Revising the Teaching of Writing

U. of Denver aims to redefine not only how freshmen are taught, but the relationship between those who teach it and other faculty.
April 13, 2007

How are students best taught to write at the college level? By professors who are based in disciplines outside writing and rhetoric, or by those who focus on composition? With a focus on writing for a non-academic audience or for their professors? And who should teach writing? Experts or graduate students in English and adjuncts?

These questions vex colleges -- on both a philosophical and practical level. For whatever a given faculty may think from a pedagogic standpoint, there’s still the problem of paying for those things most people agree on (small classes, lots of opportunities for students to get good help outside class).

At the University of Denver this year, a new writing program is trying a combination of approaches. Freshmen are taking a series of three courses in successive quarters -- each with a distinct purpose. The first quarter courses are taught by faculty members in a range of disciplines, and the next two by a new cadre of lecturers hired this year.

While not on the tenure track, the lecturers are far from the semester-to-semester model of employment used to staff many a writing course with adjuncts or graduate students. Their positions are full time, with benefits, and they are paid in the first quarter of the academic year to plan their courses, to work individually with students in the writing center, and to work as in-class consultants and one-on-one with professors on writing issues that come up in their courses.

“This is a very unusual and interesting approach to bridging a gap that many people are trying to bridge between not treating writing as a discrete  skill set, but as both a discipline in its own right and a gateway to other disciplines,” said Kent Williamson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Williamson said he was particularly struck by the creation of a team of writing lecturers. “You just don’t see a lot of that kind of integration -- the potential of having full-time writing instructors who are in a real conversation with one another and with the rest of the faculty.”

The Denver writing program is the outgrowth of a $10 million grant in 2004 from the Marsico Foundation, which stipulated that the funds be used to improve undergraduate education. Faculty committees studied various possible uses for the money and the full faculty voted (79 percent in favor) to overhaul what had been a fairly traditional program in which freshmen took writing, but without a university-wide vision for what was supposed to be accomplished.

“The campus wanted a permanent and dedicated teaching faculty in writing, rather than having a cadre of people who turn over continually and who are bifurcated as students and teachers,” said Douglas Hesse, who directs the new program and is a past president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. In an era when many colleges seem to view new Ph.D.’s in English as cheap labor to fill sections, the Denver approach stands out for paying such people for quarters when they are teaching not a single class and for manageable workloads when they are teaching (three sections each quarter, with enrollment in each section not exceeding 15).

The question Denver is posing to lecturers is not “how many sections can you handle?” but, in Hesse’s words, “how can they be a true resource for the university?”

John Tiedmann, one of the new lecturers, said that in the fall he worked with a political science class on globalization. The themes of the course were so broad that students' papers were “vague summaries of the world rather than real positions on anything,” and the professor was frustrated. Tiedmann met with the professor, reviewed students’ papers, led a workshop for students on writing about topics as potentially overwhelming as globalization, and followed up to track the results.

The “typical attitude” at universities is for a professor to call a writing instructor “like a repairman,” who can somehow “fix” student writing, Tiedmann said. The Denver approach is more collaborative and substantive.

“It’s not calling up the grammar guy,” he said.

Gregg Kvistad, provost at Denver, said that the idea of connecting writing to disciplines is one of the goals of the program. When students in the old program viewed writing as something “to be gotten out of the way” with requirements as freshmen, they saw writing as “a relatively simple and discrete skill,” not something connected to every discipline.

Involving lecturers in classes beyond those they teach “sends a message to the university community,” both students and faculty members, about how seriously writing is taken, Kvistad said.

The first quarter’s writing takes place in a seminar led by a faculty member from any discipline who is offering a “writing intensive” course. Luc Beaudoin, an associate professor of Russian who led the faculty panel that came up with the initial writing plan, said that he views that first course as “critical thinking intensive” as much as writing intensive. It’s about getting students to think about ideas and language in ways they hadn’t in high school.

In the fall, Beaudoin will be teaching a seminar, “International Queer Identities,” in which students will be comparing gay identity in societies as different as that of the United States, Russia, Nigeria, India, Germany and France. “What I’m going to be doing with writing assignments is getting students to question assumptions, and to understand the role of language in defining people,” Beaudoin said. Other seminars cover virtually every possible topic taught in the university.

For students' second quarter, they select among sections led by the lecturers on a writing topic related to rhetoric and public discourse. Tiedmann taught “Irony and Argumentation From Stephen Colbert to Socrates.” Over 10 weeks, students have four major assignments for a total of 25-30 pages, with each of those assignments going through two or three complete revisions. Numerous shorter assignments -- in and out of class -- round out the writing.

The following quarter is focused on more academic writing -- how to present ideas in different academic contexts. Alba Newman, one of the lecturers, recently finished a unit on science writing. She had students (from a variety of majors, not just science) read an article about oceanographic research in a scientific journal, and then read about the same research in an MSNBC report and from a literary essayist.

For an assignment on writing in the humanities, Newman is having some students visit a section of the Denver Art Museum, where curators have added small cards with quotes from artists whose work is displayed. The quotes are about the artists’ philosophies, but do not related directly to the art viewed. Students are asked to write about how the quotes influence their experience with the art.

Another feature of the new writing effort at Denver is the creation of a writing center where students at any level can seek guidance. Eliana Schonberg, director of the center, said that “the combined approach” is what will make the Denver program work. “Students are getting really strong teachers in the classroom and have a place to get continued support out of the classroom.”

Denver had a very informal writing center previously, staffed on a volunteer basis, and not well utilized by students. In the fall quarter, the new center handled 700 consultations with students, Schonberg said, everything from a student not understanding an assignment to a need for help in undertaking a major revision. Most students make appointments in advance, but walk-in visits are also possible.

The consultants working in the center provide “an informed and educated reader, asking questions,” Schonberg said. In addition, the center is offering a range of one-time seminars on various writing topics about which many students have questions.

Because this is the first year of the Denver program, its leaders acknowledge that while early reviews from students and professors are positive, evidence of success will take some time. Hesse, director of the program, said that next fall, the lecturers (all of whom are expected to return) will be focusing on what worked and what didn’t in their courses, making any revisions they think appropriate. In addition, the writing reforms at Denver envision more rigorous writing assignments in key courses students would take throughout their time at the university, and this first cohort of students hasn’t experienced that part of the program.

Those involved in the writing effort at Denver take assessment (of themselves) seriously.

Hesse is starting several long-term studies to track the impact of the program. He is doing surveys of professors on their assignment practices and how they relate to students’ writing skills, and will track changes over time. And he is starting a longitudinal study of 125 students, whom he will follow for the next four years, reading three papers prepared for courses, and one he will assign each year.

While Hesse thinks that the changes are already having an impact, he stressed that this was long term -- using the freshman year to set an agenda, not finish with writing. Denver administrators say they understand that; the program is already more expensive than would be supported by the initial foundation grant, but the university is providing additional funds. Kvistad, the provost, said Denver’s aim is simple: “to build a writing program second to none in the country.”


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