English 101: the best college course a student can take

April 11, 2013

At Bradley, Freshman Composition is more than a course in the basic skills of a competent writer. According to Dr. Danielle Glassmeyer, English 101 teaches the basics of grammar and prose, and provides students with the means to organize, articulate and argue their ideas coherently. She argues, however, that the course goes further: English 101 teaches students how to think.

By Dr. Danielle Glassmeyer, assistant professor of English

"English Composition." When I tell people -- students, graduates, my daughter's teachers, my doctor, new acquaintances at conferences -- that that's one of the courses I teach, the reactions I get are nearly all the same. They apologize for their comma splices and express their relief at "getting that over with." To which I say, "Ouch."

Truth is, I love teaching Composition and I would be willing to swear on a stack of Dictionaries that Composition, known here as English 101, is a transformative course that is crucial for college success.

Students in a college composition course learn skills and methods; certainly, they learn grammar and proofreading and "how-to-make-your-word-processing-program-do-MLA-formatting." But what students really learn (and how I propose the course should be renamed) is "How To Think 101."

A huge part of learning "How To Think" is learning that thoughts don't spring out of human heads fully formed. Instead, they are shaped and refined and polished through a process of vision, revision, and re-revision—and then come peer review, editing and proofreading! I strive to teach students how these processes of writing contribute to shaping and communicating their thoughts. A written document keeps track of thoughts as we develop them from opinions into positions.

Opinions are a dime a dozen. We all have them. A position is a rare and valuable object, carefully developed, scrupulously supported with evidence, and articulated through well-chosen words and phrases. An opinion is transformed into a position through the process that develops a written draft into a reader-ready document.

Students who take my sections of 101 get terrific support for that transformation in the English computer "lab" classroom. In that classroom, we've got a really neat software program called SmartSync that allows students to interact in a real-time workshop mode with each other's writing. The English Department is a faculty committed to writing professionally about (to borrow a phrase from Matthew Arnold) "the best that has been thought and said." In addition to dedicated classroom instruction, we maintain a commitment to individual conferencing with students and we support a terrific Writing Center. We've got all the pieces in place to foster student growth—in thinking and in writing!  

A true confession: I didn't always feel this way about English Composition. Back in the day, I held the "get that over with" opinion that I mentioned in my opening paragraph. I was an AP "whiz kid" and eagerly tested out of English Comp 1 and 2. I was thrilled at the time. But, it turns out my AP scores showed I knew how to write a really good high school paper.

College papers were a different critter altogether. Why? Because college papers equal complex thinking. AP English taught me how to do well on the AP test. And it turns out that AP tests aren't as complex as college courses. And so, while I got B's and C's on college papers and courses, my friends who hadn't "gotten Comp over with" until College were getting A's. It took me almost 3 years to catch up.

It's not the grade difference that makes me sad when I look back. It's all the thinking that I missed out on.

Here's my position on English 101 (C1): it's just about the best college course a person can take.