The 1920s and ’30s

by Kay Porter Graduate Teaching Assistant Stephen F. Austin State University

Composition in the Piney Woods:

SFA 1923-1940


In the fall of 1923 Stephen F. Austin Teacher College opened its doors to students wanting to further their education and, if they desired, to instruct other students in their field of interest. The Stephen F. Austin English department started that same year with four teachers: Ms. Dorothy Arnold, Dr. Thomas E. Ferguson, Ms. Jesse Ruth Goodley, and Ms. Mary J. White. During the next seventeen years the department continued to steadily grow, even through times of war and the Great Depression. Composition was a vital part of every area of study, and became part of the core class curriculum. ENG 101: Exposition, ENG 102: Argumentation and ENG 103: Narration and Description were mandatory classes for all areas of study. These classes taught students how to organize and present their thoughts in a clear and organized fashion.

In 1933 the names of the core classes in English composition changed to what they are called today, ENG 131 and 132, but the emphasis and importance placed on composition through the student’s college career remained the same. In the 1920’s and 1930’s SFA also provided sub college classes. Sub college classes were classes for those who did not finish high school; these classes taught what the students had missed out on by not completing high school. Upon completion of these courses, the students completed the high school requirement and were allowed to join the college in the field in which they wanted to study.

SFA also opened a demonstration school. The demonstration school provided classrooms for education students to teach to practice teaching. The demonstration school started with first grade classes and continued through the high school level. At every grade in the demonstration school, English was a core class with special attention given to teaching the students the ability to compose their thoughts in a practical manner.

What follows is a detailed history of the early years of composition at SFA. The resources used in this research were found in the East Texas Research Center at the Stephen F. Austin library with the help of research archivist Jennifer Brancato and others. The Stephen F. Austin State University General Bulletin, yearbooks, grade books, and some files from instructors’ personal papers have been used in researching composition at SFA. This research was funded by the Stephen F. Austin State University English Department and a college readiness grant for the lower division of composition and was directed by Dr. Elizabeth Tasker.

Composition at SFA from 1923-1932

English composition courses have been required in all degrees at SFA since the school’s opening in 1923. ENG 101, ENG 102, & ENG 103 were core classes for all students from 1923 to 1932. In The Stephen F. Austin State University General Bulletin of 1923-1924 the course description for the three classes was:

A standard freshman college course in composition. The first term is devoted to a review of grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation and to mechanics in general, with constant practice in putting ideas into writing. In the last two terms an attempt is made to have the student acquire some agility in writing and a feeling for style. Though the course will involve the writing of various kinds of composition, but little attention will be given to types as types. The first aim is to see that the student has something to say, however simple; the second that he says it accurately, convincingly, and artistically (32).

The sequence of the English core classes was spread over three semesters, so the students were working on composition for the first year and a half of their college career. By including composition as core classes in the student’s career, SFA emphasized how important composition and the analytical thinking that comes with the composition process is in the careers that the students were being prepared for. The course description for the three courses remained relatively unchanged through the 1932 school year. The students were taught how to form complete, logical ideas and then how to put their ideas into writing.

ENG 101

In the fall of 1923 there were four sections of ENG 101 taught with a total number of 108 students attending. The number of sections had increased to ten in the fall of 1932. There were sixteen different instructors for almost eighty sections of ENG 101 during SFA’s first ten years as a state school. The average grade for most of the ENG 101 classes was a C, and in a few sections, a D.

The only record of text books comes from the grade books. While not a complete listing, the grade books list the books from the fall of 1926 until 1930. Three text books were used for ENG 101: College Composition, Specimens of English Composition for Use in College Classes in Rhetoric and Composition both by Howard Bristol Grose, and English Review Grammar by Walter Kay Smart. All three books included a manual of style and instructed students on the different types of writing.

In College Composition, Grose teaches students how to “gain a mastery of language adequate to their varied business, professional, and social needs” (2). Grose then writes that the ability to “transfer knowledge and thoughts to minds of others is essential to civilization” (2). The ability to compose and express one’s thoughts is perhaps one of the most important skills a person can learn. Grose teaches how to select an appropriate topic, compose the topic without digressions, and write a composition that is unified. Grose then goes on to define types of compositions and prepares the student to write each one. Although ENG 101 focuses on exposition and argument, description and narration are defined in the text as well. Sentence structure was also studied. Sentence clarity and coherence were the foremost concerns to Grose, and he spends numerous pages going over the building of sound sentences. The students were taught that “the sentence shall be a real unit of thought” and lack of unity in sentence structure give the sentence the “subtle effect of vulgarity” (359). The students were taught that “enough, but not too much” (359) is how the sentence should be shaped and that the modern reader is “less inclined to tolerate the easy-going attitude of those older writers who apparently ended a sentence only because they had to stop for breath or refreshment” (358).  The students were taught coherence of a sentence depends on two things: exceptional grammar and clear, logical thought. For the sentence to be coherent, words must be arranged in correct structure: subject, verb, and object with some phrases, such as prepositional, correctly imbedded in the sentence. Rhyme, rhythm, and euphony were also given precedence. The students were taught how the sound of the sentence affects the reader. Lastly, Grose addresses the preparation of the manuscript. Materials, titles, spacing, indentions, paging, handwriting, and alterations are all discussed as well as punctuation. After each section, Grose provides a list of exercises for each of the subjects discussed.

The second textbook by Grose, Specimens of English Composition for Use in College Classes in Rhetoric and Composition, contains many different samples and types of writing. Book reviews, critical essays, political addresses, and other examples are presented to show how diverse and important composition is. In the preface, Grose explains that:

Emphasis has been given to exposition and argument…exposition and argument are of greater practical value to the average student than any other kind of writing…The need for a body of fact to build upon, the need for precision, for orderly thought, for method, are things strongly insisted upon in work in exposition and argument, and they are of value to any man, even if he afterwards never puts pen to paper. Exposition and argument afford, too, the simplest and most convenient approach to a consideration of the laws, logical and stylistic, which underlie the art of writing; because of their more purely intellectual qualities they yield to the student’s analysis more readily and with less violence to literary fact than do narration and description (iv).

Grose saw the vital importance that exposition and argument played in a student’s life, and, as a result, he placed more emphasis on the two over narration and description. By doing so, the text shaped what was taught in the classroom.

According to the grade books, the entire book was used in class, including the appendix which contained several examples of faulty compositions to teach the students what not to do in writing, and the students studied essays by many notable authors such as: Jonathan Swift, Charlotte Bront?, Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, R.L. Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Emily Bront?, Homer, and Walt Whitman.

The third textbook, Walter Kay Smart’s English Review Grammar, provides a “review of English grammar for mature students who need a more thorough knowledge of the structure of the English Language” (v). Smart examines the structure and use of the parts of speech, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, phrases, clauses, and sentences. Each is studied in detail and exercises are given at the end of each chapter for students’ practice.

College Composition and English Review Grammar worked together to provide a manual of style to help teach the students clarity, coherence, variety, and sound grammatical structure in their writings. Specimens of English Composition for Use in College Classes in Rhetoric and Composition was a secondary textbook that provided superior writing samples that employs many of the same techniques the students learned from the other two texts. The combination of the three books gave students the opportunity to work on exercises to improve their writing skills. These books also gave very clear examples in which the students could model their own writing after.

ENG 102

According to the general bulletin of 1923, in ENG 102 the instructors taught the students to “acquire some agility in writing and a feeling for style” (32). Between the winter of 1923 and the fall of 1924 there were five sections of ENG 102 taught with one hundred thirty students attending. The number of sections increased to eleven sections in the 1932-1933 school years. The average was a high C in most sections.

According to the grade books, two texts were used from the fall of 1926 until 1930 in ENG 102: Grose’s College Composition, the same used in ENG 101, and Benjamin Heydrick’s Types of the Essay. The students reviewed the skills that they had learned in ENG 101, such as finding a suitable subject, how to use a quotation, and organization of a composition. They also reviewed correct form of a manuscript, which included materials, titles, spacing, indentions, paging, handwriting, alterations and punctuation. After the review, they were instructed how to write an exposition. Grose describes exposition as a “kind of writing in which the main purpose is to inform, make clear, or explain,” and gives the goal of an exposition as “to give the reader an understanding of the subject treated” (105). The logical processes of exposition, which include definition and division, were studied first. Then the students studied the three “generally useful types of expository writing- Descriptive Exposition, Process Exposition, and Exposition of Ideas” (127). Each type of exposition was dissected and studied to help students become proficient in writing each. After studying exposition, the students learned how to write an argument. Grose describes argument as a “type of writing in which the intention is to convince or persuade” (166). Students studied different types of arguments and were taught how to write briefs and arguments making use of credible evidence and materials.

In the introduction to Heydrick’s textbook, Types of the Essay, the student is introduced to the process of writing and studying an essay. An essay is defined by Heydrick as a brief treatment of a subject (x). Heydrick emphasizes that “more than any other form of prose, the essay demands mastery of style. How the thing is said is as important-often more important, than what is said” (viii). Twenty six essays serve as examples of each essay type: personal, descriptive, character sketch, critical, editorial, and reflective.

Composition Classes Following ENG 101 & 102

ENG 103 was a continuation of ENG 102 in the attempt to teach students how to write with some agility and style. This course built upon ENG 101 and ENG 102 with a focus on teaching students how to write to their audience in a concise manner while also being stylistically appealing. There were only four sections of ENG 103 taught in the 1923-1924 school year with one hundred six students attending. The average was a high C to a low B in each section. In the 1932-1933 school years, the number of sections grew to twelve sections taught per semester. There were three textbooks, according to the grade books, from the fall of 1926-1930 for ENG 103, all of which had been used in ENG 101 and 102. Grose’s College Composition and Specimens of English Composition and Smart’s English Review Grammar were used to instruct the students on the form and styles of writing.

According to the general bulletin, for one school year, 1923-1924, ENG 210 and ENG 211 Advanced Composition were offered to students. The course was described in the general bulletin as “the writing of critical and familiar essays ranging from 3000 to 8000 words” (33). The grade books for the course show only two sections taught by Thomas E. Ferguson, and these were taught in 1925-1926. The only textbook on file was Grose’s Specimens of English Composition.

The Teaching of Composition in the High School, ENG 234, was offered to students in the 1931-1932 school years. It was described in the general bulletin as:

This course has two purposes: first, to teach the student outstanding principles of grammar and composition that he is likely to need when he teaches in the high school; second, to analyze and to solve problems in the teaching of oral and written composition.

The only record of this course is in the general bulletin. There is not a record of sections, number of students, or textbooks, but one assumes that this course was designed to teach the student not only how to write but also the difficult task of how to teach another how to write.

English at SFA from 1933-1940

After the 1932-1933 school year, the courses changed in name and description. The three course sequence of ENG 101, 102, and 103 became just two separate courses: ENG 131 and 132, the same course names that are being used today in 2011. The 1933-1934 General Bulletin describes ENG 131 and 132 as follows:

The first semester is devoted to a review of grammar, sentence-structure, paragraphing, and punctuation, and to the principles of rhetoric and composition as applied to simple exposition and the essay. Special attention will be given to expressing ideas clearly and accurately in writing. The second semester is devoted to a study of description, simple narrative, and the short story with illustrative selections and practice in writing.

These courses were required of all freshmen, no matter their major. There was no record found of textbooks or grades available. Argument, which had been an emphasized aspect of ENG 101 and ENG 102, did not have an important role in The 1933-1934 General Bulletin. While argument was not included on the course description, one can assume that it did not lack presence in the classroom. In the 1933-1934 school years there were ten sections of 131 and nine sections of 132 offered to students by six instructors.
ENG 234 of the previous school year was also changed in the 1933-1934 school year. While the course description remained the same as described previously, the course changed in course number. ENG 234 became ENG 365 The Teaching of Composition in the High School.
In the 1935-1936 school years, SFA offered ENG 371 Advanced Writing to those who had already taken ENG 131, 132, 231, and 232. This was a three hour course that was described in the general bulletin as “A course in writing for students who wish eventually to pursue a course in journalism, and for those who wish advanced preparation in English composition” (53).

Sub College Courses at SFA

Beginning in 1923, SFA offered sub college courses for students who had not completed high school or had done poorly in high school courses. There were three courses offered in the sub college in English: American Literature, English Literature, and Fundamentals of Good English. The course numbers of these three courses changed multiple times, but the names and course descriptions remained the same. According to the general bulletin, American Literature was “the equivalent of the regular survey course of the best high schools. The students use a text in the history of American Literature, but attention is somewhat equally divided between the first-hand study of literature and the practice of writing and speaking accurate and forceful English” (32).  English Literature was the “equivalent of the eleventh grade high school course in English literature. Students will be given constant drill in acquiring a command of the English language, particular attention being give to the organization of material and expression of critical judgment” (32).

Fundamentals of Good English was perhaps the most important to connecting the sub college courses and the college courses in content and purpose because it emphasizes the writing aspect of composition. The course description reads “a course in grammar and composition for students whose training in the mechanics of writing and speaking has been notably deficient” (32). This course is the most like ENG 101, 102, and 103, and later ENG 131 and ENG 132, of the same time in its emphasis on the mechanics and organization of language pertaining to composition. The sub college courses remained consistent in course content throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Demonstration School

The Demonstration School run by SFA was a school taught by student teachers overseen by certified professors and was composed of three grades of primary school, three grades of intermediate school, three grades of junior high, and two grades of high school. The Demonstration School, according to the general bulletin of 1929-1930, served as a:

laboratory in which the student verifies his education theories and practice. It provides an opportunity for student teachers who have sufficient knowledge of subject-matter and the theory and principles of teaching to receive practice in the solution of problems of the classroom under the supervision of an expert teacher. New methods that save time, new schemes for better preparing the children for life, and new curricula and courses of study are tried out when deemed advisable. The aim is not to develop a school that is quite different from the elementary and high schools of the state, but to keep up with the best practices in the most progressive schools of the country (74).

For the purpose of this article, researching composition at SFA, the high school English courses in which many SFA students taught are the most pertinent. Not only were the courses at the high school level of the demonstration school instructed by SFA students, some of the students of the demonstration school went on to further their study at SFA. By doing so, they entered SFA with the fundamental building blocks of composition that SFA deemed necessary already in place.
According to the General Bulletin, in 1929-1930, there were three courses of English instructed at the Demonstration School: ENG 31, 32, 33 American Literature and Composition, 45, 46 English Literature, and 47 Fundamentals of Good English. While the first two courses looked at works of literature with a brief look at grammar and composition, ENG 47 Fundamentals of Good English was “a thorough course in the fundamentals of grammar and composition” (85).
The next school year, 1931-1932, the courses were changed. Instead of only three courses instructed in the high school level of the Demonstration School, there were four: 10, 11 Composition and Literature, 20, 21 Composition and Literature, 30, 31 American Literature and Composition, and 30, 41 English Literature and Composition.  Each of the courses now had an emphasis on composition. The students were required to do “a certain amount of work in composition as a means of improving his style and manner of expression” (83). Emphasis on composition in the high school years helped ready the students for college. The courses remained unchanged in description and name through the 1930s to the 1940 school year.