Masters's history reveals for the first time the concrete practices of this uniquely American phenomenon, first-year composition, by examining three very different institutions during a crucial period in American higher education. But he does much more. . . . His conclusions reveal and challenge the deepest assumptions about the course—and our system of education.
Practicing Writing examines a pivotal era in the history of the most ubiquitous-and possibly most problematic-course in North American colleges and universities: the requireAd first-year writing course generally known as “freshman English.” Thomas Masters's focus is the mid-twentieth century, beginning with the returning waves of World War II veterans attending college on the GI Bill. He then traces the education reforms that took place in the late 1950s after the launch of Sputnik and the establishment of composition as a separate discipline in 1963. This study draws upon archives at three midwestern schools that reflect a range of higher education options: Wheaton, a small, sectarian liberal arts college; Northwestern, a large private university; and Illinois, a large public university.Practicing Writing gives voice to those whose work is often taken for granted or forgotten in other studies of the subject: freshman English students and their instructors. Masters examines students' papers, professors' letters, and course descriptions, and draws upon interviews conducted with teachers to present the practitioners' points of view.Unlike other studies of the subject, which have tended to focus more on the philosophy, theory, and ideology of teaching composition and rhetoric, Masters reveals freshman English to be a practice-based phenomenon with a durable ideological apparatus. By reexamining texts that had previously been considered insignificant, he reveals the substance of first-year composition courses and the reasons for their durability.
Masters weaves together interpretations of archival and critical sources to construct a vivid portrait of postwar composition teaching as a discursive practice that is paradoxically both utilitarian and utopian.
Drawing on a vast array of materials—syllabi, program descriptions, internal publications, and interviews—from three prominent midwestern universities, Masters identifies six terms that constitute core concepts underlying freshman English. By following Masters's analysis . . . we can see the powerfully embedded roots of college composition as we know it today.
"Practicing Writing is a richly detailed history of the freshman English course as taught in three different types of Midwestern universities between 1947 and the late 1950s. . . . Through his painstaking examination of everyday artifacts such as student essays, syllabi, departmental and university publications, professors' papers and interviews, Masters narrates the story of how these universities, which served as metonyms for three different approaches to higher education, attempted to integrate a new generation of college students into the literacies valued by the academy and by educated society."
This study provides valuable insights into a more comprehensive understanding of a 'marginal' area of higher education. Such an analysis applied to other nondiscipline areas of study would be of great benefit not only to academia but higher education as well.
Thomas M. Masters, an instructor in the School of Education at DePaul University, has led local educators’ associations, administered a writing center, developed interdisciplinary programs, and taught composition, literature, speech, and media studies.