Writing courses explore specific topics

GW will introduce Writing in the Disciplines classes next semester following this year’s more rigorous freshman writing program.

Some of the 700 freshmen who took University Writing 20 this year, along with other interested students, will enroll in the disciplines courses, which teach writing that relates to specific subject areas.

“Each (discipline) has its own way of presenting arguments,” said Christopher Sten, a member of the University Writing Advisory Committee. “Some require you to present both sides of an argument, others just the main one.”

Each course focuses on a specific topic – such as biology, English or political science – but does not necessarily relate to a student’s major. Students complete writing assignments throughout the semester.

“Writing is an evolving skill,” Sten said.

He said there will be 20 Writing in the Disciplines courses next fall and that a few more will be added on for the spring. Some will be available only to students who have completed University Writing 20, while others will not require students to have completed the course.

Students who took University Writing 20 this year will be required to enroll in two Writing in the Disciplines courses during their stay at GW.

Sten said faculty members are participating in a workshop on Feb. 28 that will help them develop “writing to learn” strategies and assignments. Faculty members will formulate and exchange ideas on teaching methods for courses.

“It will help people design courses, with the goal of making them writing intensive,” Sten said.

“It may involve a little tinkering to revising the whole way content is presented. Or it could mean a whole different way, going from mainly lecture to a whole different method of student participation,” he added.

This semester, 400 randomly selected freshmen are taking University Writing 20, which will replace English 10 and 11 as the method for introducing students to college-level writing. Three hundred freshmen took the course last semester, and by fall of 2005 all incoming students will be signing up for the course.

“More colleges and universities nationwide are requiring students to do heavy doses of writing in their courses,” said Cheryl Beil, executive director of Academic Planning and Assessment.

Beil’s office conducted a survey of all University Writing 20 students at the end of last semester. Many of the 237 respondents said they found the course challenging and helpful in developing writing skills.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they put more effort into their University Writing 20 course than other courses they were taking, and 85 courses they were taking, and 85 percent said they strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “This course is very challenging.”

“It was much more intense than anything I’ve ever taken,” freshman Kaylee Whitney said. “(The course) kind of forces you to do better.”

Professors teaching University Writing 20 teach a maximum of two classes that meet three times a week and count for four credits. The classes are also limited to 15 students. In addition, students cannot opt out of the University Writing program through AP or SAT scores, as they were able to do for English 10 and 11.

Freshman Katie Harter said some students who were randomly selected to participate in University Writing 20 were bitter because they couldn’t use their AP scores to get credit for the course.

Phyllis Ryder, acting director of the First-Year Writing Program, said 91 percent of students said their instructors were accessible, and 92 percent said class size contributed to effectiveness.

“Professors were much more responsive” in University Writing 20 than in other classes because of the smaller class size,” Harter said.

“One of the things we were charged with was to make sure students who come into the University get a nice challenging experience,” Ryder said. “These numbers indicate that that’s happening.”

The University Writing program stresses faculty cooperation, officials said. Professors teaching University Writing 20 all hold terminal degrees, and are put in groups of three that discuss ideas for teaching their course material.

Professor Cayo Gamber, who teaches “War and Memory,” said she sensed anxiety about the course in her students last semester. She attributed it to a perception that the course was being tested and was not a long-standing part of the curriculum.

“That I think has changed, and there’s a new climate already,” she said.

Professors and administrators said they are looking for ways to improve the courses offered to students as the program becomes fully phased in.

“I don’t think anything here is set in stone,” Sten said.

“Any good program is always tweaking stuff,” said Ryder, “and this program is going to be continuing; there’s no question about that.”

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