An Introduction: Why Students Must Write


By Laura Rosche, IWP Intern, RTW MA student

In his article, “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University,” Mike Rose gives a brief history of first-year composition (FYC) courses.  He writes, “Freshman composition originated in 1874 as a Harvard response to the poor writing of upperclassmen, spread rapidly, and became and remained the most consistently required course in the American curriculum” (342).  Since its development over a century ago, there has been a lot of research done at the collegiate level that focuses on first-year writing programs. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) has even established a standardized set of outcomes for students who complete first-year composition.  The WPA “[seeks] to regularize what can be expected to be taught in first-year composition.” By the time students finish their first-year composition class, they are expected to possess the following skills:

  • Rhetorical Knowledge
  • Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing
  • Processes
  • Knowledge of Conventions
  • Composing in Electronic Environments (Council of Writing Program Administrators)

See a complete list of the requirements at http://wpacouncil.org/positions/outcomes.html

After completing first-year composition, a student should feel prepared to write for his or her academic discipline.  He or she should be able to utilize the rhetorical tools necessary to communicate effectively in different academic and professional settings.  According to the WPA, by the time they finish FYC, students should be able to: focus on a purpose while writing; appropriately respond to the needs of different audiences; use conventions of format and structure appropriate to the rhetorical situation; adopt appropriate voice, tone, and level of formality; understand how different genres shape reading and writing; and write in several disciplines.  Students should be able to use writing and reading for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating.  Students should be aware of the complexity of the writing process and be capable of developing flexible drafting strategies.  They should understand a writing assignment is a series of tasks, including finding, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing appropriate primary and secondary sources, while integrating their own ideas with those of others (Council of Writing Program Administrators).

Overall, students should feel confident as writers after they leave their FYC classroom.  However, the WPA  Council affirms, “As writers move beyond first-year composition, their writing abilities do not merely improve. Rather, students’ abilities not only diversify along disciplinary and professional lines but also move into whole new levels where expected outcomes expand, multiply, and diverge” (Council of Writing Program Administrators).  There must be opportunities outside of the FYC classroom that offer student writing growth.  Students must have the chance to be introduced to and use the professional language they are expected to engage in within their discipline.  Students must be given the opportunity to learn to write in more than just one 100-level English survey course, as is currently the trend at NAU.  Interdisciplinary Writing Programs offer a solution to this problem by engaging in critical conversations about writing’s role across academic and professional disciplines, as well as offering materials that promote writing across curricula.

Most departments across NAU’s campus do not offer 100- and 200-level discipline specific writing courses, and yet expect their students to complete a 300-level writing intensive course during their Junior year.  In their 300-level writing intensive course, students are expected to produce at least “20 pages of revised, multi-draft prose.”  The course is intended to help students understand conventions in their own field, think about how to revise more effectively, and address key issues raised in the discipline (Junior Level Writing Courses).

As the Interdisciplinary Writing Program (IWP) at Northern Arizona University, we are “committed to the intellectual growth and development of students through providing resources and experiences that encourage writers to explore, develop, research, design, and present their work inside and outside of the academic classroom.”  We hope to be able to help teachers build relevant and beneficial writing materials based on student needs.

The IWP focuses on building a campus community that highlights the value of effective communication in higher education by working with departments across campus; offering writing, research, and design bootcamps; conducting student surveys on academic writing; and sponsoring the Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Symposium on The Rhetoric of Video Gaming (Interdisciplinary Writing Program).

For more information about our program objectives and goals, visit http://nau.edu/CAL/Interdisciplinary-Writing-Program/Welcome/

We understand that education is changing.  Students are expected to write efficiently in disciplines that never before articulated that need.  This change in education is a reflection of the cultural changes our society is seeing everyday.  The IWP wants to effectively address that change at NAU, while encouraging an adjustment to curricula in the larger context of the American university.  In their article, “Revitalizing Writing Across the Curriculum: Writing in the Sciences,” Brenda Greene and Leon Johnson write:

One of the most important educational concepts to emerge in the last two decades is that of “Writing Across the Curriculum.” This concept, based on the premise of writing as a way of learning, has important pedagogical and political implications in an era where many college students are required to take basic and/or developmental writing courses upon their entry into college and where educational reports continue to highlight the decline in literacy.

Emerging in the 1980’s “Writing Across the Curriculum” (WAC) has gained popularity as educators and administrators alike see students learning through writing.  In their study, Greene and Johnson implemented writing into their science curriculum and got tremendous results.  In the “Results” section of their study, they write, “[It] appears that incorporating writing as a way of learning may affect students’ understanding of the course content, thereby affecting their performance in the course … Because they became accustomed to using writing as a way of organizing what they were learning on a daily basis, they began to develop strategies that enabled them to read and compose their texts in a more organized way.”

The current role of professional writers is extremely relevant.  More and more academic disciplines are expecting their students to be able to communicate effectively.  In his article, “The Educated Person,” Peter Drucker writes, “Tomorrow’s educated person will have to be prepared for life in a global world… He or she must become a ‘citizen of the world’—in vision, horizon and information” (291).  Students are expected to know how to write professionally as they enter their upper-division classes at the University.  Without the ability to write successfully, students lose out on opportunities for academic and professional growth.  Students must learn how to write effectively so that they can communicate with professionals in both local and global contexts. Drucker states, “Knowledge is always embodied in a person; carried by a person; created, augmented, or improved by a person; applied by a person; taught and passed down by a person; used or misused by a person” (288).  Drucker continues to imply that the concept of knowledge is changing.  Knowledge is becoming person-centered.  We can embrace this change in the classroom by shifting the focus from teacher to student.  As educators, we can start considering the needs of our students more closely.  Our students are expected to be global citizens.  They are responsible for understanding communication across culture, gender, race, etc.

Students have to be equipped to communicate not only across disciplines, but across cultures.  Looking at the expectations of the WPA, the American university system recognizes that and has changed its academic expectations to reflect this, but it seems that the students haven’t caught on.  Greene and Johnson state, “[It] appears that students in basic writing and College English courses do not transfer their knowledge about writing to their content area courses. In other words, students view writing as exclusive to English and do not recognize its value as a mode of learning.” The IWP argues that this is not entirely the fault of the students, but rather a miscommunication between administration, faculty, and students.

However, the damage is not irreparable.

The interns involved with the Interdisciplinary Writing Program passionately believe in this truth.  Our different projects all explore the role of writing at NAU, and we take the time to consider student, faculty, and administrative perspectives.

One project the IWP is working on is interviewing faculty members in different departments to discuss the role of writing in their field.  We hope that through these interviews we can encourage a campus wide discussion that centers on writing expectations and curriculum.  So far, we have interviewed faculty from History, Athletic Training, Business, and Science Education.  Though the writing expectations they have for their students differ, one thing remains the same:

Students must write.

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