I’ll be teaching sections of English 101 — “Composition” is the course title — at the United States Military Academy at West Point this fall. The curriculum is a bit regimented, but it’s surprising in the freedom it offers instructors, as well.
Grading standards are highly explicit and non-negotiable: it’s made quite clear exactly what is and is not permissible, and as one might expect, there’s a strong current-traditionalist influence in the standards’ attention to error. Cadets are expected to “develop the capacity to organize facts and ideas in a persuasive, logical argument and demonstrate … their ability to meet appropriate standards of organization, substance, correctness, and style in writing” (Department of English Mission and Policies). So: an argument-focused course, with the familiar updating of three of the five canons (inventio, dispositio, and elocutio become content, structure, and style), and an unsurprising generational split in faculty attitudes towards error and how to work with it.
An aside here: military faculty ranks mostly range from Captains up through Majors to Lieutenant Colonels. Captains have typically completed a recent company command in the military and a civilian MA, and do a three-year tour at West Point before going back out into the regular Army. Lieutenant Colonels are often returning instructors, having done an initial tour as a captain before going back out and then completing a PhD and returning to West Point as a more senior instructor. Furthermore, many of the military faculty here are graduates of West Point, which contributes something like 10% of the Army’s officer corps. (Another 10% or so go through Officer Candidate School from the enlisted ranks, and the majority go through ROTC in college.) So what you get is a body of instructors who remember the way things used to be when they were students, and use that as a model of instruction. In composition, that makes for a strong historical influence on the assumptions about the way things are done in the teaching of writing.
That historical influence is highly visible in the pervasive attention to error, but also in other areas as well. At West Point, the academic program necessarily coexists with the military and athletic programs, and cadets are expected to devote their time to all three. From what I’ve seen and heard, cadets are somewhat overscheduled, to the point where all academic syllabi are “de-conflicted”: that is, as a practical necessity, course directors from all departments meet and arrange syllabus schedules so that no cadet will ever have more than one substantial assignment (“graded event”) due on the same class day. This is, in part, due to the fact that cadets have a brief window of two to three hours each evening to complete their academic homework, in between their other required activities. Each night, a military or civilian instructor takes on the duty of touring the barracks to make sure that cadets are, in fact, using their study time appropriately.
So: the “de-conflicted” curriculum lays down five days during the semester on which major essays are due. These due dates are not negotiable; nor is the focus on argument, or the criteria of substance, organization, style, and correctness. Nor is the fact that the first essay must be written collaboratively, between two cadets, or the point-based valuation of student work: 400 points for 5 out-of-class essays, 300 points for 5 in-class essays, 200 points for a three-hour final written exam, and 100 points for me to assign.
It seems to me, then, that there are several levels of valuation of writing in operation here. In my syllabus, I’m thinking I’ll use assignments like peer response letters, post-essay reflections, and correctness reflections (where students look up the editor’s marks I’m required to make on final drafts, find the places in their handbooks that address those errors, and write out plans for avoiding those errors in the future) as something called “brief writings,” to account for that 100 points. Beyond those brief writings, then, will also be “supplementals,” writing tasks not graded, but necessary for the completion of other forms of writing: generative work, freewriting, written group work, and the like.
Which is interesting, because it lines up closely with what I’ve tried to address in my dissertation: there are some forms of work whose purpose and value resists easy commodification. There’s writing that exists in the gaps, the spaces, the unscheduled time, as well.