|January 1, 1996|
Why we write
Chapter One - Why We Write
WHY WE WRITE - As we stare at that blank piece of paper or that empty computer screen, we experience dismay, nervousness, despair, hesitancy, and (occasionally) excitement. Public speaking may be everyone's nightmare, but is writing far behind? 0 We talked with a number of Union faculty members and students to gather some answers to that age-old question, "Why do I have to write this?" As you might expect, there is not one simple reason that we learn how to write. Adrian Frazier, professor of English, says, "Writing is an essential element of any citizen. Writing gives you the ability to have a point of view. You have to be able to articulate your position. Without that ability, you are powerless. With it, you at least have the capacity to make an argument."
For Linda Seymour, a senior English major and a Writing Center tutor, writing is very much a personal "tool."
"Writing is so much a reflection of ourselves," she says.
On top of all of that, there lies the "job factor." Employers frequently note the correlation between writing ability and getting a job. Law schools and the legal profession, for example, have been placing a greater emphasis on writing in recent years, and employers across the board-from business to medicine to engineering-stress the importance of communications skills.
Even before landing the job or getting into graduate school, of course, there is writing the resume, the essay and the cover letter, and filling out the application.
In engineering and the sciences, where some might think that writing is secondary, it has assumed a new vitality. Tom Jewell, the Carl B. Jansen Professor of Civil Engineering, says that learning how to write is just as important for engineers, who write significantly in the field, as it is for English majors. This year, Jewell is teaching "Introduction to Communications" and "Advanced Communications," both in the Civil Engineering Department.
In this age of technology, when so much can be available at our fingertips, knowing how to write-and how to read and think critically-continues to be crucial. Machines and electronic spell checking have made possible the rapid transcription of thoughts, but the process of writing cannot be accomplished by lapping a few computer keys.
Frazier says, "You have to be able to write. There's no way out of it."
With all of this in mind, the College has made a strong commitment to providing the resources students need to learn how to write-and how to write well.
In the mid-1980s, the Writing Board, a division of the College's Academic Affairs Committee, took a look at writing at Union. It wasn't completely satisfied with what it saw. Even though there was a good deal of writing, it wasn't systematic throughout the curriculum. According to Frazier, students who tried could graduate without writing a paper after completing a preceptorial in the freshman year.
By 1990, the College had begun a Writing Across the Curriculum program, which makes avoiding a significant amount of writing impossible. Brad Lewis, associate professor of economics and associate dean for undergraduate education, says, "It is my personal aim to not let students get out of Union without a significant amount of writing."
Today, every student must complete the Freshman Preceptorial (more about that later), two to four courses that have been designated as writing intensive, and a senior writing experience such as a senior thesis or a senior seminar paper. Each department has courses that have been certified by the Writing Board as writing intensive.
The Writing Board's intent is not merely to force more students to write more words. Lewis says that integrating a variety of appropriate writing assignments into a course can help students write better and learn the course material more thoroughly.
"Writing is not something you are born with," Frazier says. "It is something you learn and get better at with practice. Everybody who gets out of here, in their various careers, will all have to be writers."
Chapter Two - It Starts Here
IT STARTS HERE - No "Freshman English" or "Introduction to Composition" greets first-year students at Union. Instead, the first component of every student's academic program is the Freshman Preceptorial-commonly called "precept." Described as a "great books and intensive writing class," the preceptorial aims to teach students to read, write, and think critically. Karena Caronin is thankful for precept. A first year student from Abington, Mass., Karena says she came to Union with out a great deal of writing experience. In the fall term, she took a preceptorial with Carroll Hilles, an assistant professor of English-and loved it.
Freshman Preceptorial is the core of the College's General Education curriculum (comprising about one-third of each student's academic requirements). Preceptorials are taught to thirty-five sections of about fifteen freshmen each. Faculty members are drawn from a variety of departments-a recognition that different disciplines write differently.
The preceptorial does not merely teach the mechanics of writing an essay. "That does not begin to cover what we want students to do with writing," says Brad Lewis, associate dean for undergraduate education.
What Union wants students to do is to begin to learn how to read, think, and subsequently write critically. The preceptorial serves as a sort of "ideas" course more than anything else, says David Hayes, professor of chemistry and a first-time preceptorial professor.
The preceptorial, formally titled "Dialogue and Diversity," focuses on several main topics:
- predicaments of action and judgment;
- the nature of wisdom, belief, and unbelief;
- a genealogy of freedom;
- living with consequences;
The course uses various readings-novels, plays, essays, excerpts-to illustrate the topics and provide a vehicle for discussion.
Discussion is one of the main elements of precept. "We discuss-we're always discussing-everything we read," Caronin says.
Hayes says that the readings-everything from Toni Morrison's Beloved to the Bible and the Koran-provide a starting point for raising and getting into very broad and important issues.
And then there is the writing. Hayes says that the preceptorial does a good job in teaching students to write and that most students improve over the course of the term.
During the ten-week term, each freshman will write five papers, with the opportunity to rewrite three of them. Professors read the papers, of course, but so do fellow students, who write a one-page response to their class mates' writing.
Hayes also requires a one-page essay for most classes dealing with that day's reading assignment, and will often read papers aloud, followed by a class discussion. The students are always writing and always responding to writing.
Lewis points out that feedback is extremely important in teaching students to write effectively, and Caronin agrees. She says that reading her classmates' papers gives her the chance to look at other writing styles, and having her paper read by others helps her make sure that her paper is understandable, clear, and coherent
Writing clear, coherent, understandable, well-organized papers is stressed in all precept classes. Caronin says that she has been taught how to present an argument and prove it coherently with concrete information that comes only from a close reading of the text.
All of this is can be difficult for students and for professors as well. Hayes calls his experience with precept a challenge, but one that he has enjoyed.
The challenges of teaching precept and all writing courses are recognized, and measures are taken to keep the professors fresh and the program vital.
Preceptors-all of the professors who teach preceptorial-meet once a week to discuss ways to approach the material they are covering. Faculty seminars conducted by writing experts are held, helping keep professors fresh and ready to help their students learn to write effectively.
All of this is appreciated by students. Caronin took two writing intensive courses in addition to her preceptorial her first term. She says Hilles and her other professors were extremely helpful as she worked through a significant amount of writing. "There was always a lot of feedback on my papers, and I could always go and talk to Professor Hilles," she says. "She's more than willing to help you advance in your writing."
Chapter Three - This is a Writing Course
THIS IS A WRITING COURSE? - Chemical Instrumentation. Carbonate Sedimentology. Introduction to Logic and Set Theory. Methods of Modern Experimental Physics. Hydraulics. Energy Conversions. What do these science, engineering, and mathematics classes have in common? They are all writing classes. Mary Carroll, an assistant professor of chemistry, describes some students reaction to writing in chemistry classes as "This is chemistry. I don't need a verb. " Wrong. When Carroll corrects lab reports, she does more than check to make sure that the chemistry is right. She also looks for writing style, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Students soon realize that learning to write is taken seriously at the College no matter what the academic discipline.
The emphasis on writing, which begins with the Freshman Preceptorial, is supported by several hundred courses in all majors. These courses have been certified by the Writing Board as WAC-Writing Across the Curriculum-classes. Each student must complete six units of writing by taking a combination of W1 and W3 courses (a W1 course earns one unit of writing credit, a W3 course earns three units).
This kind of Writing Across the Curriculum program, which moves the teaching of writing out of the English Department and into the hands of all professors in all academic divisions, was the result of a restructuring effort in the late 1980s. The underlying theme, according to Adrian Frazier, professor of English, was a realization that there are a "variety of ways of expression that can't be taught in a single composition course. You can't teach students to write in one class."
Union's program provides a framework for professors to help their students learn how to write, explains Brad Lewis, associate dean of undergraduate education. Teaching writing has become a campus-wide responsibility, and every academic department has at least one class certified by the Writing Board as a WAC course.
This kind of approach accomplishes several objectives:
First, the program stresses the importance of strong communications skills in all majors.
"Students realize it's important because we harp on it," says Tom Jewell, the Carl B. Jansen Professor of Civil Engineering. Engineers at Union, he says, seem to get more practice at writing than do students at "standard" engineering institutions because they are writing both inside and outside of the discipline.
Carroll also likes the fact that Union students get credit for writing by taking classes within and outside their major. "Writing is different from course to course, and that's a strength of our program," she says.
Second, the program teaches students how to write within their own academic discipline.
"One of things that we are trying to teach is how practitioners in certain fields communicate with one another," says Lewis.
A third achievement is expressed by David Hayes, professor of chemistry. "Learning to write forces you to think very carefully about what you are doing," he says. "It helps you to understand your own project. When you write, you have to think more carefully than when you talk."
In science courses, coming to grips with the material-with what you do and do not understand-is accomplished through such assignments as lab reports and conceptual essays. Essay questions on chemistry exams, for example, require clear writing as students are asked to explain rather than define a term or concept. In lab reports, both the results and how they are presented are important.
Hayes says that the importance of clearly written reports is stressed in science and engineering. "Something that can be understood on the first read is very important, and we push that very hard," he says.
The process of learning to write "academically" is undoubtedly a challenge. Margaret Wadehra, director of the Writing Center, says that students arriving at Union usually are not accustomed to academic writing. "Students often chafe at the constraints of academic writing," she says.
Through four years of significant writing supported by a faculty that wants not only to teach a specific subject but how to communicate within that subject-students can work through these struggles.
Chapter Four - Your Paper is Due
YOUR PAPER IS DUE - You've read the material, taken some notes, gotten some sources, jotted down some ideas. You spread every thing out on your desk. You flip on the computer and-your mind goes blank. You have no idea where or how to begin. You stare at the piles in front of you: how will I ever get this done? 'r.' This is not an uncommon scenario for students, especially freshmen learning how to write academic papers. v But relax-at least a little. Help is available at the College's Writing Center. A student visiting the Writing Center, located on the second floor of Whitaker House, will be greeted by one of nine student tutors. One of them is Maria Rivera, a senior English and biology major.
Maria says that students, often freshmen, who visit the center for the first time are nervous. One of the most important tasks as a tutor, then, is to put the visitors at ease. Maria does so by talking with each student before turning to his or her writing assignment.
As a tutor, she has to adapt her approach to different personalities while she makes sure that each student's needs are being met. A session usually lasts about forty-five minutes to an hour. Maria helps students work through the paper. Generally, she begins with major structural and organizational problems and not the "small stuff'-grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
Margaret Wadehra, director of the Writing Center, says the center is not a proofreading service and it is not necessarily remedial. The students who visit are usually the motivated students who want to improve their writing and do well in their courses.
Maria and the other tutors will not "fix up" a paper. Instead, they ask questions, respond to the writing, and help the student work through the paper. "Fixing up does not help a student learn," Wadehra says.
For the most part, Wadehra says, the caliber of writing she and the tutors encounter is not bad. The problems they see are problems most students encounter-generating a thesis, organizing the paper, and grammatical problems-as they learn to write academic papers.
Some students visit the center frequently, and the tutors are then able to help them establish a strategy in writing their papers. "It's gratifying when students improve over time," Wadehra says.
Maria says that her two years as a tutor have been a "great experience." She enjoys collaborating and working through problems with her fellow students.
That characteristic is shared by all the tutors. Last year, for example, the tutors wrote, directed, and acted in a video to help train tutors, not only at Union but at other colleges as well. The video, "Problem Personalities in Writing Center Sessions: Coping With Theirs, Recognizing Our Own," was presented at two conferences. In November the Union writing tutors presented a paper to the Upstate New York Writing Center Consortium, held at Clarkson University. The paper, "Disciplined Writing," focused on helping students learn how to write in various academic disciplines.
Students can be nominated by professors or apply on their own to become a Writing Center tutor. Each applicant submits a writing sample, and each is interviewed by Wadehra. Last year, forty applied and four were chosen. "The success of the Writing Center depends on the caliber of the tutors," Wadehra says.
This year's tutors include Scott Fitzgerald (a German and English major), Sanjeev Francis (biology and philosophy), Chris Freed (sociology), Carin Gado (English), Maria Petroccione (English), Melanie Rinaldi (mathematics/master of arts in teaching), Linda Seymour (English), and Anne Marie Sullivan (psychology).
The Writing Center is open six days a week. Students can make an appointment or just drop in. The tutors suggest coming in several days before a paper is due to avoid a lot of panic.
Chapter Five - The More You Write
THE MORE YOU WRITE, THE BETTER YOU ARE - Laura Chauncey, a senior English major and French minor, believes that "the more you write, the more you improve as a writer." That's one reason she likes the College's writing requirements; another, she says, is that "no matter what your major, it is important to write well and communicate effectively." Laura is beginning the last requirement of the writing program-the senior writing experience. In a sense, Laura Chauncey has been preparing for her senior writing experience for four years.
The writing experience will be a seminar in which she will focus on one or two authors for an entire term. She will complete a project and a lengthy piece of writing at the end of the course.
"I feel prepared for an intense amount of reading and writing," she says. "Over the years I've adapted to reading large amounts, and
1 think it will be good to follow one or two authors. I think the program will be very insightful."
All seniors at the College must complete a senior writing experience. In the social sciences, for example, everyone writes a thesis. Many students get another test of their writing when they prepare presentations for the College's Charles P. Steinmetz Symposium or the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.
In the English Department, seniors study significant literary issues through an intensive examination of a major author or combination of authors. This year, for example, the seminars include a study of the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown and Nathanial Hawthorne through their use of the Gothic as a projection of the unconscious; other recent topics include a study of the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary and rival, and a study of the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
Students gain the experience of doing research, focusing on a specific topic and completing a lengthy in-depth piece of writing. The process has proven attractive to employers who like to see that students have the experience of working with and writing about a complex subject.
Because Laura has gone through the Freshman Preceptorial, the writing course requirements, and is about to face the senior writing experience, she feels prepared for the future, confident that she has developed the ability to communicate effectively.
During her years at Union, she has found that initial struggles-such as formulating a thesis-have gotten a little easier. She pulled out a few of the papers she wrote her freshman year and saw some positive changes. "I've become a more concise, focused writer," she says. She's learned to say what she needs to say in fewer, more direct sentences, and she has learned stay away from broad, sweeping statements.
The improvements, she says, have been encouraged by her professors. Laura has found her teachers to be encouraging and willing to spend time with her as she works through papers and other assignments. Recently, as a professor was reviewing a paper with her, he commented on her strong writing skills and potential as a writer.
"Professors are really interested in their students' development, and it doesn't end in the classroom," she says. "They get to know each student as a person as well as taking the time to talk about classes and papers."