Why First Year English?

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I’m writing this post at a time when first-year programs across the country are being questioned. Unfortunately, same old, same old: these challenges come in cycles, every ten years or so, and they come to first-year writing courses because they (we) are often seen as “just remediation” that universities should not have to offer, or as sources of money that the university could use elsewhere on other, “sexier” programs. During my career, I’ve faced these challenges at every turn and at three universities: it’s pretty much always the same story. As I write this, my university is involved in a review of undergraduate education, and while I believe that under the brilliant leadership of Adam Banks and Marvin Diogenes the Program in Writing and Rhetoric will continue to prosper and to offer essential knowledge to our undergrads, I have watched as other parts of the University put forth programs that could “substitute” or “count for” PWR. Might sound good at first, but scratch the surface and you’ll find that these “substitute” programs are not grounded in rhetorical theory and practice and are not writing courses. And so it goes, as writing program directors and faculty continue to do work that, in poet Marge Piercy’s words, “is real.”


In fact, first-year writing programs have never been more necessary, more crucial to our students and to public discourse than they are today. Speaking to The Academic Minute, John Duffy, Director of the Writing Program at Notre Dame, notes the dismal state of public discourse so apparent everywhere, and goes on to argue that we have at hand the remedy for an onslaught of toxic rhetoric in—wait for it—the first-year writing course: “First-year composition is more than an introductory writing class,” he writes. “It is a course in ethical communication, one that offers students and the rest of us a hopeful alternative to our debased public discourse.”


I am grateful for John Duffy and for this “academic minute.” It sums up in just a few words the reason I define the rhetoric I teach as “the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication.” It’s why I put emphasis on ethical considerations in all of my classes, in my writing center work, and in all of my textbooks: because these considerations lie at the heart of what it means to be an honest communicator today.


Writing program directors and faculty know this in their bones. But we need to make this case more strenuously and persistently, making sure that our students understand it and that we are spreading the message throughout our campuses, especially among policy makers.


In the meantime, you can hear (and read) John Duffy’s “academic minute” here.


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3052244 by Studio32, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.