A Writing Program that Works

(Editor’s Note: Steven Horwitz is Dana Professor of Economics and former Associate Dean of the First Year at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. Hillory Oakes is the Director of the Munn Center for Rhetoric and Communication at St. Lawrence University.)

The Pope Center has focused attention on college writing programs that don’t work very well. We would like to inform readers about one that does.

Over the last thirty years, university writing programs, particularly those geared toward first-year students, have become increasingly professionalized. Graduate programs in composition theory have produced Ph.Ds who are trained in writing instruction, and they have redesigned writing programs for undergraduates. On many campuses, the responsibility for teaching writing has been turned over to these faculty, and therefore we find that courses specifically devoted to writing skills – as opposed to content-based but writing-intensive courses – have become standard.

This change raises concerns. Does it really best serve students to separate a task so central to liberal education as the teaching of writing (and, we might add, speaking and research skills) from courses that are rich in content and taught by professors expert in those areas? What happens to students when they leave the composition course and scatter to the classrooms of other faculty members, who now perhaps now feel little or no obligation to teach their students how to write well? The poor skills of many college graduates may be caused by a lack of systematic attention to writing across the faculty since writing has been isolated in composition courses.

At St. Lawrence University, the responsibility for teaching college-level writing and other communication skills to first-year students rests on the shoulders of the faculty as a whole. Our two-semester First-Year Program (FYP) involves one course each semester devoted to students’ writing, speaking, and research skills, where most of the teaching is done by faculty drawn from across the campus – not just by those with background in composition.

In the fall semester, faculty work in teams of two to construct courses around an interdisciplinary topic such as “The Evolution of the American Family,” or “The Psychology and Expression of Creativity.” Those courses are expected to be “writing intensive”: students are expected to make use of outlines, precis, drafts and revisions, as well as learning to write for a variety of audiences. Students receive 50 percent more contact hours in them than in most of our other undergraduate courses. Faculty therefore have ample time to instruct and work with them in writing, including organizational techniques and grammar – something that sometimes gets short shrift in separate composition courses. Furthermore, all of this writing is about something, namely the content of the course taught from the disciplinary perspectives of the two faculty involved. Inevitably, students learn not merely about good writing in general, but also about the differing expectations in various fields of study.

In the spring semester, faculty work by themselves in a classroom of 16 students, again with a course of their choosing. This course focuses on generating research topics for students. Each St. Lawrence student engages in a research project under faculty mentorship in the spring of the first year. Students learn not just where and how to find research materials, but how to evaluate them, use them ethically, and integrate them gracefully into written form.

To maximize the effectiveness of the FYP, we bring faculty into the writing instruction project through a series of workshops. In the workshops, colleagues with expertise in writing (and other communication skills) and experienced faculty from the various departments engage in peer-to-peer mentoring of newer and returning faculty members. This team teaching element provides another way for faculty to share what works and what does not. Over the twenty years of the program, we have developed an array of ideas and materials that we know are effective in first-year writing instruction.

The advantage of having mostly full-time faculty teaching writing to first-year students is two-fold. First, the same professors from whom students will take courses in later years are the first to teach them to write critically at the college level. The kinds of issues that faculty find give students trouble in their disciplinary courses have provided the impetus for the kind of instruction we do in the first year. A number of the pedagogies we have adopted for teaching research skills grew out of faculty complaints about what students struggled with in their majors as juniors or seniors, such as being able to distinguish peer-reviewed from popular sources or do more than just summarize the sources they found.

Second, faculty who teach in the First-Year Program take the writing instruction techniques they have learned back to their departments and use them there. In our twenty years of doing this work, we have seen a significant change in the way faculty assign and teach writing in their departmental courses, much of which has grown out of the skills they developed teaching in the FYP. Professors regularly ask for preliminary work such as outlines, bring students to the library for research instruction, require drafts of papers, create assignments that involve particular rhetorical tasks such as a policy paper for a think-tank (rather than the plain vanilla “research paper”), and devote class time to issues of organization and writing skills.

Comparative direct data on the quality of student work is virtually non-existent, but we have some signs of success. On recent administrations of the National Survey of Student Engagement, our first-year students rank well above the nationwide means of liberal arts colleges in terms of the amount of writing they are assigned in the first year and the likelihood of having engaged in a research project with a faculty member. And on an internal assessment question, 49.2% of last year’s first-year class rated themselves as “strong” or “very strong” when asked at the start of the year about their ability to write a formal five-page paper. By the end of the year, that had increased to 74%. Over the last few years, several groups of our first-year students have had work they conducted with a faculty member presented at professional conferences and published in professional journals; others have taken work they did as first-year students and turned it into ongoing four-year projects, often culminating in a high-quality honors thesis.

In essence, we engage students by situating writing, speaking, and research instruction in courses with topics that faculty from across the curriculum choose and are passionate about. That leads students to become more invested in learning those skills. Our twenty years of experience convinces us that this model of writing instruction, although demanding much of faculty, better achieves the goals of a traditional liberal education than discrete composition courses isolated from the rest of the faculty and curriculum.