Senior-Year Writing (SYW) in an evolving vertical writing curriculum

So, this summer the students who started with our new General Education program are about to graduate. The program was implemented 100% as soon as approved with no pilot or phase in period (don’t ask), so courses were revised to meet the new outcomes somewhat on the fly–and a little slower than would have been ideal. This wasn’t so much of a disaster for courses that already existed and just needed to tweak their outcomes, but for a fully-fledged WAC-based vertical writing curriculum it left a bit to be desired. We went from having a first-year writing course and a first-year seminar that included some writing followed by a big blank nothing to a scaffolded writing sequence. Who could vote that down just because we had no pilot and no safety net and it was the end of May? Not I. So in September we began a program that includes College Writing (learn-to-write emphasis) + College Seminar (write-to-learn emphasis) in the first year, followed by two WI courses in any discipline at any point after the first year, one writing in the disciplines course or course sequence at whatever point is appropriate within each major, and one capstone experience that uses writing in some way appropriate to the discipline or field).  A good sequence I think. An unsurprising outcome of our haste was that this year we had a fairly large cohort still needing a second writing intensive course in order to graduate.

As newly appointed Director of Writing Across the Curriculum this year, I wanted to design courses for these seniors that would (a) not feel like a waste of time, (b) not be a waste of time, and (c) develop a coherent set of principles for a senior writing course.  I suggested the topic for the class as part of a random brainstorming conversation with my chair, and she encouraged me to go for it in a rotating topics slot. So, “Blogs, Tweets, & Social Media: Writing with Style in the New Millennium” was born. At first I thought I would make it a fairly conventional style/audience/purpose course, and I am certainly incorporating those skills, but as I started thinking about the course I saw a lot more options and I started thinking about what a senior-year writing course might actually look like and do.

The course created quite a buzz, mostly because of the topic (although I wanted to think perhaps a little because I have been on sabbatical for a year so this is the “last chance” to take a course with me. Maybe….). It filled within two hours of registration opening and my email filled with people wanting to be added. Not everyone is taking it to fulfill that second WI, although most are. All are seniors about to graduate. As soon as the course was listed, students and faculty started asking what I planned to teach, and some of that really did depend on the students who registered. If they already used Facebook, and blog and/or tweet the course would be very different than if they didn’t, for example. I created a Wallwisher page for them to introduce themselves to each other and describe the extent of their social media participation so I could plan in advance, and what I found was a mix of regular bloggers, tumblrs and tweeters and some students with minimal social media activity. All but one has a Facebook page but the range of use is huge. Not one of them had a website, so that became my starting point.

The real challenge, though, is to think through what writing and advanced literacy skills we need to be teaching seniors as they move out into the world. How can I help these students and those who follow draw on what they have learned in four years at Drew and leverage it to help them move out into the world?

In Fall 2012 I taught an open topics WI course, “Travel Writing,” developed from an intermediate-level creative nonfiction course I have taught before. In the past it was designed to work in conjunction with our short-stay study abroad and international volunteer programs, so students had a ready-made topic to reflect on and write about and produced what most would classify as travel writing. This time most of the students were there for that WI rather than to write about travel per se (although some were seasoned travelers who wrote some excellent travel pieces). Most wrote more about place than travel, and many of those places were hometowns. Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey part way into the semester and provoked some excellent essays about the journey of the storm or people traveling ahead of it, in it, or after it. I received several essays about the experiences of students who traveled to local shore communities as part of volunteer clean-up programs alone or through the university.

In short, it was really more of an “Advanced Comp” course. We did explore the role of researched information and of listing sources, and we discussed the role of the “fact checker” (reading some of D’Agata’s Lifespan of a Fact). We spent time on writing staples including form, tone, style, purpose, coherence, cohesion, and audience. We also spent quite a bit of time on revision strategies and editing skills. Interestingly, almost all of the students could describe revision the way I would have described it, and identified the two-semester first-year writing course as the place they learned it and courses in their major where they had practiced it (a vindication of our new vertical writing curriculum I hope–although I am not the one assessing it unfortunately).

The challenge for the students in that course was writing for specific audiences and purposes other than “the teacher” and “because it was assigned.” For some the distinction was new, although it depended somewhat on the major. Without a clear sense of audience and purpose I am not sure how one can revise effectively for any of the other items. Why was this not as obvious to some of my students as it is to me?

In first-year writing courses we spend a lot of time talking about discourse communities and writing for academic purposes. In the first of our original two-semester sequence we focused on critical reading, thinking, and writing, introducing the concepts of discourse community, purpose, and style as reading and writing issues. In the second we built on this, focusing on developing arguments from sources and complicating the high school idea of writing-for-the-teacher by exploring the different conventions of discipline-specific discourse communities (including source use and essay structure). Both courses lead into into general education courses that are also Writing Intensive and also discipline-specific courses. But how do we complete the cycle? Initially it was an eportfolio in which the students would collect and reflect on writing from across their four years. Very tidy completion of the circle and still something I hope we will do.

Simply completing the cycle with an end-of-your-four-years project makes the college writing experience very finite. Feedback loop in place. Closed circle for us; but what about the students? How do they move away from  academic genres? What about other audiences and purposes? What about the rest of their lives as writers, in other words? Or at least the job search? Obviously internships play a role in bridging this gap; however, at least at my institution, most of our many credit-bearing internships require a discipline-based academic paper that concentrates on the ways coursework/reading relate to the internship in some way. Few focus on developing different writing skills for and in that workplace. Learning occurs mostly by osmosis and mentorship, which is hit or miss in most internships. Internships could be part of the solution, but they are more akin to Writing Intensive courses than writing courses.

So, why not develop a senior-year course that functions like first-year writing but looks out beyond the academy instead of inside it?  One of the projects I have set myself for my first year as Director of Writing Across the Curriculum is to apply the knowledge I developed designing first-year writing courses when I directed our old first-year program to those senior-level courses. Another is to think about how a Writing Fellows Program can function as the actual scaffolding for a vertical writing curriculum, using the same language and concepts across  contexts and helping students transfer, adapt and develop writing skills between and beyond WI courses. I’d like to develop a senior-level capstone course for those Writing Fellows as well.

No doubt these will all be future blog entries . . .

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