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Education Reporter

Liberal Professor Exposes the 'Sham' Of College Freshman Writing Courses
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Radical deconstructionist literary critic Stanley Fish may have little in common politically with most advocates of teaching traditional grammar and rhetoric in college composition courses. But in a recent piece for the New York Times online, Fish argues that something must be done about college students' poor writing skills, and explains why he believes universities should rethink the political and ideological emphasis of most composition classes.

Fish relates that a few years ago, he became alarmed and curious about the poor writing skills his English graduate students demonstrated in their research papers. Graduate students should write well, Fish believed; especially since they were responsible for teaching undergraduate students how to write in introductory composition classes. Fish asked to see lesson plans for the 104 sections in which English graduate students taught composition to undergrads. He found that in 100 of the sections, "students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization." Only four sections emphasized grammar, rhetoric, and the craft of writing well.

"As I learned more about the world of composition studies I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham," writes Fish. Although Fish is a prominent scholar, his faculty peers "contemptuously dismissed" his concerns and his advice that the university strengthen its composition program by focusing on composition itself.

Fish cites a report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) that analyzes the general education requirements at 100 top American colleges and universities. While he disagrees with some of ACTA's criteria for evaluating core curricula, Fish sums up his main point of agreement with the ACTA report in this way: "Don't slight the core of the discipline." Students who don't write well still won't write well after a "composition" class that neglects grammar, style, and clarity. "It can't be an alternative way of teaching writing to teach something else (like multiculturalism or social justice)," writes Fish. (fish.blogs.nytimes.com, 8-24-09, 8-31-09, 9-7-09)

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