Engaging the University Community in Undergraduate Writing Instruction

By Moskovitz, Cary | Liberal Education, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Engaging the University Community in Undergraduate Writing Instruction


Moskovitz, Cary, Liberal Education


IN "ASSESSING QUALITY in Higher Education," Douglass Bennett proclaims, "No single capability is more important than writing well. Virtually every college and university seeks to have its students write better when they graduate than when they first enroll" (2001, 45). In a recent survey of Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&.U) member institutions, writing topped the list of desired learning outcomes for all students (Hart Research Associates 2009). Students report being more engaged in courses with intellectually stimulating writing assignments (Sommers and Saltz 2004). Indeed, there is a clear consensus on the importance of writing instruction in undergraduate education.

There is also strong agreement that, to be effective, writing instruction must help students understand writing as a contextual act. Students need to learn how to identify the particular conventions of the different genres they undertake, and how to anticipate and accommodate the expectations of the audiences they are addressing. The report of AAC&U's Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative recognizes the need for students to develop such rhetorical awareness in its "Guide to Effective Practices," which promotes writing-intensive courses "at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum" in which students "produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines" (AAC&U 2007, 53). Such curricula, often labeled "writing in the disciplines," have been essential in the move to help students become more mature and flexible writers, and in shifting responsibility for teaching undergraduate writing from English departments alone to the faculty as a whole (Russell 1991; Carter 2007). But if we had the opportunity to design an ideal writing in the disciplines program unencumbered by the assumptions and conventions of normative practice, what might we do differently?

I believe that the change with the greatest pedagogical implications results from how we interpret the phrase "writing for different audiences." The common interpretation (and likely that which the authors of the LEAP report had in mind) is that students should practice writing as if they were addressing different kinds of readers. A student might, say, write a policy memo intended for school board members in a public policy course, compose an essay suitable for Harper's in an English course, and craft a design report in an engineering course. But, under this interpretation, the writing this student produces for these assignments will not be read by any school board member, Harper's aficionado, or engineering firm manager. Now imagine a curriculum in which the for in "writing for different audiences" was taken literally, a curriculum in which students would regularly get to find out how their attempts at different forms of discourse are actually received by the audiences for which they are intended, to - in effect -test their writing to see how it works. Even better, imagine that after their first attempts, students could revise their papers and test them again. Might not this change have a profound impact on how students understand and approach writing?

The Duke Reader Project

At Duke University, we are experimenting with a new approach to writing in the disciplines that offers students the chance to test out their writing in just this way. The Duke Reader Project, a partnership between Duke's Thompson Writing Program and Office of Alumni Affairs, matches undergraduates working on a course writing assignment with a Duke alum or employee volunteer who can serve as a member of the target audience for that assignment. Depending on the reader's physical location and preference, the pairs interact in person, or by webcam or phone. Volunteers need not be expert writers themselves, but only have experience as consumers of the kind of texts the students will write.

Faculty members may enlist suitable courses in the project, and students enrolled in these courses are invited to participate. …

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