Welcome to First-Year Writing (FYW) at Oklahoma State University. FYW is a university-wide effort comprised of various stakeholders across campus, including the First-Year Composition courses you take (English 1113/1313 and 1213/1413), The University Writing Center, the Edmon Low Library, the OpenOkState Fellows Program, and many different graduate programs which train and supply those writing instructors who teach your courses. In addition to teaching you the writing practices and concepts you will need to succeed in FYC, this textbook will introduce you to many of these stakeholders and their investments in writing within and outside of Oklahoma State University.
First-Year Composition is, in fact, the only required course for all incoming students at every public university in the United States. Why? It may surprise you to learn that the answer is complex and many historians–such as Robert Connors, James Berlin, Susan Miller, Victor Villanueva and Kristen Arola, Sharon Crowley, Ryan Skinnell, and Tyler Branson–have written on the subject across multiple decades. A too-short, over-simplified answer is that university teachers and administrators recognized long ago that to have the best chance of success in college, students must be able to read, analyze, and write texts well. But here is the big secret: you will not leave FYW at Oklahoma State as an expert writer, nor will you leave FYW fully formed and capable of writing well in all genres and situations, even academic. However, all students everywhere are capable of becoming excellent writers, and all students who write often and work at their writing with intent will improve. Our big, broad goals in your FYC classes are to help you improve in your writing (often this means becoming more confident in your writing, or even just dreading writing a bit less) and for you to leave the course having developed some good habits to help you improve throughout your life. Much like exercise, if you take one aerobics class you will not be transformed into an expert gymnast now and for all time. However, if you keep working at it consistently over time, you can become a master of your craft.
A major secret to writing success is simple: find ways to enjoy it more and fear it less. Think about it. If you dread that aerobics class, you will find reasons not to go. You will not like everything about writing (I definitely don’t) nor will you like everything about your FYC class. Find the joy where you can find it and lean into that. Great writing comes from people who take great joy in writing. Moreover, all writers, like all athletes, will improve with respect to the work and dedication they apply. Both also improve better and faster with an expert helping them along the way. Think of your writing instructor as that expert guide and trainer. They are here to help you exercise your writing, which may include exorcizing some writing demons (think of procrastination and binge writing). I promise you that your writing instructor loves writing, and they want to share that joy with you. We are here to help.
Who Teaches Writing?
The above question serves both as the title and the central organizing concept of this book. As you will see from the various readings in this textbook and your time within the First-Year Writing program at Oklahoma State University, a great many professionals across a range of academic disciplines teach writing with a variety of approaches. While every course in FYC has the same 4 basic units and uses a common textbook, those units are intentionally described broadly. As you skim, you will note Who Teaches Writing is divided into four sections; these sections correspond to your four major units in English 1113/1313 and include a range of short essays to teach you concepts to help you with your assignments. Who Teaches Writing uses a wide range of approaches in order to maximum the ability of your instructor to teach writing from a position of their own expertise and to maximize the ability of students to approach learning to write from their own interests. Your instructor may be an expert in Shakespearian literature, or feminist methodologies, rhetorical theory, or something whack-a-doo like videogames (that would be me, by the way) but they all know how to write and how to teach you to write better and more effectively. The English Department at OSU has five program areas (Creative Writing; Film & Media Studies; Linguistics; Literature; and Rhetoric & Writing Studies) and our instructors likewise have a diverse range of voices and expertise. This is the fundamental strength of our FYC Program. Scholarship on student success and retention is clear on this fact: all students, regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs, and political persuasions, benefit when they hear from a wide range of voices and write often and with range. This textbook and the curriculum to which it corresponds provide that.
If you take some time to browse the textbook, you should notice that each chapter provides one possible answer to the book’s title. Who Teaches Writing? In one chapter, Dr. Sarah Beth Childers shows us how “A Memoirist Teaches Narrative.” In another, Dr. Anna Sicari shows us how “A Feminist Teaches Writing through Institutional Ethnography.” Dr. Charlotte Hogg explains how “A Former First-Year Comp Student Teaches Narrative,” and Dr. Josiah Meints diagrams how “A Sports Rhetorician Teaches Evaluation.” In short, these chapters collectively illustrate what I believe is the answer to the book’s central question. A lot of people teach writing in a lot of ways. By foregrounding that fact, our FYC courses maximize the range of concepts and types of writing to which you are exposed. While they introduce you to a lot of concepts, these chapters are intentionally as jargon-free as possible. Any important terms are introduced and defined for you in chapters of about 10 pages. We made these chapters as readable as possible because, well, we want you to read them, and we know managing time as a first-year student can be a challenge. While we have scholars from 7 different universities in the book, many of our contributors are right here at Oklahoma State. Google them. Swing by their office. As you read their chapters, search hard for something you like, something that makes sense to you, something that you find fun or interesting. Start from there. Write a lot. You will improve. Hey, and how’s this? If this textbook doesn’t help you become a better writer, I will personally refund your money. Guaranteed.
Open Education at Oklahoma State University
Who Teaches Writing is an Open Educational Resource (OER). This means the book is free (It was a good joke, right?). When I became Director of FYC in June of 2020, one of the first things I did was survey instructors and students to learn what they thought of the program. At that time, the program had two commercial textbooks students were required to purchase, and we were in negotiations with another textbook company to add a third. Many things became clear when I talked to students and instructors, but two points are relevant here: 1) instructors hated using the textbooks; 2) students hated the textbooks and generally did not do the reading. I don’t think that is because instructors or students are lazy; I think it’s because commercial textbooks generally aren’t very good. The reason for this is they, as products that need to be marketed and sold for profit, need to be as applicable as possible in as many contexts as possible. In other words, the textbooks we were using stood the best chance of being profitable if they were equally as useful at OSU as they would be at OU, or UC Davis, or NYU. See the problem? Even though many commercial textbooks are quite good, by being applicable in so many contexts, they are never as good as they could be in any specific context. This book was built by and for the instructors and students in this FYW program right here. Moreover, when we find problems, we get to update it as you go (none of that, “Do I have to purchase the third edition, or can I get by with the second edition?”).
So that’s a reason to embrace Open Education: the textbooks are better. Here is another. Education is both a right for every human being and a responsibility for every democratic nation. Speaking as a 90’s child now staggered by student loan debt, I can tell you with certainty you are already paying more than enough for your education, and textbooks for FYC should not add to that burden. All told, if you calculate the three textbooks previously in use and under consideration, students were spending just under half a million dollars per academic year on commercial textbooks. This for textbooks that instructors hated and students did not read. Not the best investment, at least not for us. I believe all of you have a right to pursue education as far as you wish, and a small way we can help enable that is to remove as many barriers to entry as possible. I was a first-generation college student. I grew up on a farm in Mississippi. Both of my parents had to drop out of high school for work, and none of my siblings were able to pursue higher education. When I arrived at my first undergraduate institution (I bounced around quite a few before I managed to graduate) I was lost and straight up broke. I dropped more than one course simply because I could not afford the textbooks. Many of your instructors have similar stories to this. For our part, in the FYW program, we are committed to removing the cost of commercial textbooks as a barrier to your education.
A Few Words on Grammar & Grading
Many people—including students, parents, and even faculty from other departments or upper administration—are surprised to discover how little attention grammar and usage are given in FYC courses. For people who are not trained in the study and teaching of writing, a common assumption is that students should “learn the basics” of sentence-level grammar, and then build to paragraphs, and then on to lengthier manuscripts, such as essays. On the face of it, this assumption makes a lot of sense, but research in my field—Rhetoric and Writing Studies—has consistently shown that, contrary to what might seem like common sense, this assumption is flatly wrong. In fact, college-level writers tend to improve most when they focus most on writing a lot of words in a lot of situations focused on “macro level” issues such as theme and organization. It tends to be the case that more experienced writers benefit from overt grammar instruction. This reminds md of a quote made famous by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” Language is really old and has been developing for quite a long time. It is often the case that what we learn about language through research does not intuitively make sense.
So why do experienced writers tend to benefit from overt grammar and usage instruction, but not beginning writers? While grammar and usage are often talked about as “the basics” or the “nuts and bolts” of writing, it is better understood as the fine artistic styling and finishing touches of good writing completed by experts. Think of it in terms of another artistic medium, such as sculpture. If you were going to your first college level on sculpting, do you imagine your instructor would have you start by sculpting the tiny details such as the veins on the clenched hand of Michaelangelo’s David? Of course not, because you are so inexperienced with sculpting that you don’t yet really understand how to chip a chunk of marble into the general shape of a human body. Think of “macro level” writing concerns like organization, theme, and content as the general shape of the human body, and think of “micro level” concerns such as sentence-level usage and style as the delicate details on David’s hand. With time and dedication to your craft, you will be able to sculpt those veins, but it need not be today. Focus first on shaping the body of your writing into the general shapes and structures you imagine.
This is also a reason that many of the FYC classes you take at Oklahoma State utilize what we call “labor-based assessment.” This is another way of stating that we grade you based on the amount of work you do on your writing (such as pages produced, words produed, numbers of revisions and reflections completed) rather than the overall “quality” of your writing at this stage. If you’re concerned about making a perfect, “A-level” sculpture the first time you approach a block of marble, you may never build up the nerve to strike the first blow. All you need to do right now is write, and write a lot. We grade you based on how much work you do because the amount of work you do on your writing will directly reflect how much your writing improves, and that is the goal.
Why not get started now? If you’re reading this and taking an FYC course this semester, sit down and write for half an hour. Write down three things you would like to improve about your writing, and then write 1-2 paragraphs reflecting on why you set those goals.