On mandatory revisions in freshman composition

My opinions on Freshman Composition courses are pretty simple: the idea itself isn’t that bad (clearly, college students should learn how to write at a college level), but comp courses often fail when it comes to execution (trust me, college seniors aren’t very good at writing, and neither are most of the MDs I know). In part, I think this is just the nature of handing the keys to a class full of first years to a bunch of English Lit PhDs (unemployed, naturally) and MFAs (unemployable by definition). Now, as an academic a week away from my next period of unemployment (I get to pretend to be employed in Europe, but I know the truth), I’m the last person to complain about the scams used by unemployed academics to make a few dollars here and there; we all know it’s just jealousy that they get a big piece of the freshman comp pie and I’m scrambling to find someone who wants me to teach US History to 75 students for peanuts. However, that’s a discussion for another time; today I’m more interested in talking about one really bad idea that is used in at least one university’s freshman composition program: the mandatory revision.

I won’t go into any particular details,* but the idea behind the mandatory revision policy is that comp students are required to submit revisions to their written assignments, not once (i.e. rough draft/final draft) but three times (rough draft/intermediate draft/final draft). Ignore for now the sheer amount of work this provides for the instructor (the aforementioned lit PhD or MFA); put simply, this is a bad idea.

First, consider the message this sends to students. From the beginning of the semester, this policy tells them that not only will their rough drafts be terrible (which is almost always true), but that their intermediate drafts won’t be much better (still, probably true), and that the act of turning something in for a third time to the same person is the only way to make it passable (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t). If two thirds of the messages students are getting from a class (and an instructor) are that they aren’t good enough for college level work, one has to think that a good number of them will start to believe that. If you want to retain students and eventually get them across a stage with a diploma in their hand, you should probably refrain from telling them 10 weeks out of the first 15 on campus that they don’t deserve to be in college.

Look, there are only two things that anyone can do to become a better writer: read a lot (and then read some more) and start writing (and then write some more).** Revising already-written drafts twice isn’t really writing–it’s an exercise in doing as little writing as possible while addressing the instructor’s comments. In addition, when a student knows that she will have to rewrite any given piece of writing not just once more, but twice more, that removes a lot of the incentive to really work at a piece of writing before turning it in (yes, I know, most students don’t do this–but this would be a better habit to inculcate than two rounds of revisions).

Second, all three of those versions go to the same person (the instructor). In other words, by making revisions mandatory, all we’re teaching students is how to tailor their writing to the one person who matters (the one grading it). So again, the revisions become an exercise, not in producing a better piece of writing, but in satisfying one person’s comments and suggestions with the minimum effort possible.

How, again, does that make a student a better writer? A better composition student, perhaps, but not a better writer.

The instructor’s preferences are the key variable here: remember that these courses are generally taught by Lit PhDs and MFAs. The one thing that we can be sure about when it comes to Lit PhDs and MFAs is that they read a ton of literature, and in most cases, a ton of really good writing (by any standards). Is there any wonder, then, that even the best first-year students don’t really stack up in comparison?*** If instructors’ comments on students’ writing will always be influenced by their professional reading, then the result of two rounds of revisions may be better writing (qua writing), but it won’t necessarily be more clear, concise, and organized writing.****

Not to get too utilitarian here, but for professionals who are not MFAs or Lit PhDs, good writing tends to be clear, concise, and organized, it tends to have a point, an argument, and a sense of its audience. It doesn’t have to rise to the level of great prose rhetoric, it just needs to communicate something well. By revising twice to the preferences of a typical composition instructor, that seems a less likely outcome.

There is one case where the mandatory revisions policy might work: if the three versions went to three different individuals. For example, if the first version was reviewed by a classmate (with instructions to be tough–peer review is another hard thing to coach), the second by a writing adviser, and only the third, final version went to the instructor of record. Then, you might be able to convince me that this is an acceptable policy. Until then, however, count me as skeptical, and count mandatory revisions as a solution that doesn’t really understand the problem.

*Yes, this is related to the “gambling” I was talking about in the last post.

**Reading books about writing only really helps with the first of those things (and only when they’re well-written books, which is never a given).

***Anyone who has ever hung out with composition instructors can tell you that each one thinks that her students are the worst writers to ever put fingers to keyboard.

****This, by the way, is the best argument for hiring academics from other fields to teach composition–not only do I read a ton of bad writing in the social sciences (students can be refreshingly straightforward at times), but I also know a few things about how to organize an argument and write to an audience (even an imaginary one, right?). Good luck breaking up the Lit mafia, though.

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