If I ran the zoo, I would institute a simple rule.
The rule is: every professor in English, history, philosophy, foreign languages, classics, various “studies” programs, art history, education, film, creative writing, and journalism would have to teach one section of freshman composition each year.
What would be the consequence? Fourteen weeks with students who don’t like English, who don’t like to read, who resent having to write papers on topical matters while making their way to the business major, who write emails beginning “Hey . . .,” who hung out in the high school cafeteria just three months earlier . . . it’s a humbling process. And sitting down with a 19-year-old, his rough draft in front of you, and recognizing that his first paragraph needs better verbs, has four comma errors, misplaces five modifiers, doesn’t vary sentence structure or length, and doesn’t follow a logical progression makes a bracing reality check.
Those teachers who’ve spent graduate school amidst the pages of Critical Inquiry and the theories of postcolonialism might find that their training serves them (and their students) not one bit. Those professors who believe that they stand at the forefront of critical thought might realize that advanced humanities work in graduate seminars doesn’t count much if classrooms at the lower end of the curriculum have to address such grave reading and writing deficiencies as we see today when we count up remedial courses.
Finally, and most important, we would not give the hardest teaching assignments over to the least experienced and secure teachers (adjuncts and graduate students). High-profile professors would have to labor next to one-year-contract lecturers, bringing equality-in-practice in line with the equality discourse suffusing the fields. It would also pull advanced professors back down to the fundamentals of humanistic instruction. Right now, the profession rewards esoteric, cutting-edge work, and the research that young and old professors conduct has little bearing upon the intellectual needs of 18-year-olds.
A required writing course might halt the professors’ flight away from general education, too. There would be no stigma in teaching the basics, and students might proceed in their undergraduate careers with a greater respect for humanistic study. Humanities professors complain often about the disrespect students have for the liberal arts. Here is their chance to cultivate it from the first semester onward.