The University Writing Program has no agenda

Editor:

On Nov. 4, The Chronicle printed both a story and an editorial about the revised Writing 2010 course offered through the University Writing Program (“Environmental theme rubs some writing students the wrong way”; “No agenda is a good agenda”).

As the director of the Writing Program, I feel a responsibility to set the record straight and to request that The Chronicle retract the editorial, which was uninformed, erroneous and potentially damaging to the integrity of the program.

Although there are a number of problems with The Chronicle’s coverage of the course, the editorial is especially irresponsible, as it portrays the Writing Program as pushing a particular agenda. In fact, the only agenda the Writing Program is pushing is one that ensures U students a quality education.

The revised edition of the course is based on a yearlong study we undertook to determine how best to serve our students in a world that demands intellectual and informed engagement with contemporary issues. We modeled our course on those at Princeton University and adapted it to our particular demographics.

With that said, the environment is not the focus of the course but is a theme around which academic writing can be taught. Had the author of the editorial examined the syllabus, he or she would have seen that the course is thoughtfully designed, helping first-year students make the transition from high school to an R-1 institution.

A recent article in the journal Research in the Teaching of English reported on a survey of 2,000 high-school students and the types of writing they were assigned. Not surprisingly, the most frequently assigned task was responding to literature. Students wrote summaries and expository and persuasive essays much less frequently.

Almost absent was the research report. Writing 2010 is designed to bring students up to speed, to introduce them not to literary but to academic ways of thinking about and producing texts. In this way, we believe that they can better engage in the intellectual inquiry that is part of writing across the disciplines.

We thought that it would be better to create a course in which students are introduced to academic thinking through assignments that challenge them to think analytically and contextually, paying particular attention to the rhetoric of various discourses. A theme-based course allows for this.

Students are exposed to a central theme-in this case, the environment-and can follow it through its historical and textual permutations. In this course, for example, we start with Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” which helps students understand that some of the very issues discussed back in the 1800s are still with us today.

As we move along through the course, we see that the environment has been written about through the years in ways that help us understand why and how the environment has been an important issue for society and how academic writers have examined and written about it.

Right now in class, we are studying how those in different disciplines approach the environment so that students can see that environmental artists, legal scholars and eco-feminists all have different academic interests that add to our understanding of this thing we call “the environment.” Moreover, they all have unique rhetorical conventions they use to construct and support their arguments.

In this course, as we read about the environment, we are paying particular attention to the types of claims the various writers are making, the types of appeals they use to connect with their specific audiences and the types of evidence that are valued in various disciplines.

Our students must also learn to pay attention to and master these very same rhetorical concerns while completing their assignments. Students learn to write rhetorical analyses of texts, report on the status of information, deliberate about issues from multiple and conflicting perspectives and argue from an informed position. In this way we think students are more likely to consider the complexity of an issue as they begin to write, and in understanding the complexity of the issue, understand the complexity of writing.

The design of the course requires students to break their bad thinking about how writing has often been portrayed-it is not just about getting it “correct,” using big words or having perfect punctuation. It is about thinking through an issue and amassing the widest range of positions in order to be informed, determining how to best position one’s self as a writer for an audience.

I would like to emphasize that the above description does not include pushing a political agenda. Students are exposed to a variety of academic and government texts that provide the backdrop from which they launch their own positions, without fear of having their instructor say “my way or the F-way.”

As this goes to press, two students are working on annotated bibliographies regarding global warming. Guess what? One student is finding sources that support contemporary theories of global warming, while the other student is finding sources to the contrary. Both their grades will be based on how well they have mastered the goals of the course, not on their positions.

The University Writing Program stands behind its pedagogical goals. The environment will continue to be offered as one theme, among several. These themes, too, like the environmental theme, will ask students to situate issues historically and analyze them across time, paying particular attention to how academics in various disciplines frame them and write about them, employing not only appropriate language usage, but the rhetorical conventions associated with them.

The Chronicle ends by asking students to look on the bright side: “Even if (students) disagreed with what they learned, hopefully it helped to strengthen their own convictions as they more fully examined their previously held beliefs.”

The Writing Program does not believe it is in business to tell students what to think, but rather to teach them to construct informed and persuasive arguments about their own positions.

In closing, I would ask The Chronicle to do the same kind of research we are asking our first-year students to complete and base their editorial pieces on fact, not anecdote.

Maureen A. Mathison

Director, University Writing Program