First-Year Composition: Teaching or Service?

The November-December issue of Academe looks at faculty service. It is perhaps the most ambiguous of the traditional triad along with teaching and research, and the articles in this issue seek to describe the different ways that faculty conceive of service, and the different ways that service is (or is not) recognized. Read the issue here.

When faculty teach introductory writing courses, should that count as “teaching,” in the traditional sense, or “service”? It seems absurd to suggest that teaching students is anything other than teaching, but consider: many of these classes are required for all students at a university, which means English departments need to scramble for instructors. Since everyone takes them, not all students will be as interested and involved as in a higher-level English class. Linda Adler-Kassner and Duane Roen discuss these and other issues in their new Academe article, “An Ethic of Service in Composition and Rhetoric.”

3 thoughts on “First-Year Composition: Teaching or Service?

  1. Most first-year courses are service courses, taken by students who will not be majoring in the field. The question shouldn’t be “is teaching a service course teaching or service?”, as it is obviously both. The question should be “Why are English departments teaching writing?” There is very little connection between the subject matter or writing style of a literature department and the writing needs of the students in the rest of the institution. Freshman writing courses should be preparing students for writing in many disciplines, not for becoming literature majors.

    • By the same token, there is ‘very little connection’ between the ‘writing needs’ of academic institutions and those of the careers the students will eventually embark upon. Still, I see no indication in the article that either Roen or Adler-Kassner advocate housing writing courses in literature departments.

      Your question is a good one, but it is not the issue that Roen and Adler-Kassner are addressing. Both would likely rather see First Year Composition courses housed in Composition and Rhetoric departments instead of remaining, as they often are, as parts of English departments that also include courses in the study of literature. But, again, that’s another question completely.

      The core contention in this article stems from this: “‘Service’ is a complex label that can be double and even triple-edged. At some institutions service is seen as less significant than research and teaching— hence its position in the triumvirate. Thus, even though we have engaged in service throughout our academic careers, we are quick to caution graduate students and untenured assistant professors to engage in just enough service to demonstrate that they are willing and able to be contributing colleagues.” Those who engage in heavily service-oriented teaching can actually hurt their chances of advancement–something that should not be the case. What the writers are advocating, it seems to me, is for increased respect for that teaching also providing specific service to the broader institution. For, as you say, ‘preparing students for writing in many disciplines.’

      That, in these days of renewed ‘publish-or-perish,’ is both admirable and important.

  2. Actually, in science and engineering there is a very direct connection between the writing required of students and the writing required of professionals, constrained by the limited time and grading resources of the academic environment. Certainly the papers I have my seniors and grad students write are very close in organization and style to journal papers.

    I have a great deal of respect for teaching writing and feel that it is the responsibility of just about every faculty member in the university. In many ways, I find literature professors the least capable of teaching writing (since their own papers are often inpenetrable), and I’m pleased that my current university has a separate cadre of writing instructors. Unfortunately, very few of them have any training or practice in writing about science or engineering, and so they often do a poor job of preparing students in those fields.

    Disclaimer: I taught technical writing to computer engineering students for more than a decade, and made very sure to include such important formats as resumes, in-program documentation, and algorithm descriptions. The course I created is still taught, but the in-program documentation assignment was dropped, because the writing instructor to whom the course was assigned could not tell good in-porgram documentation from bad.

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