Tuesday, August 25, 2009


One of the finest features of a Hampden-Sydney education is the "Rhetoric Requirement." Many Colleges and Universities require students to take composition courses, but rarely do they come anywhere near HSC's rigorous standard. Stanley Fish's latest blog article in the New York Times--What Should Colleges Teach?--gives a sense of state of things elsewhere. Several years ago Fish was disturbed to learn that most of the "composition" courses being taught by graduate students at his University actually taught very little about the craft of writing. The common pattern was for students to discuss something (like an essay, TV show, or controversial topic) and then write about it, however there was little or no instruction in basic grammar or the art of argument.

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, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research. Now I have received (indirect) support from a source that makes me slightly uncomfortable... (source)

At Hampden-Syndney, on the other hand, everyone must prove proficiency in Rhetoric in order to graduate, irregardless of Major. "Proficiency" had two parts: passing a test of pure grammar knowledge and then passing a creative-writing essay test. In other words, you had to be able to prove that you know the rules of grammar and then creatively apply those rules in a cohesive essay. Neither of these tests are easy, the majority of students fail the first (Freshman-year) attempt. Luckily we all have four years to learn and try again. Students that struggle get extra help.

The result is that all Hampden-Sydney graduates (even those majoring in "hard" sciences) have excellent writing skills. At the very least they know what a comma splice looks like! This sensibility seems to pervade the academic culture across disciplines at Hampden-Syndney: you were expected to write well (and correctly) in all your course work.

When I was a Teaching Assistant at Yale for an undergraduate course I was shocked at how poor writing is tolerated. All kinds of mistakes would be passed back to the students without a jot of red ink. I made it a point of principle to take to time to at least note the mistakes. How else will they learn? Many of my colleagues at the graduate level discovered they had a lot to learn about how to write, as well.

So Stanley Fish's argument that basic composition courses should focus on basic composition rings true to my experience. I am thankful that my Liberal Arts education put so much emphasis on something as foundational as writing!


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