Complaints about student writing have always been with us. In 1893 James Jay Greenough wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "A great outcry has been made lately, on every side, about the inability of the students admitted to Harvard College to write English clearly and correctly... The [preparatory] schools are to-day paying more attention to composition than they did 20 or 30 years ago; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys has been growing steadily worse... With all this practice in writing and time devoted to English, why do we not obtain better results?"
When Greenough wrote this in the late 19th century, many colleges were growing more concerned about student writing and, following Harvard's lead, moving to require expository writing courses. With first-year composition and writing across the curriculum now long-established, complaints today are more likely to be aimed at removing or reforming rather than adding writing requirements.
Every year or two you can pretty much count on someone standing up in a faculty senate meeting and posing a variation on Greenough's question: With all the course requirements devoted to writing, why do we not obtain better results? Complaints about other competencies -- public speaking, critical thinking, quantitative proficiency, scientific literacy, historical knowledge -- also circulate, but complaints about writing are more universal, more persistent, and more likely to be delivered in a tone bordering on disgust. What is it about writing that triggers so much anxiety?
When a faculty member at the University of Connecticut questioned our policy of requiring two advanced writing-intensive (W) courses in 2008, the senate formed a W Course Task Force to consider the future of our writing requirement. The task force included faculty from a variety of disciplines, directors of selected campus writing programs, and staff from several departments (advising, library, public relations).
The task force met for two years to consider whether to revise, reduce, or retain our upper-level writing requirement. We devoted the first year to planning how best to carry out our charge, consulting research on writing across the curriculum, and reviewing both institutional data and assessment projects from our university, which revealed areas for improvement but also affirmed much that was going well.
In both years we discussed current national controversies about writing, including the findings in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's controversial Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which finds that students taking courses requiring more than 20 pages of writing per semester and more than 40 pages of reading per week scored higher on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and previous studies revealing that the frequency of sentence-level errors in student writing (grammar errors per 100 words) has remained remarkably consistent since 1917, even if the kinds of mistakes that students make have changed over time.
Because we needed more local knowledge, in our second year we conducted two surveys (one of faculty members, one of students who had taken W courses) and a dozen focus groups (half with faculty members, half with students).
The student and faculty focus groups were perhaps the most useful thing we did. Indeed, we found that questions about the W requirement regularly led to deeper conversations about teaching and learning, ones that traditional workshops haven't got us to but that professors were eager to discuss.
Five key findings emerged. A healthy majority of faculty members and students support our W requirement despite a vocal minority against it (72 percent of faculty members preferred either the current two-course requirement or three or more courses; 61 percent of students were similarly inclined). Students value faculty feedback above all else in helping them improve their writing. Professors also see feedback as the key to teaching writing, but they worry that what they're doing isn't working well. The efficacy of using peer review in teaching is a point of real debate, and even some of those who believe in it struggle to make it succeed in their classrooms. (Peer review is not required, although making revision a central part of the course is.) And many faculty and students believe that several shorter writing assignments are more effective than a single large end-of-semester writing project. (At least 15 pages of formal writing must be assigned, but instructors can apportion assignments in whatever way they think best.)
Ultimately we didn't recommend a change of policy, nor did the senate propose any changes, which might seem like a non-outcome, or as if the committee's work was an empty exercise (which some colleagues predicted it would be -- just another series of committee meetings and a report for the files).
The real outcome, as we discovered only midway through, was the quality of the dialogue in the focus groups. While we organized them with a utilitarian aim to gather opinion and supplement the survey data, many of the sessions grew into opportunities for sharing teaching ideas, comparing assignments, debating the merits of pedagogical strategies such as peer review, and speculating on how students grow as writers from one course to another. Focus groups gave faculty that rare peek into each other's teaching practices and became venues not just for opinion gathering but also for faculty development.
Our university sponsors its fair share of teaching workshops, and the usual suspects show up time after time. Compared to those, the task force focus groups brought a wider range of people into the room, and the talk was more animated, perhaps because university policies were at stake. This pleasantly unintended consequence has given us a cue about faculty development that focuses on improving teaching. Not all faculty development sessions should to start with teaching strategies. Some might also start by considering high-stakes policy questions -- even cranky complaints. Good talk about teaching is likely to follow.