Information Sheet # 145
September 30, 2004
A DRAGON FOE OF ANCIENT LINEAGE
By Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the University of Wisconsin.
That's a good question, actually. Let's be honest--there
are, after all, many reasons why we might not want to assign
writing in our courses. And many of those reasons have to
do with the limited time we all can devote to teaching.
Designing writing assignments and responding to student
writing take valuable time-lots of time if we do them carefully.
The more students in our classes, the more time responding
to student papers takes. . . .
Writing also takes time for students to do. Not all students
are well prepared to succeed with the writing we assign.
This list could go on; the challenges are indeed formidable.
Yet countless faculty make writing an integral part of
their teaching and reap benefits from doing so. Why? Among
the many reasons writing is an especially effective means
for students to learn:· Writing deepens thinking
and increases students' engagement with course material.
Good writing assignments prompt students to think more deeply
about what they're learning. Writing a book review, for
example, forces students to read more thoroughly and critically.
As an old saying goes, "How do I know what I think
until I see what I say?"
In fact, research done by Richard Light at Harvard confirms
that "students relate writing to intensity of courses.
The relationship between the amount of writing for a course
and students' level of engagement--whether engagement is
measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual
challenge it presents, or students' self-reported level
of interest in it--is stronger than any relationship we
found between student engagement and any other course characteristic"
(The Harvard Assessment Seminars, Second Report, 1992, 25).·
Writing can improve our relationship with our students.
When students write papers, we get to know them and their
thinking better; they're more likely to talk with us after
class, or come to our office hours to share a draft or seek
advice.· Writing gives us a window into our students'
thinking and learning. Through our students' writing, we
can take pleasure in discovering that students see things
in course readings or discussion we didn't see; students
make connections we ourselves hadn't made. And through our
students' writing, we also discover what confuses our students.
Admittedly, we're not always eager to discover the gaps
in our students' knowledge, but it's our job to expand that
knowledge and improve students' thinking. Writing assignments
can improve our classroom discussions. By forcing students
to keep up with readings, regular writing assignments can
prepare students to participate in discussion. Writing assignments
provide us with an opportunity to teach students to organize
ideas, develop points logically, make explicit connections,
elaborate ideas, argue points, and situate an argument in
the context of previous research-all skills valued in higher
education. Students remember what they write about-because
writing slows thinking down and requires careful, sustained
analysis of a subject. No matter how many years it's
been, most of us can remember some paper we wrote as undergraduates,
the writing of which deepened our knowledge of a particular
Our students and we remember what we've written, in part, because writing individualizes learning. When a student becomes really engaged with a writing assignment, she has to make countless choices particular to her paper: how to focus the topic, what to read, what to make the central argument, how to organize ideas, how to marshal evidence, which general points to make, how to develop and support general ideas with particulars, how to introduce the topic, what to include and what to omit, which style and tone to adopt. . . .
· Finally, though it's much more than this, writing
is a skill--a skill that atrophies when it isn't practiced
regularly. Because learning to write well is difficult and
because it requires sustained and repeated practice, we
need to ensure our undergraduates write regularly, throughout
the curriculum, in all majors. It's the responsibility of
all of us to ensure that students learn to think and write
clearly and deeply.
Adapted from the WAC Web Site for the University of Wisconsin, http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~WAC/. Reprinted with permission. This text is on Coe's WAC Web Site at http://www.public.coe.edu/wac/whyshouldi.htm.
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Question frequently asked by students after missing a class
Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
Nothing. None of the content of this course
Nothing. When you are not present
but it was one place
And you weren't here
[Poem originally appeared in The Astonishing Weight of the Dead (Polestar, 1994). Reproduced from a Canadian Poets web site, http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/wayman/poem5.htm, maintained by the University of Toronto.]
* * * * * *
A Dragon Foe of Ancient Lineage
In 1914, Walter Bronson published a history of Brown University in which he observed that he had found student prose from 100 years earlier (when Brown was called Rhode Island College), "far from impeccable." Bronson went on to observe (as quoted by Robert Scholes in The Rise and Fall of English) that "modern teachers of English, when weary with cropping the hydra heads of bad spelling and bad grammar, may at least comfort themselves with the thought that their dragon foe is of ancient lineage."
Whenever you hear people complain about the inability of students to write, you might share with critics some of these observations on students' writing:
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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.