The English Requirement: Why Not a Run of the Mill Solution?

Ian Johnston

Okay, so we've had the survey about what people want to do with the English requirement in the BA program.  Now that that flak-catching exercise is over, why not deal with the problem reasonably by requiring (demanding) that individual departments establish their own standards for students in their majors and minors programs, test to see that these levels have been met, and deny students entry into or exit from a degree program until they meet the standard?

Being modern academics, we're still  married to the notion that a specific problem can only be met by throwing a certain number of departmental credits at it.  It's a useful notion, since it has enabled the modern post-secondary institution to flourish for generations primarily as a seller of credits, rather than as an intelligently sensitive advocate of education.  But when we ourselves become victims of the idea that allocation of credit (e.g., for first-year English) is some clear  guarantee of educational achievement and demonstrated competence (e.g., basic writing), then it's time to set our faith, at least in this particular instance, to one side.

John Stuart Mill was of the opinion that a government or its designate had the full right to demand that certain standards be met for professional certification but insisted with equal force that such a right did not include the power to determine how a student should achieve that necessary competence.  Why not apply this principle to the thorny issue of the English requirement?

What would this involve?  Well, for starters, it would mean chucking out the institutional requirement for 6 credits of first-year English (or, indeed, any designated number of credits for any course intended to teach writing).  Instead, departments would set their own writing standards and methods of testing students.  Admittance into the upper-division program would require successful demonstration in a written examination (designed and marked by the members of the department), perhaps accompanied by a portfolio, to indicate that the student had clearly attained the necessary level.  Students who failed to meet the standard would then have to devise ways to improve so as to pass the test at the next suitable opportunity (a step which might or might not include taking a college English course at Malaspina or by correspondence, hiring a tutor, self-study, group prayer, bribery, or whatever--as the student would determine).

This system has a number of immediate advantage.  It leaves departments in control of the writing standard they think appropriate for their needs, their reputation, and their own commitment to addressing a common problem.  Departments control everything else about their academic programs, so why not the appropriate writing standard?  It substitutes demonstrated capability to meet the standard for an ambiguous display of frequently meaningless credits in various courses which are supposed to deal with the issue.  It saves students who already write very well, thank you very much, from the need to take courses they neither require nor desire.  It gives departments a direct responsibility for dealing with a problem they often like to bitch about in a totally non-productive way.  It frees first-year teachers of English to focus on their own departmental agenda, however that might develop, without taking the heat for what their colleagues in other departments see as a recurring misery.  The process also, of course, could significantly reduce the proportion of first-year English sections in the undergraduate curriculum. Most important of all, it would drive into the brains of faculty and students the awareness that satisfactory writing is a matter of demonstrated competence, not of academic credit (and that might effect a significant change in the behaviour of both groups).

The downside, of course, is that such a procedure requires departments other than English to do some more work, to take on the major responsibility for the quality of writing of students in their programs (at least to the extent of assessing the skill with a suitably accurate test).  It's been so nice to assign that elsewhere, to a system of credits, that there might be some reluctance to take on the job.  Hence, there would almost certainly be a tendency for some departments to duck the task by (you guessed it) allowing students with credits in some courses (e.g., first-year English) exemption from the test.  If that's the way they want to go, then fine.  In that case, the injunction about liking something or lumping it comes to mind.

As for the sixty-four thousand dollar question about what this change might do to upper-division enrolments, it's clear that it would change things relatively little.  Departments would continue admitting students to suit their own standards--higher or lower, as the case may be.  Of course, there would no longer be any English requirement to act as a convenient scapegoat for lax admission policies, but, hey, something has to be surrendered.

With such competency tests in place, the university-college should feel no additional responsibility for addressing the problem of how students who need improvement are going to get the help (with, for example, special remedial classes or a beefed-up writing centre).  Let existing courses, on-line possibilities, community education, tutoring, and the market place take care of that problem, just as we do with so many other competencies (computers, for example).

Okay, that's taken care of this problem.  What's next?

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