Thirty Pages

My essay’s like a flock of birds,
It’s almost at 9,000 words.

It’s hard to have a conversation about UConn’s First-Year Writing courses without falling into a debate about how to gloss that most stubborn of lines in all of the FYW canon, that often featured phrase in trochaic pentameter:

 Thirty pages of revisèd writing.

It’s a line that’s been scanned and interpreted by scholars and pedagogues. There are the more orthodox literalists, who read it as a plain requirement to assign thirty pages of revised writing in each FYW course. There are the more liberal interpreters, who see it more as a guideline or recommendation that might flex to meet the needs of a particular situation. And, typical of English departments, there are the “philosophers,” who, drawing on theory from the ‘90s, argue for a ruthless critique of reified generalities. These anxious souls point to the absurdity of “pages” in a course that increasingly depends on digitally-created and circulated work, noting, too, the weirdly flat emphasis on a fixed quantity of writing rather than, say, quality or purpose. (“Positivists,” they exclaim, “there is no greater abstraction than this falsely ‘concrete’ criterion!”)

But enough about me. Let’s take a look at how this phrase is interpreted in the most recent Handbook for ECE English:

Thirty Pages of Revised Writing
Although expressed as a minimum page requirement, the impetus for this element is a desire to have all students in FYW seminars share similar experiences in composing and revising several major writing projects throughout the course. The nature and genre of the writing may shift and develop across multiple assignments, and some instructors may use a wider notion of project or composition that includes something more than just a quantity of pages (e.g., a multimodal assignment).

There’s something in this description for any FYW teacher. We might notice a shift away from sheer quantity of finished writing to an emphasis on project and composition. These terms allow for a more expanded notion of productivity in FYW, and both suggest a heterogeneity of “parts” within a larger goal. One’s project might include drafts, proposals or presentations, ancillary or complementary work, or a whole range of activity that includes writing. Likewise, a composition puts attention on how an assemblage of parts might come together for a particular purpose. In more explicitly articulating the work of the course as an ensemble of diverse modes of engaging with the world, we make room for a conversation in the course about what writing is and how it functions.

Speaking as a fellow teacher of these courses (and not as the arbiter of an exact policy), I will say that I continue to see the value in posing the course in terms of a small number of larger projects (e.g., essays plus a wide horizon of supports to and extensions of these essays). That is, I see the course as a site for pursuing a small number (3-5?) of larger clusters rather than, say, a long series of unrelated weekly assignments. “Project,” for me, connotes something that takes a fair amount of time and ambition to see through. Similarly, I prefer sequenced assignments that build on one another throughout the course.

It’s probably still meaningful to think about the relative work it takes to achieve the most conservative reading of the guidelines, those thirty pages. If I’m asking students to produce an audio clip or a graphic, how is this comparable to producing prose paragraphs? How do I support and evaluate this work? Do I simply subtract a certain number of required pages to make room for this other work? Do I combine, say, presentations and final drafts into a single grade? These are questions that, in a mature writing program like ours, are sometimes best left as questions, as negotiations between students, teachers, and writing program administrators rather than settled dogma. These are rigorous courses, requiring substantial work from students (and teachers). But, at this point, we needn’t count pages like Keats’ Beadsman, telling his rosary with “frosted breath.”

Stefano Della Bella, Thirty Archers and Thirty Pages (1633)