Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Evolution of College English: Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns by Thomas P. Miller

Miller, Thomas P.  The Evolution of College English:  Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns.  Pittsburgh:  U of Pittsburgh P, 2011.  Print.

In his book When Can You Trust The Experts?:  How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham notes that “Historians have pointed out that there is a pattern of education theories being tried, found wanting, and then reappearing under a different name a decade or two later” (95).  Therefore, some value exists in knowing history, which brings me to The Evolution of College English.  Though the book serves as much as an argument for the future of English as a discipline as it does a history of the discipline’s past, it is the past that is most useful for our purposes, from interesting tidbits such as that early creative writing courses were “especially common in women’s colleges” (142) to more germane material such as how writing and writing courses came to be a staple of American higher education (125).

Along those lines (whether handwritten, typed, or word-processed as writing technology progressed), you probably complain about the quality of your students’ writing.  You aren’t alone.  Just as Miller points out that “professionalism is the unifying ideology of the middle class” (173), complaining about student writing is the unifying lament of educators, who have been doing just that since at least the 19th Century.  In fact, it was precisely that complaint that led to the first required composition course in colleges and universities.  We don’t have required composition at Ursuline, but our Ursuline Studies courses often have a composition aspect to them.  Then, as now, a course focusing on general writing skills can be helpful, but it won’t prepare students for writing in your specific discipline because too many of the written conventions and expectations will be different and specific to your discipline.  This misunderstood aspect of writing can make undergraduate education what composition scholar Richard Haswell calls, in his article “Teaching of Writing in Higher Education,” an “instructional minefield” for students (340).  As a result, you will still complain about student writing until you realize that it’s your job to teach writing in your discipline.  As Miller’s book demonstrates, despite efforts even by English departments themselves to farm out the teaching of writing to others, the literacy expected of college students continues to be a collegewide concern and should be a collegewide endeavor.  Complaining about the quality of high schools or freshman college courses will never solve anything because even if those experiences prepared students perfectly for your course, students would still be lacking the literate practices that only you can teach them. 

The book is available through OhioLINK.