The Neverending Battle

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Our institution is once again facing budget cuts—I’m sure we’re not alone in that. I also imagine we’re not alone in being asked to raise the caps on our first year writing courses. Since I am in the trenches of this battle I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been thinking, too, about how the same assumptions operating behind those calls for larger class sizes work to impede students in the courses I teach. Everyone seems to think a course is a course—both administrators and students. Perhaps that’s why universities resort so quickly to larger class sizes (“If Bio can have 300 students in a section, why can’t you?”) but it also explains why students in our writing courses struggle with everything from attendance to critical thinking (“I’ll just get the class notes.” “I’ll just do that paper the day it’s due since class is in the evening.”). But, of course, writing courses are fundamentally different because they are process courses and not content courses. You don’t learn to play the violin by reading a book or taking a Scantron exam. You learn to play by practicing. As we know, it’s the same with writing. I try to explain this to students from the first day of class so that they can begin to understand what we’re trying to do in class. It’s also one of the reasons that I like to start the semester with an essay that has clear ideas sitting at the surface: something that students can pick up and start thinking with. Thomas Friedman’s “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” is always a safe choice. His concepts—ranging from the Dell Theory itself to global supply chains—are both clearly defined in his text and for his argument while still being completely portable. Students can use them to start thinking and writing, to start practicing the process. As for the administrators, it looks like we’ve won this round. But, hey, for a WPA every day is a battle.  Courage.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.