Sunday, February 15, 2015


English 101 vs. English 102

This shouldn’t get anyone worked up at all…

Let’s say that a community college has a two-semester composition sequence as a general education requirement  Which tasks and skills should go where?  

You’d think there would be general agreement by now, but I’ve seen several variations. And let me say for the record that this isn’t about a secret agenda to single-handedly remake a curriculum.  It’s about trying to understand different alternatives, in order to have more informed discussions of them.  If I had a secret agenda, I wouldn’t write about it.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most grammar instruction has been delegated to the K-12 system -- elementary schools were once called “grammar schools” for a reason -- with developmental courses available for the many students who still need to work on that.  101 is intended to address college-level skills.  That’s not to say that the finer points of grammar never come up, but that they’re certainly not the focus of the course.  And let’s assume that these are “composition” courses, as opposed to literature courses.  These are the classes that everyone has to take, whether majoring in liberal arts, business, or engineering.  English majors will, of course, go on to take courses in literature specifically.  This is about the classes that everyone has to take.

One version has 101 devoted to response essays, and 102 devoted to research papers.  The idea is to develop the skills of structure and exposition, and then to learn to include evidence systematically.  The response essays in 101 can draw upon personal experience, fiction, or nonfiction; the research papers in 102 are typically devoted to nonfiction, even if they’re about lives of fiction authors.

Even within this version, I’ve seen variations.  One popular version has students in 101 write four different genres of paper: usually a personal narrative, a summary, an argument, and a critique.  Another has students in 101 attack the same genre repeatedly.  Personally, I prefer the second approach to the first, for two reasons. First, I don’t think you get good at something by doing it once; it takes repeated practice.  Second, in my observation, the last thing that students entering college-level discourse need is more autobiography.  If anything, they need practice at getting beyond themselves; starting with a personal narrative can reinforce bad habits.  That said, fans of the fourfold approach are legion.

Another variation has 101 devoted to research papers, and 102 to literature.  The idea here is to develop the skills of argumentation first, and then to make arguments about literature in the second course.  The reading material is basically split into nonfiction for 101 and fiction for 102.  

Some very smart people swear by this model, though I can’t help but think that it’s asking too much of 101.  If you’re starting with students who have never been asked to write at a college level before, and you’re trying to get them beyond the five-paragraph essay, wrestling with multiple points of view, and dealing with citations, that’s a lot to do in one semester.  A single course trying to do all of that seems overstuffed.  If I were a cynical sort, I’d wonder if the goal of that was really to turn 102 into a quasi-literature course because that’s what many faculty would rather teach.  But I’m not, so I won’t go there.

Alternately, I’ve seen 101 devoted to literature, and 102 to nonfiction and research.  In this model, 101 is devoted to structure and argument, with the skills of citation and point of view reserved for 102.

I’ve been struck for years that a two-semester composition sequence is virtually universal among community colleges, and yet there’s relatively little agreement about the content and structure of that sequence.  Many selective four-year colleges require only one semester of composition, on the theory that students have been pre-screened for basic writing ability.  Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know.  But among open-admissions two-year colleges, the two-course sequence is widely accepted, even if often treated as a black box.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have a strong sense of what should be done in 101 as opposed to 102?

The courses should be taken out of the English department and put in a Writing department. Neither should have anything at all do do with literary analysis. The skills of literary analysis have almost nothing to do with writing, and only English majors need the literary analysis skills, while everyone needs to learn writing. It is already a problem that K-12 education confuses the two subjects—there is no reason to continue the confusion in college courses.

It is unfortunately the case that few students come to college (even to R1 universities) with much knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and word usage, so the first course should probably emphasize these mechanics.

The second course should concentrate on the structure of a paper: paragraphing, topic sentences, old-information-to-new-information flow, coherence of arguments, breaking a large paper into sections, and so forth.

STEM students should be taught composition in science or engineering contexts, not autobiography or literary analysis.
I would be surprised if your students learned much in the way of grammar in elementary school, and high school probably didn't add a lot more.

Diagramming sentences? Participles? University-level classes. Most high school English courses are basically literature, with essays mostly personal response, and content mattering more than form.
Our 102 class has writing a research paper as its primary objective. That course is then a prerequisite for classes that require a research paper.

Our 101 class is intended to prepare them for that task in 102, which appears to mean getting kids who can write out of a HS rut and dealing with the rough edges that either barely get over the placement boundary or barely get out of the developmental sequence (either regular or ESL).

Yes, I've heard rumors that getting past the five-paragraph personal (non-argumentive) essay is their biggest problem. They put a lot of emphasis on argumentation, which sometimes even helps kids write good lab reports.

Finally, why all the negativity about five paragraphs? Did you see this one in The New Yorker last week? Exactly five, and well-written, although the third one might get marked off by a pedant for having a rather heroic run-on sentence.

For me, the big emphasis in a composition class is in developing their thinking, not their grammar (I appear to be in the minority in this, esp at my current school).

My current school does both regular essays and research in 101, and has the option for a literature-based 102 or a non-fiction based 102 (students choose). I have also done essays in 101 and only research in 102, which I think I like better for the time to work on concepts with students, but I didn't really need the whole second semester for just a proposal and a research paper in 102.

My current 101 does a lot with sources, so we work on summaries and incorporating first one source in an essay, then several, then a bunch, then research and incorporate sources. I have never seen personal narrative in any other classes at a four-year school, and I agree that they don't really need practice on that. The stupid standardized writing tests are all about vomiting out unsubstantiated crap off the tops of their heads anyway and that needs to be untaught.

Oh, and the complaints about the 5-paragraph essays are not about the number of paragraphs, really, but the complete lack of thinking or analysis. You make a basic claim, illustrate it with three examples in 3 paragraphs, and then conclude. These would be good examples; they work for younger developmental stages but don't suffice for college level assignments.

In fact, I didn't really do any "argument" papers in all of undergrad; they were all analysis and synthesis of the various topics I was being taught. However my school seems to think that analysis is too hard and pointless for our students since they are mostly not transferring to a four-year school, so they shouldn't actually be held to our state standard or our course outlines. I wish we had separate classes for transfer and cte, but I understand that people are worried that will create "retake" barriers if students change their mind and decide to transfer later.
Composition specialists have been arguing against teaching grammar in composition courses since the late 70's/early 80s. But across colleges, other faculty look at grammar as _the_ thing comp courses should teach, despite research that shows that knowing grammar doesn't help students write better.

I think there are at least two contributing factors to the disunity: 1) Most people teaching comp aren't comp researchers/specialists. Gasstationwithoutpumps is right about taking comp out of English departments. (But that's complex, since most English departments are larger than they'd be without comp.)
and 2) The problem with putting all comp in writing departments is that most comp folks don't want to teach endless first year comp. Now, English folks at regional, SLACs, etc do it as the tough part of the job, but also get stuff they want to teach. Move it out of English, and people like me teach lit and are much happier, but there are WAY fewer of us.

But then, who teaches comp?

At least someone who teaches endless Intro Bio is teaching in their field. But Bio is as much about writing as lit is, but bio folks aren't stupid enough to want to teach lit.
"It" as the last word, not "lit"!

(Now everyone can laugh at my typo.)
At my campus, we have three levels of gen ed classes taught by the English department: English 100, 200, and 300. English 100 is essentially the argumentative essay, with beginnings of citation technique. Note: some people in my department teach the 4 thematic approaches, but since argument is what student will use for most of their college writing, that's what I focus on. ENG 200 is the literature class, and the papers in ENG 200 are (for me) argumentative with citation technique. ENG 300 is the research paper class.

I've been teaching English for 30 years now, and if I could design the program, I would require English 100 & 300 in back to back semesters, so that the writing can get strong. Too many students postpone ENG 300 until second semester senior year, far too late to help them.

I have taught at a campus where there were only 2 sections of English: 101 (the research paper) and 102 (the lit class). But that was a Jesuit college, and incoming freshmen were essentially all honors students and came in knowing how to write. Most students at my current state compass-point university don't know how to write a 5-paragraph essay, much less a research paper.

I wish we could actually be more selective in our admissions policy, but anyone with an ACT over 16 is accepted, and most students are not ready for college writing, hence 3 levels of gen ed English classes.

The best way to improve student retention and success? Hire FT professionals (who are paid and treated like professionals) to each gene ed classes, especially freshman comp. Leaving freshman comp to underpaid, overworked adjuncts who have little to no institutional support (not even private offices, which could result in a FERPA violation) is setting these students up for failure. Online comp classes for students who are not strong readers and writers also set students up to fail.
CCPhysicist--That is one of the great run-on sentences of all time. Up there with Proust and Joyce.
Our school (private, mid-sized) has a two-semester sequence:

The first semester is devoted to argumentative, expository writing. Some instructors cover a lot of grammar in there; others don't. The basic idea is that students are supposed to work on organization, critical thinking, development, evidence, generating a clear thesis, etc.

The second semester is devoted to writing in (or at least about) the disciplines -- something in the sciences, something in the humanities, something in the social sciences. At a minimum, it's supposed to ensure that students can quote and cite effectively and accurately in at least one citation system, and some instructors do full-blown research papers as well.

I would agree with the commenter above that many of our students haven't gotten (or had reinforced) very much grammar instruction at the K-12 level.
The WPA outcomes for first year writing have informed how we teach Composition I and II ( and provide a useful tool for any writing program that is assessing their curriculum.
Happy to help, Don Coffin @9:21AM.

It takes quite a sentence to run about one full page in The New Yorker!
Dislcaimer: I've never taught comp and it's been a long time since I've taken it. I'm a physicist working in industry.

I think if we really want to teach people good communications skills, the focus should be more on reasoning and less on "writing," to the extent that the two skills can be separated.

"Find the logical fallacy with this argument" would be a good assignment. Valid and invalid syllogisms. Dip a toe in the waters of formal logic; even if you stay away from scary algebraic-looking symbols and Latin names for an intro class, you can still teach a little bit about how "if-then" statements work and the distinction between premises and conclusions, and the difference between a valid argument and a true conclusion.

As far as assignments, why not borrow topics and structures from journalism, technical writing, and legal and political argumentation rather than just literary analysis?

Eg, Have people watch a video and summarize what happened, then critique each other's descriptions for clarity and accuracy. (Maybe make people some read the descriptions first, and then watch the video!)

Get the students to write instruction manuals for other students, involving the construction or operation of some LEGO device.

Make people write laws/rules for a game, and then have other people hunt for loopholes they can use to cheat.

Have in-class debates like the kind debate clubs have -- ie, assign people positions and force them to defend the position they're assigned, whether or not they agree with it. Have them do it via an online message board if you want to keep writing/reasoning skills and public speaking skills separate. Have the students look for holes and fallacies in each other's arguments.

Do some Daily Show-style media criticism. Let them find examples of hypocrisy and contradiction, of evasion, of obfuscation, of people trying to sound sound "smart" rather than be clear.

Yes, make them write research papers, but then have them look up (some of) each others' references and verify that the sources actually support the argument in the way that they are used. Maybe even get everyone working on the *same* research paper via a Wiki platform, and deliberately provoke some Wikipedia-style edit wars for educational purposes.

I'm a lover of books and a lover of literature. But I think those topics deserve their own classes, which explore language as an artistic medium and a cultural artifact.

What should be foundational and required for people in all majors is the study of language as a tool for describing the world and reasoning about it. I don't think current comp classes do a very good job of teaching people those skills.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most grammar instruction has been delegated to the K-12 system

I know "for the sake of argument" is supposed to mean "don't fight the hypothetical," but I've ended up teaching some grammar in every writing class I've taught, ever, at the University of Arizona and Marymount Manhattan College. Students don't know it. They don't know basic comma rules, basic semicolon rules, what "passive voice" means, etc.

I've also argued to tenured profs and other grad students at Arizona that if students don't know basic grammar, it should be taught—at pretty much any level. Most have responded by politely saying, "Fuck off" in slightly different words.

Basic writing stuff—like what's described in "The Writing Revolution"—takes up a lot of time. I want it not to. But it's very hard to assume knowledge, and especially uniform knowledge, coming in.
Hey Matt,

Have you ever thought of getting the opinion of most of the people who teach these classes at your community college and at most community colleges and four-year colleges?

I mean the adjuncts.

This semester I am teaching eight sections of first-year English courses at four different colleges (two community colleges, one public four-year college, one private R1 university).

Given that I work 6 days a week plus 2 nights a week and actually have another, non-teaching part-time job, I think I'm doing the best I can -- but I'm not going to kill myself to run through whatever hoops an administrator tells me to.

I give the minimum number of assignments, which I mark carefully, so I can keep a roof over my head but also keep my salary.

I give easy A's and B's because in most schools, it's the student evaluations that are the most important factor in being rehired, and guess what, students like to get higher rather than lower final grades.

I let students out early so I can get to my next job or because I'm falling asleep from exhaustion.

Yeah, some days I show videos part of the time. Anywhere I have a certain number of sick days allotted without giving up pay, you can be sure I'm going to take all my sick days by the end of the semester.

And no, I didn't want to teach this many classes this term, but at one school, the deputy chair got frantic after she realized after classes started that she'd forgotten to assign one section to anybody. Replying to her email, I said I would take the class, but only if nobody else would. Within an hour, I was emailed a contract for the course.

February 25 is National Adjunct Walkout Day. People like me are doing the best we can in ENG 101 and ENG 102 -- I've taught electives in both English and other fields, and believe me, these are the hardest, most grading-intensive classes I've taught (creative writing and even business writing are much, much easier, and people like the English 102 where we can teach literature because it keeps us sane).

Any discussion of ENG 101 and ENG 102 that leaves out adjuncts is just a waste of everyone's time.

But your blog never really deals with your biggest moral failing, Matt -- why The Boy and The Girl may someday hold you in contempt for your complicity in exploiting the people who do most of the teaching at your institution -- so it's par for the course.

Now I've got to prepare for my evening course, the sixth class in the past 48 hours.
I found this blog as a link from an economics blog. Unlike most of the other commenters, I do not teach and I absolutely hated all English classes I was ever forced to take. Instead of forcing disinterested STEM majors to see some significance in crap literature, as in say, "The Scarlet Letter", have students copy good examples of writing. Tell them it is to work on their penmanship. They, being lazy, will mimic the form of writing they are used to writing when required in an essay test. In business or technical writing you are not re-inventing the wheel, you follow the form with some job-specific jargon.
Thank you for this terrific post. I wish I was teaching in your department! As an author and adjunct instructor with over 20 years in various CUNY and SUNY (New York State) colleges, I can tell you that only when there is a "writing chair" for 101 and 102, is the purpose of the course usually apparent: We are teaching students how to research and write a scholarly paper, and we are accomplishing this through readings of works of literature.

No writing chair has ever said, "Oh, and by the way, we are teaching critical thinking." It goes without saying that the process of researching sources, reading scholarly publications, and producing a scholarly paper, we adjuncts who generally are only allowed to teach basic comp classes, are teaching students to think. What gets murky is grading students. The best critical thinker in class discussions may not be the best writer.

When I have not had a writing chair but just a tenured professor who has the apparently annoying task of managing the adjuncts--all of them are always cranky--the conflict you so beautifully articulate here is rarely resolved. As author and journalist (and part-time college instructor) William Zinsser says, (and I am paraphrasing), clear writing is the result of clear thinking. I tell my students that often, especially when they complain that it takes so much time to write. I say: "That's because you are thinking!"
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