The question of content in first-year writing courses comes up a lot. Do these courses really have “no content”? One answer is that the content of the course is the writing that the students produce. Mostly, I like this answer, as it nicely pivots the attention of the question away from what gets read over to what gets written.
Nevertheless, first-year writing courses are usually “about” something. In our program, where FYW is more explicitly a course in academic writing, we generally articulate a line of thinking—a combination of readings, central questions, and circulating vocabulary—that might be loosely considered a theme. Over a semester, we build a network of sequenced and related writing projects that extend and are supported by their relationship to other, similar projects. At times this can look like the formation of a mini-discipline, a course-specific, emergent context that indeed shares many characteristics of a more fully-fledged academic discipline (without the required membership of a specific discipline). These are not “writing in the disciplines” courses but, rather, courses that enact patterns of inquiry and engagement familiar to any discipline.
The theme, then, is crucial for mapping a territory for writing that is not merely an open space nor too defined and therefore restrictive. Oddly, many FYW courses still seem indifferent to what students write about. When a prominent rhet/comp journal prints an article that describes students writing about underage drinking or “a narrative about a high school football game,” I get uneasy. This reminds me of the countless papers I have read from transferring students requesting waivers of our course because they have “taken it before.” Too often, these papers are on topics with no other context than the long, uncritical list of sources at the back of a research paper on wage inequality, the persistence of racism, or the trouble with steroids in professional sports. These are all topics worthy of consideration, of course. But absent a critical context established by the course—at a minimum some organizing concepts and a specific enough site of inquiry to allow for new work to emerge—these are just rehearsals of various truisms or faithful adoptions of another scholar’s work. Continue reading