Writing and General Education - A Commentary
In various meetings, including the recent faculty forums, and in letters to the now disbanded General Education Task Force and to the Senate Curricula and Courses Committee, there have been many pointed comments about the suggested changes to the writing requirements specified in the Task Force report.
Many of us who served on the Task Force have been surprised by the vigorous defense of the current "W" system, as this allegiance did not emerge during our meetings last year with various campus constituencies. In the current climate, however, it seems that an explanation for its proposed demise might be appropriate.
Although there is evidence that the "W" system does work well in departments where suitable "W" courses are offered for their majors, in general terms the "W" system has proven to be less than satisfactory. Writing-intensive experiences have largely been ghettoized within particular departments and, indeed, within specific courses within those departments. The lack of "W" courses has caused many students to have no writing experiences between freshman English and whatever "W" courses they can get into as seniors.
In my campus home, the English Department, this causes two concurrent problems. On the one hand, we get students from other schools and departments in our "W" courses who have little or no interest in the course content; they are simply in our classes because they are "W" courses that fit into their schedules.
The related problem is that our majors then cannot get into our 200-level "W" courses, because they are often occupied by senior non-majors who registered first and who need one or more "W" courses to graduate.
After examining the course enrollments over the past five years, the Task Force came to believe that skill codes such as the "W" designation often drive students toward particular classes.
While there would appear to be large numbers of course choices within the current General Education groups, in fact students migrate to those courses in which they can fulfill both skill and group requirements. Whether or not one agrees philosophically with "double-dipping," what cannot be denied is the fact that those General Education courses with skill codes are in the greatest demand and are at the root of curricular bottlenecks.
The "W" system has proven to be unsatisfactory for another reason as well. If one looks at the surveys completed by graduating seniors over the past three years (which are available from the Office of Institutional Research), one sees that upon entering UConn an improvement in writing skills was very important to the great majority of these students. In 1998 it ranked first in perceived importance, in 1999 seventh, and in 2000 fifth, out of 21 categories. A study of the post-graduation surveys makes clear that the University of Connecticut did not deliver on this score. In each year there was a significant drop-off between what the students expected in terms of improvement in their writing skills and what was accomplished.
A further point that was made during the Task Force discussions was that students who are forced to take all of their "W" courses outside their discipline may not be getting a good preparation in the type of writing they will need in their professional lives. We ultimately came to believe that something had to be done to remedy this well intentioned but practically flawed system.
Toward that end, the Task Force appointed a Writing and Assessment Subcommittee. Our job was to find ways to improve the imparting of writing skills. The subcommittee turned to the experts: we elicited the help of Distinguished Professor of English Lynn Z. Bloom, our Aetna Chair of Writing, and her Aetna Advisory Committee, which is made up of faculty members from across the university who are interested in improving student writing.
What emerged from the meetings of the Aetna Committee was a sense that students do learn a good deal about the type of writing that will be expected of them at the University in freshman English, but that these skills diminish if students do not continue to write after their freshman year. The Committee also saw the importance of a writing experience that was in some way connected to a student's major.
The Writing and Assessment Subcommittee's job, therefore, was to find a way to keep students writing throughout their lower-division experience, and to have each and every student at the University do some writing in his or her major field.
Such a model would make the traditional "W" designation obsolete, thereby cutting down on scheduling problems, would allow the students to keep writing during their sophomore year, which would, we hoped, reinforce what the students had learned in freshman English, and would provide what amounts to professional training in writing, which would allow students to get a sense of both how people write, and how people think, in their chosen discipline.
Professor Bloom had pointed out that one of the crucial problems we face when students do not have to write is that they stop thinking about writing. If our freshmen and sophomores could be given the opportunity to think about writing, to the point where they would come to understand what all good writing has in common, as well as why the writing expectations for a literature course differ from those of a history course, which differ from those of a physics course, which differ from those of a psychology course, we will have taken a big step in the right direction.
Those who have commented negatively on the writing component of the Task Force proposal have generally pointed to what they perceive to be the elimination of small, writing-intensive courses. Such courses have not been eliminated; they have moved into the school, college, or major from which the student will get his or her degree. It will now be up to the professionals in each field to teach the appropriate writing and critical thinking skills to their majors.
This leads to another often-heard objection, to wit, the suggestion that faculty members from departments outside of the humanities do not have the ability to teach writing. When this came up in the Task Force it was taken as something of an insult by a number of our cohort, who pointed out that they regularly teach the rudiments of professional writing in their areas of expertise. What is hoped for in terms of the writing expectations in General Education courses is just that - an explanation and an expectation of the type of writing appropriate to the subject matter at hand.
The argument has also been made that writing cannot occur within "content" area courses, that this demand will somehow deflect attention away from the content under discussion. One response to this might be that every course at the University of Connecticut is a "content" course, and that every paper written at the University is about some kind of content. One could also argue that the best way for students to grasp difficult material is for them to think and then to write about it. My sense, however, is that such responses do not get to the heart of the objection, which actually has to do with resources.
If the Task Force recommendations are implemented, in most cases we will no longer be prescribing particular courses to meet particular General Education requirements; this greater flexibility, coupled with the fact that student programs will no longer be constructed around opportunities for group/skill "double-dipping," suggests that there will ultimately be fewer General Education courses with huge enrollments.
This being said, there will, no doubt, continue to be some courses with large numbers of students. The issue is whether or not writing can be taught efficiently and effectively in such highly populated General Education courses. The Task Force came to believe that with the proper resources it can be. It is true that much of the actual grading in these courses will be done by TAs, but with assiduous faculty oversight there can still be a rigorous, worthwhile writing experience.
Please forgive a brief anecdote. In graduate school I was for a number of years a TA in a large "Humanities" class of more than 300 students. Among the teaching staff at various moments were TAs from history, philosophy, English, French, German, modern thought and literature, classics, art history, and various other disciplines. We were each responsible for leading all of the discussions and all of the grading in two sections, with 20 students in each section. The students wrote a minimum of two six- to eight-page papers per 10-week quarter, the first of which they could revise and resubmit; an essay mid-term; and an essay final exam.
What made this work was that in every case the professor in charge of the course took an interest in what went on in the sections. This manifested itself in visits to each section, in staff meetings each week to discuss problems and teaching strategies, and in attention to student writing. The professor made clear to the class what his or her expectations were concerning the writing assignments, and then followed up by checking (some would say scrutinizing) sample graded papers from every teaching assistant, to make sure that all of the students were getting a fair shake. This, I now realize, took a great deal of time and energy, but it guaranteed that the papers would be written and graded with a degree of seriousness that can sometimes be absent from large lecture classes.
The Task Force came to believe that with a similar commitment on the part of our faculty and the allocation of appropriate resources for teaching assistants, such courses can be taught with similar success at UConn.
Our hope is that the recommendation concerning the three-tiered approach to writing - freshman English, writing within General Education courses, and the upper-division writing requirement - as well as the directive to create a University Writing Center, which the Aetna Committee saw as a crucial component of any attempt to improve the writing skills of our students, will be given a thoughtful hearing.