college level writing, first year composition classes


In the Introduction to What is "College-Level" Writing?, editors Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg state that the title asks "one of the most important questions in our profession" (xiii). However, even after 418 pages of essays written from the perspectives of high school teachers, college instructors, students, and administrators, the answer remains elusive because college-level writing does not, in fact, start in college - it starts in high school - where high school teachers believe they are instilling in their college-bound students the writing skills required by post-secondary institutions. The students, meanwhile, show up in first-year composition classes to find not only have they not been prepared for college-level writing, they haven't the faintest idea what college-level writing is. Our students have more writing demands on them now than ever before -- both in and outside of academia -- what past CCCC president, Douglas D. Hesse, terms "obliged" and "self-sponsored" writing (349). The job market has gone global and careerism is a reality for the college graduates of today. Yet, college writing instruction represents the last chance students have to learn the rhetorical traditions behind the writing skills, along with the realization that without an understanding of process and purpose, the products they do produce will never reach full potential. It is this seemingly dichotomic relationship between the "global village" job market and the rhetorical tradition that has created the exigence for this research. This study examines twelfth grade English and first-year college composition instruction from the three perspectives comprising the College Writing Contact Zone rhetorical triangle (practitioners-professional organizations-textbooks). Following the model of analysis used by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg in What is "College-Level" Writing, essays and articles written by high school teachers and first-year composition instructors involved in the "what is college-level writing?" conversation are discussed, examining each for the common threads running throughout their different viewpoints. The curricula at both the 12th grade high school and first-year college levels is also researched, in light of the mandates instituted by the professional organizations of the discipline (the NCTE and CCCC). Specifically examined are the roles these respective professional organizations played in the evolution of 12th grade high school English classes and the first-year college composition course, as we know them today. Finally, the textbooks, which inform the curricula of 12th grade high school English and first-year college composition, are investigated in regards to scope and sequence, assumptions, and authorship. The learning theories driving the textbooks are then used to construct the definition of college-level writing from the perspective of textbook publishers. The answer to the "What is college-level writing?" question emerging from this research is not what one might expect. College-level writing, as an entity, does not exist because college-level writing is the result of college-level discourse literacy. Since first year college students must step outside their comfort zone into Pratt's contact zone, perhaps, "instead of asking how to make high school writing prepare students for college writing ,. . ." we should be asking what literacy looks like"(Thompson 80). Making students aware of the different discourse communities in existence at the college level (Hesse's self-sponsored and obliged) is the first step in their being able to learn what writing is considered appropriate within each discourse community. What is needed is a new paradigm in the form of a transitional composition class that cultivates students as critically thinking writers who are the experts of their own thoughts and ideas. Whether this class belongs in the twelfth grade curriculum or the first-year college curriculum needs to be determined, but its absence is the missing link responsible for the non-transference of writing skills from the high school to the college level, as well as the non-transference of writing skills beyond the first-year composition class within academia. Our high schools, recognizing the fact that all of their twelfth grade English students are not going on to college, teach the writing skills and reading analyses needed for post-secondary school life - whatever that may be. First-year composition instructors assign their essays and research papers expecting their students to already be well-versed in the self-sponsored and obliged discourses of the academy - but they are not. The contact zone is created and the conflict begins because students need to access those discourses if they are to start creating self-sponsored knowledge of their disciplines. It is this 'knowing,' this created knowledge, that transforms our students into writers; the writers for whom we are the stewards.


If this is your thesis or dissertation, and want to learn how to access it or for more information about readership statistics, contact us at

Graduation Date





Bell, Kathleen


Master of Arts (M.A.)


College of Arts and Humanities



Degree Program









Release Date

December 2007

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)