Branding first-year composition?

So there’s an ongoing conversation in the WPA list about branding first-year composition. In part it’s the Rodney Dangerfield thing, but it’s also about protecting ourselves from external forces trying to take over our work and/or dictate to us. The problem, in some ways, as I wrote earlier, is that we’ve got around 75,000 people teaching FYC and only the tiniest fraction of those people are engaged in disciplinary practices of rhetoric and composition.

So we’re in a difficult position. Colleges and other faculty hold rhet/comp accountable for FYC but we really have little or no control over who teaches these courses or how these courses are taught. The idea of a brand is that the WPA or a similar body could establish best practices for running a program and then look to establish it at various institutions. If well-marketed then ideally the brand could grow.

I see the fundamental problem here as our attachment to the twin notions that a)student writing is poor and b)a good FYC program can make student writing better. The problem with the first statement is that it is relative and entire subject to perception. If I said college faculty writing is poor, could anyone refute that? Hand out faculty publications to your neighbors and see if they can understand them. It’s relative. Futhermore, as we know, student writing has always been perceived as poor. I don’t see that changing. I think it is a structural requirement of the teacher-student relationship that students are perceived as poor writers, regardless of what they write.

However the idea that a course (or two) can make students better writers makes even less sense. The vast majority of students don’t even want to be writers in the first place, so how can they become better writers? That’s like me taking a class that’s going to make me a better golfer. Well I don’t golf. I’ve got not interest in it. I’m not going to do it in the future. So what’s the point? And yes I know that students will be asked to write a couple of things in college (probably less than you imagine). But completing a few written assignments is not the same thing as becoming a writer. And there’s no golf seminar in the world that’s going to make me a better golfer when I happen to find myself on the course three years later for one round.

But then I got to thinking…

I started thinking about the Buddhist vows, like when one says, "Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all." Of course it’s absurd. It’s contradictory on its face. The notions of "all" and "numberless" are logically incompatible. Suzuki Roshi said the following about this:

  If sentient beings are numberless, or desires are
inexhaustible, you cannot say, "I vow to save them." Our promise is
very silly. It doesn’t make any sense. I agree with you. But still we
do it. Why? Because we don’t feel so good if we don’t work for others.
We take the four vows, but what we mean is more than that. For the sake
of convenience, we say just the four. But I really, truly feel lucky
that we have inexhaustible desires and numberless sentient beings to
save, and also that it is impossible to save each one of them in terms
of "I save you." You cannot save in that way. Whether it is possible or
not, whether it is the Buddhist or bodhisattva or Hinayana or Mahayana
way, is not the question. Anyhow, do it! That is our vow.

And this had me going a different direction on the WPA-list. Zen is a kind of brand; it’s an identity that one can take on. It’s not about being special or elite; in fact it’s about not-being. It’s about taking on a practice. Writing is the same way. A writer is someone who follows a writing practice. It can be zen-like, but not necessarily.

FYC is one place where a student can make an informed choice about becoming a writer and following a writing practice. Being a writer isn’t like joining a religion or aligning oneself with a philosophy or ideology. Not exactly. But it is about seeing the world differently and inhabiting the world differently. There are not-so subtle differences between writers and non-writers. And I don’t mean to romanticize the difference or suggest that writers are special. It’s just that the practice of writing will change you.

I could see building the brand of rhet/comp around this idea. It incorporates our disciplinary ethos of wanting to see every student become a better writer but doesn’t build our reputation on our ability to fulfill that as a real promise of some sort. It also creates an identity for those who do take up our invitation while eschewing elitism.