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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Accelerate This!

My college offers several composition classes, but just three of them comprise the bulk of writing instruction offered at the institution: ENGL139, ENGL142B, and ENGL1A.  The first two are "basic skills"--or what is often called "remedial" or "developmental" in nature; the third is what is traditionally known as "freshman comp."  Statistics show that students who enter the college at the ENGL139 level (or lower) rarely progress through ENGL1A (much less graduate or transfer). 

Reasons vary.  Obviously, students who matriculate in need of basic skills remediation face extra academic hurdles.  But beyond that, these students are also frequently juggling any number of responsibilities: school, work, family.  Even when successful in 139, they must seriously consider whether they can afford--in senses monetary as well as personal--to continue to 142B.  This same calculation must then be made before registering for 1A.  With so many potential "dropping out" points, a college education presents students with a seemingly endless minefield.  As disappointing as the percentage of completers is (something less than 30%), it's knd of amazing that as many students make it through as actually do.

As a result of the numbers and the challenges, many educators have begun to worship at the church of "acceleration."  As the word implies, the concept calls for students to be pushed through the system faster.  In math, for example, basic-skills level students--who in the past may have needed to take as many as four different classes BEFORE reaching a transferable-level math class--are now sometimes given the opportunity to enroll in a special program that will in one year--or maybe even one semester-- prepare them to take college-level statistics.  At my school, we English teachers are considering ways to move students more quickly through the composition sequence.
As we've been thinking about how to do this, though, I've wondered what, exactly, the difference is between all the different writing levels we currently offer.  Certainly, requirements are different.  In the 139 classes (the ones I usually teach), students are expected to master the "standard" five-paragraph essay.

In 142B, students are exposed to different rhetorical modes and, by the end, expected to write somewhat longer (4-5 pages) essays in which they present an argument, incorporating opposing viewpoints and, perhaps, light research.  In 1A, students must produce a research essay, as well as demonstrate the ability to produce sustained arguments incorporating a variety of rhetorical modes.  Mastery of the conventions of Standard Written English is also expected.

OK.  But what, exactly, is the difference?  In math, one cannot do algebra unless one has mastered the multiplication tables.  But what's to stop an ENGL139 instructor from "imposing" a 142B--or even 1A--curriculum on his class?  Well, aside from the tyranny of the course outline, that is.  In other words, is there any fundamental reason that, instead of being taught the "standard" five paragraph essay, a basic-skills student couldn't be taught to write a piece of argumentation?  Or even a research paper?  I can't really think of one.  I suppose we'll find out in the coming months.

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