(Dis)Missing Compulsory First-Year Composition
Until 1986, The University at Albany, SUNY, like most universities across the country, mandated that every first-year student be required to take composition. In 1986,after the writing program faculty built coalitions with faculty across the disciplines and drew up a new writing-intensive curriculum, they convinced the University Senate to abolish compulsory first-year composition. The story of the change in Albany's writing program is an interesting one to tell, but not so much for its plot; "what happened," although intriguing, is very much dependent on the local contingencies and so can, at best, only offer images of possibility. Rather, the story of Albany provides a way of seeing how ideas of literacy shape what is possible for students. At Albany prior to 1986 (and at most colleges today), for example, composition was required because the faculty believed in a commonsense, "functional" idea of literacy. My colleagues' rationale for requiring composition at that time would certainly sound familiar to anyone involved in a writing program: "Students simply don't know how to write." "Students can't write a sentence, much less say put two sentences together." "They can't spell." "They can't read." "It is the English department's responsibility, seeing that the high schools have failed, to teach students how to write prior to taking other courses." The faculty required composition because they accepted the university's responsibility for its students' literacy, believing that writing was something basic, a skill to be mastered, a technology to be applied. Our entering student placement exam for writing involved constructing assessments of student writing that my colleagues thought"discovered" (but that in fact produced) a population of students who were not proficient and who were in need of remediation-students who would be required to take our first-year writing course.