Critical composition

I'm reading an article by Marinara, Vajravelu, and Young on assessing learning in a general education program. With respect to the composition aspect, they include its mission statement:

First-year composition introduces students to the skills necessary for critical literacy. Students will be expected to practice and revise their writing in contexts that mirror tasks they will perform throughout their academic and professional lives.

The mission statement took two months of discussing, arguing, and revising to craft, with one point centering around whether the word "literacy" should be in the statement. The authors don't go into why that point got discussed, but I'm curious, too. Literacy is related to composition, as one needs to critique texts that one uses in one's writing, in fact, to critique one's own writing. However, when crafting a two-sentence mission statement, one might think that the focus would be on writing itself. Although the statement mentions that students will "practice and revise their writing," it doesn't mention introducing students to the skills necesssary for composing.

I wonder if the term "literacy" is required due to the list of writing characteristics" they found crucial in the teaching of writing":

  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of process-invention, drafting, revision
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of audience and context
  • Students will demonstrate critical thinking about their chosen topic
  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of the conventions of academic writing, including an awareness of sentence structure, mechanics, and spelling
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the research process and documentation styles
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of diversity and social justice

Critical literacy and "an understanding of diversity and social justice" go hand-in-hand. As Ira Shor, a professor at the College of Staten Island, writes:

We are what we say and do. The way we speak and are spoken to help shape us into the people we become. Through words and other actions, we build ourselves in a world that is building us. That world addresses us to produce the different identities we carry forward in life: men are addressed differently than are women, people of color differently than whites, elite students differently than those from working families. Yet, though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.

In other words, such a mission statement is necessary if composition should be an arena for social and political change. Karen Welch (Social Issues in First-Year College Writing, Academic Exchange Quarterly) writes on the debate concerning the nature of First Year Composition. Welch cites Maxine Hairston as opposed to this re-design of first-year composition:

I see a new model emerging for freshman writing programs…that disturbs me greatly. It’s a model that puts dogma before diversity, politics before craft, ideology before critical thinking, and the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student. It’s a regressive model that undermines the progress we’ve made in teaching writing, one that threatens to silence student voices and jeopardize the process-oriented, low-risk, student-centered classroom we’ve worked so hard to establish as the norm. It’s a model that doesn’t take freshman English seriously in its own right but conceives of it as a tool, something to be used. The new model envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build students’ confidence and competence as writers. It is a vision that echoes that old patronizing rationalization we’ve heard so many times before: students don’t have anything to write about so we have to give them topics. Those topics used to be literary; now they’re political. (180)

Some would say that the problem remains of how one can write about any topic without critiquing deeply the language on that topic, which implies the sociocultural elements of the topic, thus justifying introducing their own social agendas into the classroom. Perfect neutrality is not possible, but to the extent we can approach it, perhaps we should ask, How can we help students in composition courses to write more thoughtfully (i.e., critically) without injecting our own biases into the process?