Making Writing Visible at Duke University

By Hillard, Van; Harris, Joseph | Peer Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Making Writing Visible at Duke University

Hillard, Van, Harris, Joseph, Peer Review

In 2000, Duke University put into place a new curriculum that requires all undergraduates to take a seminar in "Academic Writing" in their first year and two "writing in the disciplines" courses afterwards. This new emphasis on writing as a mode of learning and inquiry was spearheaded by the dean oi Trinity College, Robert Thompson, who made professionalizing the first-year writing course one of his priorities. Under his leadership, Duke decided to invest in a new postdoctoral faculty to teach an ambitiously reimagined first-year writing course.

"Academic Writing" is now the only course taken by every undergraduate at Duke. There are no prerequisites and no exemptions. More than 80 percent of the sections of this course are now taught by a faculty of twenty-five postdoctoral fellows in the University Writing Program. This multidisciplinary writing program is housed in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Wiiting (CTLW), which also sponsors various programs supporting the work of undergraduate teachers at Duke-including workshops and consulting on teaching, a tutorial writing studio, training in teaching and technology, a Preparing Future Faculty program, a series of teaching breakfasts and lunches, and speakers and symposia on the scholarship of teaching. Our efforts to remake the first-year writing course are thus tightly connected to college-wide attempts to rethink the intellectual work of undergraduate teaching.

"Writing in the disciplines" (WlD) courses are designed and staffed by faculty and graduate teaching assistants in the various departments throughout Duke. Students in WID courses are expected to write regularly throughout the semester, to discuss the work they are doing as writers in class, to revise their work in response to comments from their teachers and peers, and to leam about the roles and uses of writing in the ReId they are studying. To have a course designated as writing intensive, faculty must show how they will teach towards these four guidelines. The CTLW offers both workshops and one-on-one consulting for teachers of WID courses.

In the last four years, more than 200 WID courses have been developed and taught across a wide range of departments, many several times and in multiple sections. Not all of these courses center on teaching the critical essay; rather, since their aim is to introduce students to the actual forms of writing practiced in the various disciplines, many instructors instead ask students to compose policy memos, field and lab reports, grant proposals, conference posters, Web sites, software programs, or proofs. In describing how these two new writing initiatives at Duke build on and diverge irom each other, we thus might say that while our first-year course draws on the materials of the disciplines to highlight issues in academic writing, WID courses make use of writing to investigate issues in the disciplines.


Since one of the aims of "Academic Writing" is to prepare students to approach writing in a wide range of disciplinary contexts, it seemed counterproductive to imagine a faculty for that first-year course composed only of scholars trained in English or composition. And so the first-year writing faculty at Duke is now truly multiclisciplinary. In the last several years we have recruited young scholars with PhDs in African-American studies, anthropology, architecture, biology, cultural studies, economics, education, engineering, English, epidemiology, genetics, history, linguistics, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, rhetoric, sociology, and women's studies to teach "Academic Writing." The Utopian goal of interdisciplinarity is thus an everyday, lived reality in the First-Year Writing Program. What gives our work its sense of coherence is not a set of specialized topics or controversies, as is the case in most departments, but a collective teaching project. We all teach the same course, if in very different ways, and that is what we talk about when we come together as a group; it is what centers our intellectual work.

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Making Writing Visible at Duke University


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