What Can’t Be Thrown Away

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Cutting English classes is a disservice to everyone

Imagine this: you're excited about starting university. Either you already know what you want to major in or you look forward to sampling a smorgasbord of first-year classes so that you can decide what you want to study further. Or you've always wanted to be an X – engineer, computer programmer, name a career – but you're not sure how to get there.'

Here's a surprise: most classes are taught in Latin, as in medieval European centres of learning. You are expected to write essays in that language. You are told that you, as an aspiring scholar, should have an instinctive knowledge of Latin grammar. If not, you can take a basic Latin course, but within a year, you are expected to be fluent. If you have trouble understanding course material in Latin, and you don't really know how to construct a sentence in Latin, let alone a paragraph or an essay in it, you're likely to fail.

Funding cutbacks have eliminated some intermediate and advanced Latin-language courses that might have helped you. You choose a major that only requires one first-year Latin course, not two, but you still have to write essays in it, and you can't really expect any of your profs outside the Latin Department to tutor you in composition. There is a Writing Centre for that.

Of course, this scenario is a fantasy. Latin is a "dead" language. (Never mind that it is more like a walking mummy than a corpse, since it is the source of many words currently used in the sciences, religious studies and the practice of law). Most university courses in twenty-first century Canada are taught in one of two living languages: English or French. No problem, right?       

Take another look at the fantasy scenario. Does any of it seem familiar? If you didn't learn English as a child, is it easy for you to read and write in it? Are you tempted to download an essay from the internet and submit it as your own work, or ask a classmate to help you write something that will get you the passing grade you need? If you get caught handing in someone else's words as your own, you are likely to be expelled faster than you would fail by trying to do all your own writing.

Do you find it hard to write essays that impress your profs even though you've been speaking English all your life? Have you been told that your writing needs to be clearer? Why do you need writing skills if you're not planning to write a novel?

Most of the concepts that you need to understand in any subject are expressed in words. Here at the University of Regina, those words are usually in English. Universities are places where ideas are taught, learned, discussed, debated, developed and refined. You can't work with ideas if you can't express them in a language.

There was probably never a time when every student at this university loved English classes, or preferred to read books than listen to the music of a popular band. I'm trying to be realistic. Even still, as an Instructor of first-year English who remembers being a student here in the 1970s, I can't help noticing that the culture shock experienced by most students in first-year English classes seems to be getting worse all the time.

I honestly don't know whether the rules of grammar are still taught in any English-language high schools. However, I do know that these rules seem more mysterious to more first-year students every year – even though most students understand technological gadgets better than I do. If a formal knowledge of English grammar seems as outdated as a formal knowledge of Latin grammar, does anyone really need to learn about sentence construction or verb tenses?

Consider the fantasy scenario. If all your textbooks are in a language that confuses you, do you think you could learn it simply by staring at the words, or would some instruction be useful? If you want to learn chess or basketball, wouldn't you want to learn the rules (which form the game itself) before jumping in? Skill in any subject usually requires a combination of theoretical learning and practice. If you don't expect to win a tennis game the first time you pick up a racquet, why assume that comprehension and composition skills in English come "naturally" to some people, while others can never catch on?

Funding cutbacks, particularly the ones that limit the number of English classes while expanding class size, are part of the problem. Long before the current funding crisis, however, there was a widespread assumption that English classes are irrelevant to the needs of most students. A post-secondary school (not a university) could survive without the kind of English Department where literature is studied, but it's hard for me to imagine a school of any kind in which language isn't important.

Years ago, a petition was circulated by several students who wanted first-year English courses to be changed from a core component of most students’ programs to electives for those with an interest in literature. I was relieved when this campaign didn’t succeed. If first-year English is “unnecessary” because students “should” know how to write clearly in English when they arrive at university, how could first-year English courses be too hard for the majority of students? If English is too hard, avoiding or eliminating it is not going to make textbooks in general easier to read, or make assignments in any class easier to write.

If you dread taking English 100, or you’ve taken it and felt as if you were drowning, you probably need more instruction and more writing practice, not less.

Consider another fantasy scenario: all students, without exception, must take an English 90 course when they enter university. The focus in this course is on English grammar, vocabulary-building, composition strategies and close reading of fairly simple poems and short stories. There are no essay assignments. Students who find this course easy get high grades that boost their average and enable some of them to earn scholarships. Students who find this course challenging have a semester in which to learn the basic writing skills they need.

There is a low failure rate in English 90, so most students go on from this course to English 100. There they learn to write academic essays about more complex works than they studied before. Students who love debating – you know who you are – enjoy the process of developing a logical argument and finding evidence to support it. By now, most students are so proud of their writing skills that they’re not tempted to plagiarize. After all, people with plenty of money in the bank are rarely tempted to shoplift.

After English 100, there is English 110. This is only for English majors, right? Wrong. Students who passed English 100 with less than 80% could benefit from another essay-writing class. The skills that impress English profs are likely to impress profs in any course that involves written assignments, including science reports.

Obviously this is my own fantasy, but consider the benefits for students. The failure rate drops as soon as the policy of making all students take at least two English classes is implemented. First-year English is still an uphill climb for many, but it’s not Mount Doom.

In this fantasy, dropout rates go down. Suicide attempts go down. Grade point averages go up. The failure rate for international students is no higher than the failure rate for locally-grown Canadians. Relationship breakups go down.

If this scenario looks appealing, consider the power of organized students. No school could survive without students in the classrooms. I can’t imagine an administration that would pay me to converse with myself.

Words are powerful, and students are powerful. Consider what students could accomplish by speaking out about what they need to succeed. Perhaps it’s time for another petition. And if the next one is about adding classes rather than subtracting them, I will probably tape a copy on my office door.

Jean Hillabold

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