seems to me that a major problem is the personal focus. I understand the motivation: if you’re trying to teach writing “as such” and can’t presuppose any content, the students’ own personal experience seems like an intuitive option. Similarly, allowing them to write an argumentative paper defending some viewpoint they happen to already have seems like a good approach, in that they’ll at least presumably care about the topic.
Yet the challenge of college writing is that you need to write about things you don’t know — indeed, you are often called to write about things you don’t actually care about at all. What’s more, one of the benefits of college is reportedly to encourage “critical thinking,” which presumably includes an element of distance from one’s own opinions and an openness to changing them. Hence asking them to defend their own pre-given opinions seems to be contrary to the spirit of things, and experience tells me that papers that represent the strongest pre-given opinions are usually the worst ones on every level (undercutting the notion that “caring” is a benefit).
So I propose that freshman comp instructors should assign students to argue on a topic they could not possibly care deeply about — the more contrived, the better. Which is better, ketchup or mustard? Which season is best or worst? That kind of thing. Even if they happen to have strong feelings that mustard sucks, they have to think up reasons, since they won’t have a pre-existing fund of cliche arguments to draw on (as in the dreaded papers about abortion or evolution). And since the topic is “no big deal,” you could also turn around and ask them to produce another paper advancing a different viewpoint on the same topic, whereas students may often feel uncomfortable arguing for a viewpoint they oppose on a topic that’s actually important to them.
Similarly, the research paper could also be on some pre-given “stupid” topic. What do people in other countries typically eat for breakfast? How did fashion trends in a previous era differ from ours, and can you figure out the motivations behind that? How do different societies approach the problem of cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom?
Even better than avoiding the pitfalls of self-chosen topics, I think that this approach would have the benefit of getting students to care about a topic they hadn’t even thought about before. Instead of viewing analysis and argument as a chore, they might come to see it as an enjoyable game. Instead of viewing research as a pro-forma checking of boxes (X number of print sources, Y number of online sources, etc.), it would be more exploratory — they would probably find themselves becoming interested in their “stupid” research topic despite themselves. It could also produce fun, non-threatening in-class discussions, in which students’ instinct to find discussion a “rip-off” compared to learning from the expert professor would not be set off, since the topic is trivial in any case.
But it’s easy for me to say all this, since I have never taught at an institution that has a freshman comp sequence and in any case would never be called upon to teach it myself (barring a major disaster that led me to join the adjunct pool at the City Colleges). I’m sure this plan is overly idealistic in some way — please inform me, readers.