Write well, think better

“Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?” roared the troll.

“It is I! The Big Billy Goat Gruff!”

In the children’s tale The Three Billy Goats Gruff, three brother goats must cross a bridge under which a terrifying troll lurks. Each goat in turn, from smallest to largest, crosses the bridge and is subsequently threatened by the troll, who vows to gobble him up. The first two goats plead for safety by offering the next – and bigger – brother for the troll to eat. At the end, the oldest and largest Billy Goat Gruff crosses the bridge, challenges the troll, and mercilessly impales the leering creature on his great curved horns. The three Billy Goats Gruff then cross the bridge to the rich pasture, where – according to legend – they are peacefully living still. 

Today’s students seem to be scurrying heedlessly to and fro across bridges under which are nestled countless trolls from which they cannot escape, and with whom they cannot effectively engage. Sometimes, our students are even the trolls themselves. In an era of careless internet usage and text abbreviations in essays, one might believe that the role of university composition classes is an almost aesthetic one – teaching students to excise the “likes,” emojis, and casual dismissiveness from their essays in the pursuit of baseline readability. Yet composition instructors sometimes resemble the two younger Billy Goats Gruff, waving away the students’ undisciplined thinking and ideological struggles by thinking, “that will be taken care of by their Philosophy professor, in their Ethics class, by their parents…I’m not the biggest brother.”  However, perhaps if the composition classroom were seen as a semester in effective life communication – both verbal and textual – instead of a semester-long test of endurance, comp instructors could inspire students to engage the world as boldly as the Big Billy Goat Gruff.

When asked at the beginning of our first composition class, “What are your and your generation’s strengths and weaknesses in communication?” my students splutter, “It’s grammar, Miss,” or “I can’t organize my paragraphs, Professor.” Their concerns are aesthetic, and yet when pushed to further reflection, the confessions come out. “We don’t know how to talk face-to-face anymore,” they admit. “My friends and I all sit around on our phones when we’re out at dinner.”

Composition classes exist to teach the rules of commas and the organization of essays, yes, but the writing classroom as a whole is also where students can be taught to communicate thoughtfully both aloud and through writing, and to engage their ideological opponents face-to-face in a discussion before exploring ideas on paper. Composition classes should go beyond the writing of a research essay; effective communication and exploration could potentially give our students the metaphorical horns they need to gore and defeat their own cultural trolls.

Can a contemporary student, unused to the discipline of argument and effective writing, learn to combat meaningless online debate and their own desire for social media cachet, through a single semester of composition? I doubt it. However, if instructors saw teaching this prerequisite as an opportunity to prime their students not just for academic writing, but for intentional social engagement, perhaps the seemingly endless, antagonistic, and badly-spelled Reddit threads, the snappy cruelty of Twitter, and the ephemera of incriminating pictures and harsh hashtags shared on Snapchat would subside.

The potential power of a composition curriculum becomes especially apparent to me whenever I teach logical fallacies. My students and I examine far right-wing and left-wing rhetoric, as well as subtler forms. Our examples are varied, from hypothetical arguments with boyfriends to Barack Obama, from virulent bloggers to viral New York Times articles. I am often astonished at how readily they begin to recognize false logic, and they often surprise me with their insights (and their ever-ready skepticism as well). My students are unendingly ironic and snarky, but – with a little logical push – this irony can redirect itself into constructive insight. A composition course that focuses on the writing method becomes a vehicle for larger communication skills: the recognition of fallacies in daily discussions, giving credit where credit is due through citation, the organization of one’s thoughts, endless revisions, the willingness to change one’s opinions after research without embarrassment, and the meticulous parsing of sources to find the richest kernel of information. All this can be pursued in a composition setting with carefully curated relevant writing samples and frank, engaged lecturers. At this stage, composition ceases to be just a class about the formal writing and formatting required to publish in high-brow academic journals. Instead, it begins to help students develop the academic discipline required to write a journal article with tools that they can then repurpose for their daily lives and media usage, slowly and surely sharpening their horns for everyday battles with the bridge trolls.

In an era where politics and damaging social trends can turn into a frightening sort of entertainment, Millennials and Gen Z must be offered opportunities to engage rigorously with their own generational myths and intellectual self-mutilation in the composition classroom. By focusing one’s composition course on global controversies and intense cultural reflection as well as topic sentences and Oxford commas, students might learn to redirect their energy away from the addicting bread-and-circuses of social media and ceaseless online squawking. Rather than insisting that the troll wait for the bigger, stronger brother, perhaps students can then boldly respond, “It is I! The Big Billy Goat Gruff! And I am ready.”

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