A Return to Medieval Composition Basics

I was reminded recently of something most teachers know but easily forget: when you draft assignments, you need to have outcomes in mind first. Setting the goal and ideal result first allows you to target the assignment better to specific learning outcomes.

As I consider how to revise and strengthen my composition courses for the spring semester and beyond, I am deciding on an experiment. But first, here’s the background. My composition 101 classes are currently in the middle of a research project. This time around I decided to split the assignment in half: part 1 is a report on a subject chosen by the student, and part 2 is an interpretive argument concerning the best possible position or solution. With the first part, students struggled with 3 things overall: distinguishing primary and secondary sources, keeping their own interpretive opinions out, and citation. Part 2 is currently in progress.

The last issue concerning citation was the least surprising, but in observing student putting together potential bibliographies, I noticed something striking. When putting together a bibliography entry, many students automatically go to the citation generators (not the surprise), which are not especially accurate (also unsurprising). The surprise came when I insisted on annotations including rhetorical situation, students could not locate basic information like the date of publication, the organization or publication names, and in some cases the author. I think I’m really going to have to refocus my composition-based courses on writing techniques, including fundamentals of grammar, structure, and citation. I’m not really looking forward to the worksheets and technical exercises but if that’s what I have to do to get students to write, then I will. I’m really starting to think, as a practicing composition teacher, that students don’t need all the emphasis on critical thinking; they need help with expressing the ideas they have more effectively.

All of this is by way of saying that I am going to be writing a draft of the research essay assignment myself this weekend. I don’t think it will take more than a few hours, because I’m not planning on revising it. Instead, I’m giving it to students to critique. Normally, I don’t like giving students models because then they just follow that blueprint, instead of creating their own argument structures. Again, I believe that students can think on their own just fine; they just can’t write according to traditional academic standards. This is not an especially new idea, but I want to use this as an experiment to see if students target technical errors, or argumentative-content-based ones. If I’m right, students are going to find more fault with the argumentation and ideas, than with technical flaws.

I wonder if the reason my students had so much trouble with the report section of the research assignment was because they have become so used to critical thinking and analysis requirements, that they can’t just report and record information on a focused subject. I’m not saying that the focus on critical thinking skills is bad; I am saying that maybe we also need to spend more time on the basics. That’s my new outcome of focus.

The medieval theory of the seven liberal arts may be a good place to start looking for solutions. I’m thinking that I’m going to want to base future composition classes on the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Granted, I’ll be using the terms in more modern senses, but it might just be useful. Instead of Donatus and Priscian, the grammar lessons will probably come from a hand book and I might also include a grammar book (The Deluxe Transitive Vampire is one of my favorites) as required reading. This part will work especially well in an intro to literature class, as the medieval discussions of grammatica tend to focus a lot of figures of speech and poetry.  Rhetoric may include some Aristotle and Cicero, but will likely be more based on a reader. I still haven’t found a favorite yet.  For dialectic, I’m working on that still. I’m not an expert on formal logic, and I don’t think the conventions of disputation would work well. Students can pull up supporting ideas and references easily enough thanks to Internet search engines; it’s the explanations and reasoning that tend to be the problem, and medieval disputation might be too complex on those levels for general, introductory courses.

So, returning to the original thought, I am working on a new set of outcomes in mind for introductory courses in writing and literature (which are labeled as composition courses at my institution). I need to codify them in some more detail, but they will be based on the medieval principles of the artes liberales.