U’s writing revamped

Come July, undergrads will face higher expectations for their writing skills.

Karlee Weinmann

This semester will be the last for composition courses as students know them, but the University hasn’t written off writing requirements altogether.

Beginning July 1, a new campuswide writing initiative will be set in motion with the launch of the department of Writing Studies. The new College of Liberal Arts unit aims to improve undergraduate writing across all University departments.

Rhetoric and composition will merge into the new department, which will also offer a degree in technical communications.

In 2005, one of 35 task forces created to help with strategic positioning was designed to look specifically at undergraduate programs and potential enhancements that could allow greater levels of student success in writing.

First-year writing

Laura Gurak, professor and co-chair of the Task Force on Undergraduate Writing who will serve as the department chair for the department of writing, said the first-year composition requirement was a point of focus from the outset.

The departments of rhetoric, English and postsecondary teaching and learning offered courses that fulfilled this requirement.

“We really ought to pull together all three versions of freshman writing and try to do something a little bit better Ö so that students can have a consistent experience across the courses,” she said.

The task force recommended the integration of these separate departments and moved for no more exemptions from first-year composition courses for students who score highly on an index based on standardized test scores and high school grades.

Students earning University credit based on composition-based Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests will remain unaffected by the changes.

First-year students will begin seeing changes in fall, when the composition courses offered become more narrowly focused, said Tom Reynolds, assistant PSTL professor and incoming director of first-year writing.

Students will be placed in one of three 1000-level courses based on their high school English grades, ACT or SAT verbal and writing scores.

“The idea is that students are placed in appropriate courses that are challenging based on what they’ve demonstrated so far,” he said.

Courses in the Writing Studies program listed as WRIT 1201, 1301 and 1401 will comprise the department’s offerings, with 1201 being an introduction to college writing and 1401 for students scoring exceptionally well based on placement criteria. Reynolds said the bulk of students will be enrolled in 1301.

“First-year writing is the lynchpin of what happens next,” Reynolds said. “This had to happen first, but the vision is one formed not just through first-year programs, but also through upper-division programs.”

Campuswide writing

The task force looked at revamping writing across all undergraduate programs in hopes of creating a more cohesive, consistent experience resulting in greater composition skill.

“We’ve done a really good job with writing intensive (requirements), but we’re ready to take the next big step and try to do it in a more integrated way,” Gurak said.

Already enrolled students will be unaffected by new measures right away, but can expect to see more emphasis placed on writing throughout fields of study. Current writing intensive requirements will likely be phased out over the next several years, but details are limited.

On Monday, individual departments began meeting with affiliates of the new writing initiative to develop ways to broaden the presence and importance of writing across curriculum. Mechanical engineering, a field not typically associated with composition, is the first department to volunteer its involvement in the process.

“Within a couple of years, we hope to have worked with enough departments to look at what this new model really looks like and be able to see if it works,” Gurak said.

Pamela Flash, associate director for the Center for Writing, also serves as director for Writing Across the Curriculum, the group planning to incorporate writing in all fields of study.

Flash applied for a $1 million grant to put toward efforts like buyouts that would afford University officials the time to thoroughly prepare and work through initiatives sooner.

In March, the grant’s recipient will be chosen, but Flash said the project is not contingent on grant-sponsored resources.

“We’re working toward making writing more meaningfully integrated into curriculums,” she said. “No matter what happens with (the grant), that’s where we’re heading.”

Effects and expectations

With a universalized approach to writing on campus facing students with more term papers than ever before, the Center for Writing will likely see an upsurge in its usage, said director Kirsten Jamsen, who was also on the task force.

The Center for Writing offers one-on-one, as well as online, consultation for members of the University community in need of help with writing projects.

Three current locations will merge into one in Nicholson Hall this summer, with satellite locations around campus.

“I suspect that we’re going to be busier than we’ve ever been, and we will need additional resources to meet the needs of student writers over time,” Jamsen said. “We’ll probably just continue to grow and there will always be the questions of where does (our funding) come from, and do we have enough space to accommodate?”

About 6,000 people per year pay visits for writing help.

Students like Erica Delin anticipate an increase in workload as well. Delin, a biomedical engineering junior, said she is opposed to writing beyond weekly lab reports.

“If they add to that, it would make our lives even more difficult,” she said. “In general, it’s a good idea for incoming freshmen to get into college writing, but looking at the curriculum and the assignments I have to do, it’s just a requirement to fill.”