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Mastering the written word

The writing campaign, which has included 23 writing-intensive pilot courses so far, is one of six “cells” designed to boost the overall academic intensity for undergraduate students at DU.

Even those who do it for a living often consider writing akin to torture. But for all the pain, there’s plenty of gain: the satisfaction of developing an idea, the pleasure that comes from artful expression, the challenge of waging and supporting an argument.

Thanks to a new effort to make writing an intrinsic part of the DU culture, undergraduate students will be increasingly well versed in the pain and gain of writing. In fact, if the initiative is implemented fully, they’ll be writing intensively throughout their academic careers, beginning in their first year and continuing through their majors.

This emphasis on writing addresses a growing concern nationally about diminishing writing skills among college students. And it reflects the DU faculty’s belief that thinking and writing are inextricably linked. Academic rigor means exploring, developing and challenging one’s ideas through writing and rewriting and rewriting again.

“Having great ideas is only half the battle,” says history Assist. Prof. Ari Kelman, who taught one of the first of many writing-intensive pilot courses that kicked off the initiative in winter 2003. Once the light bulb sparks, students must power it through thinking. And, University faculty members agree, the best way to do that—no matter what discipline you’re working in—is by writing.

The writing campaign is one of six “cells” growing out of the Marsico Initiative, designed to boost undergraduate academic intensity in the arts and sciences and made possible by a $10-million gift from alumni Tom (MBA ’79) and Cydney (BSBA ’78, MBA ’80) Marsico. Other cells focus on the first-year student experience, numeracy, experiential learning and intellectual depth, while an additional cell is charged with assessing how well the Marsico Initiative is meeting its objectives.

Like the other Marsico cells, the writing initiative adopts a comprehensive approach to addressing its challenge. “There’s a chance, with Marsico money, to do something different,” says Luc Beaudoin, associate professor of Russian and head of the writing cell. As Beaudoin points out, DU professors have emphasized writing skills for years, but this marks a systematic approach to maximizing efforts.

The initiative’s proposal, drafted after extensive campus-wide discussion, envisions a multi-phase, five-year approach to implementing the following:

• a full menu of “w” (short for writing-intensive) courses dispersed throughout the academic experience, from foundation and core classes to classes in the major;

• a restructuring of the current First- Year English program into a new “First-Year Experience” that includes a sequence emphasizing writing;

• development of a writing center—with a faculty director and its own staff—to tutor students and support teaching efforts;

• a series of workshops for faculty to help them teach writing (Beaudoin notes that most professors know how to teach their disciplines but have never been taught to teach writing).

Currently, the focus is on piloting the “w” classes across the disciplines. Pilot courses will continue through 2004–05, when the program will be fully evaluated with an eye toward assessing which approaches worked best. That information, says Sheila Summers Thompson, director of University Assessment, will then be used in developing curricula. To date, she adds, faculty have taught 23 writing-intensive courses for 296 students.

In “w” classes, emphasis is split between the course topic and development of writing skills. Because each course is capped at 15 students, professors have the time to help students develop their thesis statements, evaluate their sources and substantiate their arguments. “In a 15-student class,” Beaudoin explains, “I can work with the student individually. Any more students than that, and it becomes almost impossible to do.”

Kelman agrees. “I always assign writing,” he says. “I don’t always teach it.” In fact, when his classes number 60 or 70 students, as they occasionally do, Kelman may comment on student writing, but he seldom has the time to shape it. In his “w” class, however, he was able to work with students on developing thesis statements and outlines. The one-on-one work continued through draft after draft of their many papers.

While a full evaluation of the pilot courses must wait until 2005, preliminary assessments indicate that the effort is bearing fruit. According to Summers Thompson, a rubric developed to assess progress suggests that students’ writing skills have improved. In addition, feedback reveals that students have appreciated the “w” classes, in part because the classes were small and included ample individual attention. “They acknowledged the intensity of it, but they generally felt their writing had improved,” Summers Thompson says.

Even more telling are faculty impressions. Beaudoin, for one, is a believer, noting that the “w” classes let professors maximize DU’s commitment to personal attention. In a “w” class, he explains, professors can structure each student’s learning to address deficiencies and enhance the quality of analysis. In his pilot class—Culture of Desire: Queer Theory— Beaudoin was able to look at student writing not so much as an assignment completed but as an ongoing journey. When he compares student performance in the “w” class with performance in other classes, he sees that his writing-intensive students demonstrate better writing skills and, just as important, a better understanding of course themes.

Biology Prof. Bob Dores is also a believer. He piloted a writing-intensive molecular neuroendocrinology class, made up of 10 juniors and seniors. In the opening weeks of the class, he asked students to review several manuscripts published in professional journals. Ordinarily, he would have had them focus solely on the science and the findings. But in his “w” class, he asked them to also focus on style and presentation, analyzing how each article was structured and executed. “I was setting them up to become journal reviewers,” he recalls.

To establish a baseline for evaluating progress, he then assigned them a journal article to review. The results were less than satisfactory. “When it came to understanding content, they were really good,” Dores says. “But I found that some of them didn’t bother to use spell-check or watch their punctuation very carefully. And, I could see they were wrestling with the correct way to say things.” Their style tended toward pomposity rather than clarity, he says.

Diligently, Dores marked every superfluous apostrophe and called attention to every clumsy construction. And though students howled at the sight of so much red ink, they took notice.

“When I got their [final] term papers, I didn’t have any of these problems,” he says, leading him to believe that part of the campaign to improve student writing involves communicating clear expectations. “Our students aren’t deficient, but if the expectations aren’t made clear, they will think they can just coast,” he says.

In Kelman’s class, the results were murkier, with some students showing impressive progress and others just beginning to improve. “Ten weeks is really short,” he says. “For some of the students, I did see progress. But it wasn’t universal, in all honesty.”

Nonetheless, he says, when combined with the writing cell’s other initiatives, the “w” courses will do a lot to foster student interest in effective writing. “One pilot course ideally can teach them that if they take writing seriously and if they learn some skills, the experience of writing can be fruitful for them.”

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