Goals for a Writing Class?

Our Task Force on the First-Year Experience has begun meeting. We are a ways from sharing anything with the public, but that will come. Right now we are “blue sky” thinking. I’ve no idea what would come to replace Eng. 103 or Core (if that happens) or who would teach any new courses.

I’m also reflecting upon what I learned during my and Lee’s Stanford Trip. Stanford requires 6 quarters of courses that include writing, and two of them are in a writing program. PWR 1 and 2.  To encourage you to use this blog, I’m also attaching Julia Bleakney’s PWR 1 syllabus that she kindly provided us.  It’s a PDF file attached to this post. Syllabus from Julia Bleakney's Class

Here are some of their goals for the one-quarter (10 week) class:

  • make writing assignments in which students carry out increasingly sophisticated forms of rhetorical and contextual analysis, taking into account differences in audience, purpose, and genre.
  • engage students in conducting research drawing on the University's rich resources and in identifying, evaluating, and using a range of primary and secondary sources in support of their own research-based arguments.
  • offer students an opportunity to write for a range of audiences and in several genres.
  • offer students opportunities for substantive revision of their own work focusing on content, organization, and style as well as for frequent peer review of the work of their colleagues.
  • provide ample opportunity for individual conferences on writing and for reflection on writing and writing development.

Given that Richmond’s focus is on analytical, persuasive writing in academic contexts (rather than exploration of the self or engagement in contemporary issues), what should we do in something like Eng. 103?  Here are our current goals from the common syllabus for Eng. 103:

Goals for Students:

  • Understand principles common to analytical writing, with and without sources, at the university level, especially focusing writing on a purpose and supporting assertions with evidence
  • Discern the differences between personal writing and writing for academic and other audiences, and show awareness of and aptitude with voice and style appropriate for these audiences
  • Demonstrate a command of language, at the paragraph and sentence level, appropriate to survival in UR classrooms after Eng. 103
  • Develop good research skills that include the ability to evaluate the reliability and quality of source material, printed and electronic, especially the importance to all academic disciplines of refereed/peer reviewed journals.

Further Worthwhile and Optional Goals:

  • Understand the relationship of the visual to the textual; learn to “read” images
  • Prepare multi-genre projects that embrace academic thinking and prose, sources, personal writing, photography, and multimedia
  • Integrate technology in a rich and meaningful way into the research and writing process
  • Encourage students to write for a “real world” audience beyond the classroom, if possible for campus or local publication.

5 thoughts on “Goals for a Writing Class?”

  1. My main concern is that when Freshman arrive to the academy, they do so with little knowledge of what’s expected of them. For instance when they tackle their first research/essay assignment they tend to want to use “pompous” language. That is the language of the experts they research without really knowing their place in the argument. My biggest hurdle is fostering students to get into the research conversation without using their sources to push their arguments forward. Such creates the typical five paragraph essay with a terribly general claim.

    To combat this issue I assign them the “investigative process draft” (see below) which asks them to research several disciplines (categories of research) that don’t necessarily DIRECTLY relate to their topic, but will if they can make critical connections between the categories. This practice helps them to find their place in the research conversation and helps them to explore more than just what experts say about their topic.

    Please beg borrow steal the assignment below.

    (Investigative Process Draft-IPD)
    Part B: Draft for Assignment #2
    The rough draft of this assignment should be 4-5 pages. At that point you should have at least 4-5 sources that you will develop into your discussion. This draft is most important as a build up to the final paper as it will contain the research, or "meat" for your final discussion. The IPD should foster your individual critical thinking capabilities and eventually help your paper "hang" together.
    At the top of this paper you will want to note what your research question is:

    In order for you to develop your own thoughts and draw sound conclusions about your research question, you will need to know, and thoroughly understand, how experts address the similar question. A strong research essay is more than what the writer thinks augmented by some strong quoted material. Good research essays, professional ones, make claims based on the writer's (your critical viewpoint and analysis of expert thinking and data. Think here about how you approached your persuasive essay) In this way you come to your own conclusions, and begin with your own ideas regarding the subject.
    The focus of this process paper is to get you to have a real sense of your sources and to allow those sources "voice" in your paper. This paper should help you have a clear understanding of the conversations that your sources engage in so that you can begin to understand your place in it. Essentially, this is a three step process: 1) Compile, 2) Organize, 3) Synthesize. To complete this project successfully, you will need to work through these steps. You probably cannot successfully synthesize sources before you understand each individual source and then organize them into appropriate conversations.
    Your investigative process paper should not be merely a list of expanded abstracts of each source. Such a conversation would sound like this: I looked at this source and it said€¦ then I looked at this source and it said€¦ Rather, I want you to work toward a more sophisticated synthesis. This is a demanding a challenging assignment, but quite rewarding.

    For each source, you must give the appropriate MLA citation. See MLA Guide.
    Read and carefully annotate the source. Use the following questions as a guide for your note taking.
    ï‚· What is the author's primary argument? Can you identify a claim?
    ï‚· What words or terms are fundamental to that argument? Make sure you understand the vocabulary!
    ï‚· What evidence does the author use to support the argument?
    ï‚· What underlying assumptions shape the author's position? Does he/she consider other viewpoints?
    ï‚· What kind of piece (genre) is it? Is it a personal piece? Scholarly? Different kinds of pieces have different goals; Do you know what this author is striving to do?
    Above all, you are searching for the author's argument and rationale. You are searching for how the author supports his/her claims. You are searching for intriguing ideas that will help you develop your argument.
    1) Choose two or three pithy quotations that best represent the author's position. A pithy quotation gets to the heart of the matter. A pithy quotation is contestable and intriguing. A pith quotation is brief- somewhere between two and five lines of text. Record those quotations exactly as you find them in the source, preserving punctuation, including page number(s) and quotation marks.
    2) Re-present, in your own words, the fullness of the argument. Blend in, and unpack the quoted material you selected.
    3) Next you should read over your summaries and determine where you might blend these arguments together. The most successful investigative paper will find ways to link and cross reference sources within paragraphs. For example, if you have three sources discussing gender differences, enter those sources in a single conversation. Your discussion might look something like this: While both Cole and Solomon point out€¦ Jeffries extends his observation by adding€¦. In this way, your investigative paper presents an interesting web of information that is more interesting and thoughtful than a simple cataloguing of sources. You may frame your Investigative paper by explaining to your readers what your research question is, and then introduce us to the different kinds of responses you got from your sources.. Think about and discuss how the author's position and evidence affect your thinking about your question. Does it relate to your claim and in what way? How will it help you push your OWN IDEAS forward? Aim for a summary/response of about 1 page of text per source. Save.

    Categorize and Organize: After you have completed the compilation portion of the assignment, take a look at what you have here. What kinds of categories does this stuff fall into? When you have compiled these summaries, you should begin to detect a pattern in the conversation. Which of these sources are discussing similar things in similar or dissimilar ways? Group like-minded conversations together. Your investigative process paper may contain different categories of information. Identifying and understanding the categories is a very good way to get control of your material.

    Your Investigative Draft should include a Works Cited List.

    Part C: Final Assignment #2 (See detailed assignment under BB€”assignments)
    You must thoroughly review 6-7 sources for your FINAL paper. The length for this final paper must be AT LEAST 7 pages.

  2. Dani,

    Thank you for posting your assignment on how to write an Investigative Process Draft. It’s very helpful.

  3. Here are my thoughts on “Goals for a Writing Class?”

    Wendi Berry says:

    After re-visiting the 1996 Harvard Educational Review article, "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures," I've had a revelation about my approach to teaching English composition. I teach multiliteracies not out of some grand schema for the future, but out of necessity. My first semester at University of Richmond, I employed a class wiki, advertisements from magazines and the Web, photographs, monuments, and film trailers and video, as a way to meet my students half way, or dare I say, to coax them into looking more closely at written text. Coming into my class, many of them spoke and wrote in abstractions, balked at questioning the text in Ways of Reading, and were highly deferential to Freire, Appiah, and Foucault.

    For a written assignment on the symbolism of Richmond's monuments, I asked them to apply Kwame Anthony Appiah's "The Ethics of Individuality" and John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" to test, explore, and refine their arguments of what these monuments represent. When many of them seemed hesitant to explore multiple meanings of the statues on Monument Avenue, I had them view the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. The irony of the Tramp sleeping on a statue called "Peace and Prosperity" might well have given them the excuse they were looking for, or the permission they needed, to think more critically about monuments' symbolism.

    Several students' critical framing skills seemed to improve after taking part in that class discussion. They made more detailed observations about their monuments which lead to more interesting claims. In one student's paper, he began to look at the symbolism of Jeb Stuart's monument more contextually. He was able to weigh both the positive and negative social connotations rather than simply harping on the evils of the Confederacy or glorifying Lee's valor.

    During another assignment, this one on the rhetorical situation and the use of the three appeals, logos, ethos, and pathos, in magazine advertisements, I observed that another one of my students seemed to make a leap in inferring multiple meanings that began with images but quickly translated to text as well. Something about the process of being asked to explain why coffee advertisers would think that putting a Columbian man on a donkey on ice skates in a rink would get more people to drink coffee excited him. He began making statements such as "When I first read the essay, I thought this €¦ however on a second read €¦ I thought this €¦"

    Another tendency I have observed in students is that they will select details or examples to illustrate an idea but then have difficulty in explaining how these details support or complicate a thesis. One of my students set out to write a research-based argument about gay marriage and after an individual conference with me on narrowing her topic, began to look more closely at the impact of politicians' religious views on legislation. Her biggest hurdle came in realizing that she was simply listing examples in a block structure and did not yet have a persona, her voice, in the paper.

    I reminded her that earlier in class we had done as improvisational exercise with one student acting as a moderator while the other students assumed the voices of Freire and Rodriguez. I emphasized the persona of the moderator. In class, students viewed and questioned content from a trailer of For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary about gay marriage that premiered at Sundance in 2008. After several drafts, and receiving feedback from me and her peer group on the class wiki, the student writing about gay marriage seemed encouraged that she was beginning to have a dialogue with the sources as well as guiding the discussion more in her paper.

    Last fall I found it absolutely necessary to use a wiki as a central place to post and gather information for my students. PBwiki was easier to learn than I would have thought, and I used it to post announcements and assignments, to link to Arts and Letters and the Writer's Web, and to read and make comments on students' papers. Students read and commented on each other's writing during and outside of class. They did classwork on the wiki, and I checked their work online. I was able to provide a central place to download and show YouTube videos and movie trailers. Students accessed the wiki at anytime to review assignments and to post and work online.

    For the 2009 fall semester I intend to continue to rely on multiliteracies to nudge and encourage students to consider rhetorical situations and analyze more deeply. I hope to be able to use digital storytelling as part of the personal narrative assignment. I anticipate that students reading their narratives aloud, taping their voices, and selecting photographs and music to accompany the text will add another level to the assignment that will make them think carefully about audience, purpose, and genre. My main focus will continue to be to get my students to read and re-read, annotate, respond, discuss, research, synthesize sources, and take a position. It's been my experience that using multi-media is absolutely necessary to reach them and incite them to think critically, analyze meaning, and add to the discussion of what makes meaning.

  4. I am very impressed by the concept demonstrated in the Stanford model. I especially like the idea of targeting specific types of language and images as subjects for analysis and writing assignments. I also agree that simply reading and analyzing well written essays on a variety of topics limits the opportunity to engage students in areas that interest them. I see technology as playing a vital role in student engagement, if for no other reason than to prove to them that I can communicate with them through the medium in which they are most fluent. Not being able to do so would make me something of a dinosaur! But beyond that, technology opens up a vast array of visual, auditory, and written subjects that are fluid rather than static. The world of the millennial student is not captured on the page, unless that page is online and updated regularly! That said, I still believe that there is no substitute for well written essays as a means of teaching writing. Instead, I see technology as a vital tool to gain the interest of students. For example, I used YouTube with great success on an assignment focused on the use of binary oppositions in argument. What must be extracted from even the best writing is easily conveyed in a three minute video, a medium that this generation of students has adopted as their default. After seeing binary oppositions on YouTube, students were able to identify them in both written and visual form, to understand how they were used to persuade viewers/readers, and finally, how to use them effectively in their own writing. Another technological tool I found very useful was a Blog. It accomplished several things including the mundane (it ensured that students had read an assignment before class because they had to post a response), and the exciting (it became a medium in which students engaged each other in discussion even before class!) I also found that students would post things on the blog that they were reluctant to say in class, and that they were willing to talk more openly because the awkwardness was dispelled by the blog discussion.

    As long as professors at the university continue to require written responses on quizzes, tests, exams, lab reports, papers, etc., etc., students must be able to construct responses that reflect what they have learned. I absolutley agree that multi-media technology is the way of the future, but I also believe that students will still need to know how to do the basics of constructing sentences, paragraphs, and formal arguments in traditional essays. I love the collaboration afforded students by the Wiki, and I will experiment with one in my classes next fall. So, I suppose I would like to have it all – the traditional and the technological! Doing so in a balanced fashion should provide students with the skills they need in any UR classroom after their first year.

    Whatever changes are made to teaching writing here at UR, students should still be required to demonstrate competency in analysis, research, and writing. I'm talking about the details of how to properly pick apart an argument (written or visual) and then formulate a cogent written response (counterargument). I'm also talking about how to use the library. I can't tell you how many students balk at using a print article or a book (or anything they can't find online) as a secondary source! They need to know how to formulate an arguable thesis and support it by appropriately chosen and balanced secondary sources. They also need to know how to properly document these sources to avoid plagiarism. And finally, they need to respect the English language. Although the lines between formal and informal communication seems to be continually blurring, there are still rules of grammar and punctuation that are essential for effective communication in any setting beyond the most personal. If you're not writing to your bff, you had better follow the rules if you want to be understood (lol). After all, these skills are fundamental to a sound liberal arts education no matter the major. I tell my students that I'm not only teaching them how to write, I'm teaching them how to think for themselves. This is, perhaps, the most important thing we teach them!

  5. I’m very impressed by all of these comments. I’m taking excerpts with me to the first public forums on the first-year experience.

    We have, as a committee, devised four goals that are part of our draft plan. I will post them here when the wording has been shared with the public.

    Then I want more feedback!

Comments are closed.