The Art of the Freshman Essay: Still Boring From Within?

Wayne Booth's Three Cures for the "Batches of Boredom"

formulaic writing
English professor Richard VanDeWeghe reports that "the formulaic essay . . . has become the unfortunate standard for good writing beginning in middle schools and extending to higher education" (Engaged Learning, 2009). (TerryJ/Getty Images)

In a speech delivered half a century ago, English professor Wayne C. Booth described the characteristics of a formulaic essay assignment:

I know of a high school English class in Indiana in which the students are explicitly told that their paper grades will not be affected by anything they say; required to write a paper a week, they are graded simply on the number of spelling and grammatical errors. What is more, they are given a standard form for their papers: each paper is to have three paragraphs, a beginning, a middle, and an endor is it an introduction, a body, and a conclusion? The theory seems to be that if the student is not troubled about having to say anything, or about discovering a good way of saying it, he can then concentrate on the truly important matter of avoiding mistakes.
(Wayne C. Booth, "Boring From Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay." Speech to the Illinois Council of College Teachers of English, 1963)

The inevitable result of such an assignment, he said, is "a bag of wind or a bundle of received opinions." And the "victim" of the assignment is not only the class of students but "the poor teacher" who imposes it on them:

I am haunted by the picture of that poor woman in Indiana, week after week reading batches of papers written by students who have been told that nothing they say can possibly affect her opinion of those papers. Could any hell imagined by Dante or Jean-Paul Sartre match this self-inflicted futility?

Booth was quite aware that the hell he described was not confined to a single English class in Indiana. By 1963, formulaic writing (also called theme writing and the five-paragraph essay) was well established as the norm in high school English classes and college composition programs throughout the U.S.

Booth went on to propose three cures for those "batches of boredom":

  • efforts to give the students a sharper sense of writing to an audience,
  • efforts to give them some substance to express,
  • and efforts to improve their habits of observation and of approach to their taskwhat might be called improving their mental personalities.

So, how far have we come over the past half century?

Let's see. The formula now calls for five paragraphs rather than three, and most students are allowed to compose on computers. More significantly, research in composition has become a major academic industry, and the majority of instructors receive at least some training in the teaching of writing.

But with larger classes, the inexorable rise of standardized testing, and the increasing reliance on part-time faculty, don't most of today's English instructors still feel compelled to privilege formulaic writing?

The way out of this impasse, Booth said in 1963, would be for "legislatures and school boards and college presidents to recognize the teaching of English for what it is: the most demanding of all teaching jobs, justifying the smallest sections and the lightest course loads."

We're still waiting.

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