G01: The Purposes of Required Writing?

Reviewed by Matthew C. Zajic, University of California, Davis (mczajic@ucdavis.edu)

Chair: Cheryl Glenn, Pennsylvania State University
Speakers: Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University, “Requiring All the Available Resources: Designing the Visual into First-year Composition (FYC)Curricula and Programs”
Charles Bazerman, University of California, Santa Barbara, “Required Writing: Institutional Logics and Imperatives Meet Student Development”
Douglas Hesse, University of Denver, “Required Writing as a Liberal Art, in the Twilight of the Liberal Arts”
Respondent: Howard Tinberg, Bristol Community College

This panel's title reminds me of a similar question that most of our undergraduate students ask at least once during their college career: what is the purpose of required writing? And with a packed room, this concern clearly remains on our end as well, though most likely for different reasons. As the session began, Cheryl Glenn promised the session to be one of the best at this year’s convention, and, with a packed panel, I did not doubt that.

As the first speaker, Charles (Chuck) Bazerman spoke to the institutional logics and imperatives of required writing, though that was not how he began; instead, he offered a warning: “This talk is stuck in a time warp.” Bazerman explained that roughly twenty years ago (when he last taught first-year composition FYC, a fact he felt quite embarrassed about), he gave a similar speech at a different CCCC panel, though for a different reason (the situated nature of writing rather than the required nature). Though this talk is now different, the points still remain similar: the exigency is dissolving from the bottom rather than from the top. To this point, Bazerman focused on the students’ needs as they first enter their specific disciplines. Students enter into a major life transition, and students need space to explore and reflect on this and prior life transitions; FYC acts as a space to explore these changes. Other first-year courses are often structured differently than FYC, as FYC allows for the integration of the personal, intellectual, social, and emotional issues arising during this transition period. Bazerman shared his own memories of this transition period, focusing on one of his college crushes: his own FYC instructor (though when he went back to visit many years later, he was saddened to learn that she did not remember him).

But FYC does more than support students through this transition; FYC sets the tone for writing at the university and has acted as the economic and institutional basis for the field of writing studies, though students are more focused on the former rather than the latter. Writing has acted as a minor topic within education, and even then, the focus has fallen primarily on K–12 writing. However, from these discussions that have influenced K–12 writing have often come higher education discussions. And Bazerman emphasized that the context is quite different locally and nationally versus internationally. Across all contexts, often the question arises of which department owns writing, though the United States at least has access to the CCCC for this topic (while nothing like that exists internationally). Bazerman then shared his own trajectory, stating that he would have never looked to genre or activity theory had it not been for FYC, and he believed that we would have never looked beyond to Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in Disciplines (WAC/WID) without required writing, either. He ended by bringing us back to the institutional context, reminding us that writing must act as a “central functioning, functional system” within our own universities.

Doug Hesse then took the stage. Unlike Bazerman who decided to use no presentation technology, Hesse jumped right into displaying a PowerPoint with a number of enticing visuals. Hesse tackled required writing as a liberal art by exploring his own “crabbiness” about the state of composition. This crabbiness expands across contexts, and we are “more fascinated by the shell than life at the center,” calling attention to the focus on the context over the content. His approach took the form of being essayistic for his desired purpose for required first-year writing. What followed was a series of pictures on the PowerPoint slides, starting with a landscape picture that he narratively described. This picture focused on an old hotel, to which Hesse began questioning about the context of the hotel, the reason for the hotel remaining there, and the interest into what came before that hotel. He then shifted to a document of Lyndon Johnson’s showing revisions made just moments after arriving to Andrews Airforce Base, commenting that hours could be spent analyzing the rhetorical choices. He then shifted focus again to a picture representing “Frozen Dead Guy Days,” which is described as “one of the most unique and quirky festivals” and includes events such as coffin racing (if you want more information, and I know that you do, check out the website).

Hesse’s goal was not to simply show us pictures but to get us to think about how these pictures begin discussions and let us consider writing opportunities. He placed the focus not on the written products coming from the various pictures but instead, on the stories and the discussions that come from them. These are not writing exercises from political necessities or academic needs but for the ability to see the world as writers. The purpose for this type of writing tends to be viewed as less practical for educational reasons and for “academic settings.” Hesse argued that required writing needs to branch outside of the academic and to embrace writing as an explorative, essaying act. Required writing needs to branch beyond the requirements of the programs and refocus on the discussion of writing about writing. “Instructors should not try to make first-year students into rhetoric and composition graduate students,” said Hesse, as he dove into discussions of viewing life as writing and viewing writing as something beyond the academic genres. Hesse finished by tracing his crabbiness back to the source: realizing that non-required writing is framed as hardly a marketable purpose for required first year writing, but required writing should be viewed as a liberal art to focus on the stories, the contexts, and the engagements created.

Kathleen Blake Yancey followed Hesse and took yet another perspective towards required writing: the role of the visual in FYC. She fought back against the notion of always needing to assign a required format or a required text, asking, “If you are always assigned a format, how do you design one yourselves?” She embraced the focus of multimodality as being always present, with us now only becoming more aware of it due to the technologies becoming available, and pushed back against the notion of the word-focused construct of writing. She demonstrated this through using an unformatted syllabus as a tool for learning. She presented a syllabus with no formatting and then displayed three additional examples, each with a new layer of formatting. In doing so, Yancey emphasized the role of the visual (evoking Jody Shipka’s 2011 work on multimodal sources), the affordances, and the abilities presented to manipulate more than solely the text on the page. In closing, Yancey shared three final conditions needed for required writing: 1) do not require a specific format, 2) share with them ways to make meaning, and 3) allow them to do so.

But even with the three speakers sitting, the session was not yet finished, as the discussant, Howard Tinberg, approached the podium and began his response with four words: “yes, yes, and yes.” Tinberg addressed the growing pressure felt by writing instructors to standardize FYC, encouraging attendees to consider the complexities involved at both the micro and macro levels of writing instruction and what the field can do to reinforce the various viewpoints previously discussed. His views from the community college is one that emphasizes utility in programmatic outcomes; he pushed attendees to consider the contexts surrounding the students at the institution. He worried about the divide and worries for the students who may be limited by the views of the institution to fully explore the possibilities that a required writing course might offer. The issue of standardized acts as a safety blanket to fall on when other pressing, pedagogical concerns are not being addressed; though the contexts we may know offer comfort and clarity (focusing specifically here on MLA style), are these contexts the best for the students?

FYC has played an integral part to the creation of the field of writing studies, even though I feel that many graduate students (including myself) often take the presence of it for granted. Required writing can take many forms for many different reasons, and I feel that the four speakers here made clear the fact that no matter how we view it, we need to critically consider what happens in a writing course so many of us teach and so many of our undergraduates take. The perspectives offered here are but a starting point in a hopefully ongoing discussion as a field to think about the many forms and contexts that required writing can take and how we as instructors and researchers can continue to adapt and manipulate it to best fit the needs for our students.


Frozen Dead Guy Days. (n.d.). Retrieved April 09, 2016 from http://frozendeadguydays.org/(external link)

Shipka, Jody. (2011). Toward a composition made whole. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Created by EmmaC. Last Modification: Tuesday 03 of January, 2017 22:37:23 UTC by ccccreviews.