Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
From Form to Meaning

From Form to Meaning: Freshman Composition and the Long Sixties, 1957–1974

David Fleming
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wrbzz
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    From Form to Meaning
    Book Description:

    In the spring of 1968, the English faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) voted to remedialize the first semester of its required freshman composition course, English 101. The following year, it eliminated outright the second semester course, English 102. For the next quarter-century, UW had no real campus-wide writing requirement, putting it out of step with its peer institutions and preventing it from fully joining the "composition revolution" of the 1970s. InFrom Form to Meaning,David Fleming chronicles these events, situating them against the backdrop of late 1960s student radicalism and within the wider changes taking place in U.S. higher education at the time.Fleming begins with the founding of UW in 1848. He examines the rhetorical education provided in the university's first half-century, the birth of a required, two semester composition course in 1898, faculty experimentation with that course in the 1920s and 1930s, and the rise of a massive "current-traditional" writing program, staffed primarily by graduate teaching assistants (TAs), after World War II. He then reveals how, starting around 1965, tensions between faculty and TAs concerning English 101-102 began to mount. By 1969, as the TAs were trying to take over the committee that supervised the course, the English faculty simply abandoned its long-standing commitment to freshman writing.In telling the story of composition's demise at UW, Fleming shows how contributing factors-the growing reliance on TAs; the questioning of traditional curricula by young instructors and their students; the disinterest of faculty in teaching and administering general education courses-were part of a larger shift affecting universities nationally. He also connects the events of this period to the long, embattled history of freshman composition in the United States. And he offers his own thoughts on the qualities of the course that have allowed it to survive and regenerate for over 125 years.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7781-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. 1 INTRODUCTION: Freshman Composition in the United States, 1885–Present
    (pp. 1-27)

    For more than a century now, the most required, most taught, and thus most taken course in U.S. higher education has been freshman composition. Although its title has varied over both time and space (here First Year Writing, there College English), its basic purpose and configuration have not, remaining remarkably stable over a span of 125 years and across the diverse terrain of North American postsecondary education. The course was more or less invented at Harvard in the 1870s and ’80s, when required, year-long instruction in English composition for first-year students, centered on the writing of weekly themes, replaced the...

  2. 2 A PREHISTORY, 1848–1948
    (pp. 28-45)

    There has been rhetorical instruction at the University of Wisconsin since its founding in 1848. One of the first six professorships at the university, in fact, was a chair in “mental philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and English literature.”¹ The charge given to the holder of that chair reflected the amalgamation of literary study, oral and written composition, and moral philosophy typical of those predisciplinary times, and the training its professor provided was, in turn, integrated within a much more unified course of undergraduate studies than we have today.

    John Brereton’s description of the antebellum college curriculum in the United States fits...

  3. 3 THE POST WAR REGIME, 1948–1968
    (pp. 46-73)

    Born in Kentucky in 1914, Edgar W. Lacy received his BA (1936) and MA (1937) in English from Vanderbilt University and his PhD (1939) from the University of Illinois, writing his thesis on the fifteenth-century English jurist and author Sir John Fortescue. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, he landed an assistant professorship in 1946 at the University of Wisconsin, where he was, within two years, put in charge of the Freshman English program.¹ His scholarly career never really blossomed, and for the next thirty-five years Edgar Lacy was mainly a teacher and administrator at UW,...

  4. 4 FACULTY WITHDRAWAL, 1966–1969
    (pp. 74-92)

    The first sign that any of the changes described above had affected first-year composition at the University of Wisconsin came in the spring of 1968. On March 6 of that year, associate chair Edgar Lacy, at the end of his two-decade tenure directing the Freshman English program and speaking now on behalf of the 1967–68 Ad Hoc Committee to Study Undergraduate Course Offerings, presented to the English Department a proposal that had already been approved by the department’s Curriculum Committee and even applauded by the dean: that the two-semester English composition requirement at the university be reduced to one...

  5. 5 TA EXPERIMENTATION, 1966–1969
    (pp. 93-132)
    Rasha Diab and Mira Shimabukuro

    In the fall of 1969, 4,360 students, or about 78 percent of the 5,569 freshmen at the University of Wisconsin that semester, enrolled in Freshman English. One hundred and forty-nine registered for English 101 (11 sections), the newly remedialized writing course examined in some depth previously. Another 329 were in 18 sections of English 181, the Honors version of Freshman English. But the vast majority, 3,882 students, enrolled in English 102, the only composition course most UW students took that year. They were divided into 164 sections of around twenty-four students each, and like their peers in English 101 and...

  6. 6 1969 BREAKDOWN
    (pp. 133-172)

    On the morning of September 25, 1969, Joseph Carr, a second-year teaching assistant (TA) in University of Wisconsin’s English Department who had been assigned two sections of English 102 that semester, walked into the office of Professor William Lenehan, director of the course, to say “that he and his students had decided that they could not profitably conform to the texts and approach to English 102 prescribed by the Freshman English Policy Committee,” as Lenehan reported the incident later that day in a letter he wrote to his chair, Tim Heninger.¹ Carr himself would put it this way in an...

  7. 7 AFTERMATH, 1970–1996
    (pp. 173-194)

    By the fall of 1970, Freshman English at UW was a small remedial writing program. Despite widespread protests, the English faculty held their ground and eventually put the episode behind them, at least for a while. As we saw above, even though the spring 1970 semester turned out to be especially traumatic on campus, Madison’s revolutionary heyday was quickly coming to an end. As new English Department chair Charles Scott put it later, an era was winding down. Nationally, a kind of cultural hangover set in, evidenced on university campuses by declining federal support for basic research; a crisis in...

  8. 8 CONCLUSION: Freshman Composition at the Turn of the New Century
    (pp. 195-208)

    Given the repeated attempts, after 1970, to reinstate a universally required first-year writing course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, attempts that would ultimately succeed (in their way), and reminding ourselves of what we saw in chapters 2 and 3 about the long history of Freshman English at the university before 1968, it would be easy to characterize the period from 1970 to 1996, when the campus essentially had no composition requirement, as an aberration in an otherwise unbroken story of general education writing instruction at UW. We could then explain the faculty’s “surprise action” regarding Freshman English in the late...