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Taking Aim at Marksmanship: The English Requirement in the BA Program

[The following text, prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged; released April 2006]

As we gear up for an assault on the English requirement, there might a point to adding some perspective. After all, we are dealing here with a part of the curriculum which has had a long innings and whose reduction or elimination might shake things up bit, at least on the surface. The key issue we should be considering is whether or not any element of a compulsory English requirement is worth preserving for the sake of student learning (setting firmly to the distant sidelines issues which address faculty interests only, like "What will the loss of the requirement do to enrolment in the English majors program?"--a question already in play--or "Man, I could use some of those extra English sections in my department!"). If the English requirement does indeed serve important student needs, then some caution may well be in order. If not, then why spare the knife?

I should state up front that I've been a keen fan of the English requirement. It has provided me with my professional career (something that might instantly give certain people a persuasive reason for seeking to eliminate it) and has ensured that, while many of my colleagues have had to worry constantly about enrolments in their departments, I have been able to remain confident that there would always be a fresh and full supply of students.

Making English courses compulsory in the BA program has a long history in BC. Thirty years ago, that requirement was considerably greater than it is now. All BA students at UBC had to take two years of English, the usual first-year literature-and-composition mix and the second-year survey of English literature, the dreaded English 200, the pons asinorum of the entire BA curriculum. These requirements made English departments huge, and the horrendous difficulties of wading in selections of Paradise Lost and Henry IV, Part 1 kept summer schools full of students trying to negotiate their way through English 200 for the second, third, and fourth times with the help of underpaid sessionals and lecturers on temporary contracts.

Traditionally there were three justifications for this requirement. The first was the need for all undergraduates to have some specific instruction in writing academic essays in an appropriately correct style. While there was no necessary reason why such instruction had to take place in English courses, traditionally it did, mainly because teachers of other subjects, then as now, were simply not prepared to undertake that task.

Second, there was a widely shared notion among teachers in the Humanities generally that one of the most essential aspects of being an educated person in any profession was an ability to cherish great literature, especially in a society which no longer had any use for a shared religion.. This idea, passed down to us most famously from Matthew Arnold and honed into sharp partisan academic rhetoric by the New Critics in the 40's and 50's, still had a lot of legs in the 1960's and was, decades later, an important part of the case made at Malaspina by, most notably, Ross Fraser, when the English requirement was established here.

Third, the compulsory English requirement did provide some coherence in an otherwise anarchic first-year curriculum. True, this reason was not widely publicized, largely because until fairly recently no one really worried much about the difficulties students were going through in first year. But there was an important social value for students in giving them a shared experience, something they could discuss with other students not necessarily in the same class or academic program (asking for help in English 200 was a standard pick-up line in the SUB cafeteria and thus an important social tool).

The last two of these justifications have been totally exploded by what has actually been going on in English departments for many years now. Arnoldian principles were chucked out long ago, together with any sense of shared purpose among English instructors. The idea that we need to study traditional fiction in lower-division English courses to save us from mass culture, technology, capitalism, advertising, oppression, or whatever, as the New Critics maintained, is clearly absurd, and besides, for a couple of decades there have been all sorts of more fashionable competing ideologies at war in English departments, as feminists, Marxists, post-colonialists, critical theorists, Canada-first types, reader-response proselytizers, cultural relativists, ethnographers, Frye and Fish babies, and so on duke it out about everything from a suitable composition handbook to the length of a research assignment and the need to jettison Shakespeare.

Whereas all teachers of sections of the same first- or second-year English course once shared a significant part of the curriculum in common and faith in a particular methodology, so that they and their students from different classes could usefully discuss together particular poems, plays, and stories, nowadays everyone fashions something different from everyone else. No wonder the book store staff goes crazy, and instructors in more coherent disciplines give up trying to figure out what those mad people in English are up to.

So far as the literature part of first-year English courses is concerned, what plausible reason could one set on the table which actually matches what goes on in English courses? Now that English professors have repeatedly made the case that the study of literature is really cultural anthropology generously mixed in with a mélange of imported ideologies and a soupcon of left-wing historical critique, it's difficult enough to defend the study of any English course at the university in the face of those who say, well, if that's what the subject has become, why don't we turn it over to the departments of Anthropology, Women's Studies, Philosophy, and History? In such a situation, making the study of English compulsory seems as outmoded as forcing Cambridge undergraduates at some colleges in the early 1960's to swear allegiance to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

It's a bit like the story of poor Tobit, who had a good life as caretaker of a graveyard. But one day, while he was relaxing stretched out on the cemetery grass, a high-flying bird crapped in his eyes, and he went blind. The experience left him totally disoriented and miserable most of the time. Well, some ideological bird from the Continent long ago dropped a poisonous load in the eyes of English professors, and life has never been the same since. Tobit, of course, was eventually saved by Tobias. No such saviour seems likely in our case.

So there's no justification for retaining the English requirement by an appeal to a tradition which hardly anyone inside the department takes seriously any more. Useful as that rhetoric has been in defending the English requirement in the past, the outside world has finally caught on and isn't buying it. I'd be surprised if any English teacher had the temerity to claim that the English department exists to serve that traditional vision of the subject (one can hardly call it a discipline any more).

That leaves the issue of writing. Is the English requirement worth preserving in any form in order to address what most instructors see as a significant issue: the urgent need for quick, effective improvement in undergraduate writing, especially written arguments? The question is all the more urgent at Malaspina, where we have low entrance requirements and most of our beginning students bring with them no star accomplishments in high-school English.

In principle, this need should provide no justification for making any course compulsory, simply because instruction in writing should be the responsibility of every instructor who demands it from students and who evaluates their success in the course on the basis of written assignments. In practice, however, the issue is more complex for one simple reason: instructors outside English departments, almost without exception, have always refused to teach writing properly.

There's no secret about how to get students to improve in this respect. They have to produce written arguments, submit them for marking, get them back, review the results carefully, and try again, often with the help of some classroom instruction in key principles. The process is much the same as in learning any complex skill: practice, analysis, review, try again. But this process is consistently thwarted by the refusal of non-English instructors to foster it.

It's not that such instructors do not mark a lot of papers, often very thoroughly. The problem is the nature of the marking. To correct every grammatical mistake, provide punctuation where necessary, write out awkward sentences correctly, and cover the paper with remarks urging the student to get help are of very limited use, because they do not permit an intelligent review of the style or an understanding of the problems.

To appreciate the point ask yourself this question: What is a student who is really keen to learn how to improve supposed to do with a marked essay covered in such notations? Unless the instructor has provided some system of cross-referencing mistakes to a grammar handbook, how is the student supposed to understand the nature of her mistakes, especially the repetitive errors, each of which has been painstakingly corrected without explanation? And how is this exercise going to be useful to the student (so far as learning how to write is concerned) if she is denied a chance to write the paper again, this time correcting the basic mistakes?

These principles are so self-evident that I am astonished that virtually all non-English instructors (and some English instructors) stubbornly refuse to acknowledge them and put them into practice. By not doing so, they deny themselves and the student a major educational opportunity, and they strongly encourage the attitude among students that things like run-on sentences, faulty parallelism, transition phrases, coherent paragraph structure, a confused vocabulary, and so on are trivial things which they need to attend to only in first-year English classes (sometimes not even there). If they give a low priority to removing such errors and repeat them from one paper to the next, they are simply responding to the methodology most instructors use in marking their papers. How are they supposed to remove specific habitual mistakes if they don't know precisely what they are and have an opportunity to correct them?

I know many non-English instructors who mark hundreds of papers per year very diligently and who are frustrated and concerned about the quality of the students' prose. But in thirty years I have met only a few non-English instructors who bothered to use common-sense teaching practices to address the problem. Some instructors are prepared to assign a certain number of marks for something they call style (usually a few percent)--as if the quality of an argument can be divorced from the way in which it is presented--and to lecture the students on the need to improve their style or to visit the Writing Centre frequently. But they draw the line at linking their own assignments and marking style effectively to that task (let alone taking up class time teaching grammar or the argumentative structure of an essay).

The excuses are always the same: I have my own subject to teach. I don't have the descriptive vocabulary. It's the English department's job. And so on. I don't agree. If a student makes an egregious mistake in logic in a paper for an English course, it's my job to point that out (using the appropriate descriptive vocabulary), not simply to write a phrase like Bad Logic--Please see the Philosophy department on the side. Ditto for matters of fact officially owned by other departments (as in, for example, papers supporting creationism as true science or the death penalty as a deterrent). Instructors who assign all responsibility for teaching writing to English courses might like to reflect that, in many cases, the majority of a student's written assignments are for courses other than English and that many of their students may not have even taken a first-year English course yet.

There's a simple pedagogical principle at work here: what we expect the student to be able to do and what we use as the basis for evaluating the student, we should be prepared to teach that student as effectively as we can. This point is simply an obvious extension of the slogan on the poster in many high-school classrooms about the key difference between giving someone a fish and teaching her to fish.

Over the years, there has developed considerable hostility to English departments, largely because they exert such numerical clout in the committee structure of the institution. But those complaining are, as often as not, a major reason why the department is so large: there's a need out there, and the English instructors are the only ones prepared to address it.

So we might well ask ask ourselves the following: If writing is a problem, if English is eliminated as a requirement or significantly reduced, and if non-English faculty are unwilling to undertake the task, then where is the student going to have a chance to learn how to improve? To think (as some do) that raising the Grade XII English entry requirement a notch and beefing up the Writing Centre will take care of that issue is excessively sanguine. Instructors unhappy about the quality of their students' writing might reflect momentarily on what is going to happen if increasing numbers of their students don't take any English courses at all and what remedies will be in place if the number of first-year English sections is significantly reduced. The goose may not be laying golden eggs, but it's laying some eggs. Killing or maiming the creature will not assist production.

Of course, it's a very fair point to question just how effectively first-year English courses teach writing (for it is certainly not the case that all English instructors consistently use the procedures mentioned above). Here, as in just about everything else with the English curriculum, there is no shared sense of what we should be doing, and different instructors go in wildly different directions, with different content, methods, and widely different standards. A recent statistical study of the final grades awarded by English instructors in first-year courses over a few semesters (fall 1997 to fall 1999) shows a range from an average GPA of 6.76 to an average GPA of 2.77, from a percentage passing rate of 92.6 percent (with 50 percent of the grades in the A range) to one of 70.1 percent (with 0 percent in the A range), all this in spite of the repeated attempts of the English department to publicize and insist upon a very specific set of common criteria for awarding grades 

[Parenthetically, these results suggest that all easy generalizations about what goes on in all first-year English courses are suspect, since there's clearly considerable variety. And those instructors who may be shocked at some aspect of these results should examine similar statistics from their own department, if there are any, before flinging accusations in the direction of the English department--not that some accusations might not be entirely in order]

Anyway, such a study suggests that what a student learns about writing and the grade she receives are largely a function of whatever section the registration process randomly dumps her in, and there is no guarantee that any particular section is going to treat as a priority the task of presenting rational arguments in clear prose which must meet some common standard (something which, in any case, totally contradicts the postmodern infection endemic in many humanities departments)

This feature of first-year English courses lies at the heart of the problem. For objections to the English requirement generally rest (at least in part) on the claim that such courses do not pay sufficient attention to the writing most required in other courses or, if they do, the results are not sufficiently useful in non-English courses. Such a claim has fuelled many objections to compulsory English courses in the past, particularly from departments of Business and various technologies, who don't see why all that time has to be taken up with fiction (especially tales full of naughty images and dirty sex, aka the Bill Holdom curriculum) and effete nonsense like irony, point of view, structure, or rhythm (to say nothing of the politics of language), when the instructor could be (as one Forestry instructor at another institution put it to me) "pumping grammar into them." The Strasburg goose syndrome in action.

For it's clearly not the case that instructors generally are satisfied with their students' prose and believe an improvement in writing is not all that necessary. The issue is far more one about the effectiveness of the present English courses, with their eclectic and wide-ranging curricular mixtures, in addressing the problem. Baldly stated, why should a course which isn't doing the job (or a sufficiently good job) be required? 

Many students, however, continue to attest to the value of what they learn about writing in their particular sections of first-year English, and some departments (e.g., Forestry) are keen to retain compulsory English, as taught by the English department, so the requirement still has fans who base their case on the fact that some useful learning is going on. 

And I remember any number of colleagues in various English departments who did (and still do) make the job of teaching writing properly a top priority and who undertake the enormous amount of detailed marking and personal tutoring that requires. If their efforts do not produce students sufficiently literate to satisfy non-English instructors, that doesn't mean some effective learning is not going on (think how much they might achieve if there was significant pressure to improve writing and some useful assistance in that task from non-English courses). Such professional diligence makes a full-time workload of lower-division English courses something any instructor who has never undertaken it just cannot imagine. No wonder some of us in the English department are not particularly eager to defend a system which requires such work. 

Where does all this leave us. I have no idea. But I do get the distinct sense that, unless the English department can persuade other departments that the present first-year courses (slightly modified, perhaps) are doing the job effectively, the English requirement in its present form is toast. Who's going to go to the wall to defend it, and what weapon will they have at their disposal? 

It is to be expected, of course, that, with the requirement removed or reduced, most incoming students will still want to take some course in writing (except perhaps some of those who most need it), so the first-year English sections aren't going to go away as long as we continue (as we will) to insist that only lunatics and some English teachers should be prepared to work so hard at such a mundane but important task. 

If we really wanted to address the students' need for a chance to learn to write better, the obvious answer would be to ditch the English requirement and develop a series of workshops for all instructors in service of a shared commitment to writing across the curriculum among all those who require writing (a commitment that changes existing classroom practices significantly). That won't happen, of course, so wherever we go from here, the complaints about student writing are unlikely to disappear. Removing or reducing the English requirement, the only courses which address directly (if imperfectly) the problem, will probably lead to even louder laments.

We might even end up with a delightfully ironic situation in which departments now eager to scrap or reduce the English requirement, once they get what they desire, find that their students' writing is so in need of improvement that they now would like to include such a course as a necessary part of their majors program, only to discover that the money has been reallocated, the sections have disappeared, in short, that there is no room at the inn. If their students are to learn to improve in this respect, such instructors will then have to take on the task themselves.

Of course, with compulsory English removed, we could deal with the problem somewhat by raising the bar significantly, by demanding a much higher Grade XII English grade for entry into particular degree programs. But that would reduce enrolment drastically, and whatever else we do, no one is going to take any step, no matter how pedagogically effective, which threatens upper-division enrolment, the very cause of our collective faculty being.

So, in a sense, we're stuck. We want writing improved, most of us don't want to undertake the task ourselves, and many people don't like what those who are supposed to be (and are) addressing the problem are doing in first-year English. But we don't want to hurt departmental enrolment with significantly higher entrance requirements, and some people want many of those juicy English sections redistributed. It's a problem with only one obvious solution: let's simply eliminate writing as a requirement in any course (or stop caring about it). Perhaps that's what will happen eventually.

In the meantime, of course, we'll end up with a compromise--a reduction of the English credit (from 6 to 3, or from two courses to one) but no significant change in what goes on in English courses. So it will be business as usual (whatever that means these days in English courses), but less of it. The writing problem will remain, and complaints about students' prose will continue unabated.

I would, however, invite any instructors who like to make such complaints and to point the finger at the English courses (required or otherwise) to consider the following question: What are you doing about the quality of your students' prose in your courses, your assignments, and (above all) your marking?

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