A Timeline of How Composition Came to Be

Thesis: Analyzing the slow transition of incorporating composition into the college classroom, how this shaped our future for equality in the work force and having to find a solution to student’s being college ready for college composition courses.

The creation of composition college classes to be a writing focus took some time to transition. The delivery method of learning proper grammar and sentence structure were based on rhetoric (oral) practices, due to many of the students future careers were in the religious field. Religion and education were closely tied together in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so not only the delivery method needed to change but the mindset of how education would soon distance itself from religion had to expand and grow.

Without the education of proper writing skills, the careers of the future would have never occurred. How could the equality of men and women ever happen if higher education only focused on educating men to be preachers? Although this may seem like a simple timeline topic, it shows that without the transition from education and religion being so closely tied together, the careers, which have been created since the early 1900’s, which needed proper writing skills, may have never happened.

  • 1662 – Act of Uniformity: All teachers and students were required to swear allegiance to the Church of England; Scottish schools were exempt. According to the UK Parliament, the full title is, “An Act of Uniformity of Public Prayers and Administration of Sacraments, and other Rites and Ceremonies, and for establishing the Form of making, ordaining and consecrating Bishops, Priests and Deacons in the Church of England.”
  • 18th Century – Britain begins the transition from rhetoric (oral lessons) in the Latin language to composition in the English language. (Homes, 34) Oxford and Cambridge Universities only accepted students on the basis of religious affiliation, economic status, and the location they lived. There was nothing relevant to education or grades. Acceptance to these universities were centered around wealth and religion.
  • 1707 – Act of Union: The Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament united to form the Parliament of Great Britain or the United Kingdom. This date is significant because Scottland was allowed to retain independence in education and religion which drove students, who desired an education, to Scottish Universities as there weren’t religious constraints, as there was in England. Scottland transitioned to the English language and teaching composition a century prior to England.
  • 1790’s – Late 18th Century: Oxford and Cambridge begins to introduce written exams in the English language to the curriculum. Up until this point, the majority of the exams were still completed verbally and were given a nickname of “tripods” named after the three-legged stool where the examiner would sit. The important exams still were completed verbally, as we still follow this practice when defending a Ph. D. dissertation.
  • 1831 – Responding to student writing: Professor George Jardine and Professor Robert Scott both described their methods about how they conducted grading student’s composition assignments. Scott shares with the Royal Commission, that he grades the students assignments by inserting comments, which then the papers are read aloud in class for all classmates to hear. Most of the time the student’s name is not mentioned while the professor reads the paper out loud.

    Jardine’s approach uses a similar beginning where he reviews all the assignments and write comments but then he uses peer reviewers (Horner, 49). Jardine feels leading the student toward a success in writing is needed to be guided with a “gentle hand”.

  • 1871 – Universities Tests Act: Religious tests for a degree were abolished at Cambridge and Oxford. This change allowed any individual who wanted to seek higher education were now allowed to, not based on their religious beliefs.
  • 1880 – 1911 – Composition in the U.S.: In American colleges and universities, composition became a course. In the 1890’s, composition was born at Harvard. According to Ritter, some say composition was born when the National Council of Teachers of English was formed in 1911. The same year, the first conference on college composition and communication took place.


Although there are disagreements about which country and at what time period, were the first to bring English composition into the college classroom, the ongoing issue still plagues us today; individuals entering college still do not have the proper writing skills for college. If this problem was solved, there wouldn’t be a need for developmental writing courses in most of the colleges today. According to Gregory Glau, Harvard and Yale also have student’s who enter their prestigious schools who are not well skilled in the written word.

Glau opens his review touching on Maricopa County in Arizona and how many of the students come to college having to enroll in a developmental writing class. As a former professor of the Maricopa Community College systems, I have to agree with Glau’s and the Arizona Republic’s editorial from 2009. Glau’s review of Kelly Ritter’s Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920–1960, shares how the ivy league schools also suffered from students not being college prepared for first-year composition courses.

At one time in history, individuals used to be able to obtain a career without additional higher education. Today, most employers want a degree from a college and to be successful at college, the basic skills of writing need to be met. For this to occur, students need to learn these skills at the lower level prior to attending college. Even Harvard and Yale back in the 1960’s had students who were not college ready; don’t we think it is time for a change in our educational curriculum to set up our students for success, no matter the path they decide to take after high school?

Works Cited

A Brief History of Rhetoric and Composition, The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing. http://www.macmillanlearning.com/CATALOG/static/bsm/bb/history.html

Act of Uniformity 1662, http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/religion/collections/common-prayer/act-of-uniformity-1662/

Glau, Gregory R. Review of Ritter, Kelly. Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920– 1960. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2009. ISBN: 0809329247.

Horner, Winifred Bryan. “The Roots of Modern Writing Instruction: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: Norton, 2009. 33-52. Print.

Ritter, Kelly, and Paul K. Matsuda. Exploring Composition Studies: Sites, Issues, Perspectives. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2012.

University Tests. http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/acts/1871-unis-tests-act.pdf