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Learning the write way

The University's writing initiative aims to make great writing the order of the day for students

By Deane Morrison

Sept. 12, 2006

It goes without saying that graduates of top-notch universities should be able to write clearly in a variety of contexts, whether essays, technical reports, film reviews, novels or e-mails. But that simple goal has proved elusive in today's world, where instant communications often leave clarity-not to mention elegance-in the dust. To give its graduates the best chance at fulfilling their potential, the Twin Cities campus has launched a Baccalaureate Writing Initiative to make writing an essential element of every student's education. The initiative, a centerpiece of the University's strategic positioning efforts, also aims to turn the University into a national model for the study and practice of writing. Under the initiative, writing will be woven into all areas of study in a coherent manner that gives students a feel for how to write in a variety of contexts. A major goal is to teach students to tune in to different audiences and vary their writing styles and content to fit the occasion. Currently, too many students lack the understanding and stylistic flexibility to do this. "We had a lot of comments from employers who said new graduates, because of the effect of e-mail and other digital technologies like instant messaging, have adopted an informal style that's not always appropriate for workplace communications," says Laura Gurak, head of the rhetoric department and co-chair of the strategic positioning task force on writing that recommended the initiative. The undergraduate writing task force was one of 34 task forces the University created as part of its effort to crack the ranks of the top three public research universities in the world within a decade. Recommendations from the task force have been given high priority, and Provost Tom Sullivan has appointed an implementation committee to put the plans in operation for the 2007-08 academic year. A report by the committee is due to the provost this fall. "The writing initiative goes to the core of what a university is about," says Sullivan. "Excellent writing skills are essential not only for success in academia, but for those who want to achieve the highest level of success in life. Once in place, the Baccalaureate Writing Initiative will transform the undergraduate program and add to the luster of our faculty, our graduates and the University as a whole." A central element of the initiative is a plan to consolidate writing courses and scholars of writing in a new department, to be chaired by Gurak during its first year, within the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). It will include the faculty of the rhetoric department, writing faculty from the former General College and English department faculty who focus on writing. A new freshman composition program will draw on courses from CLA, General College and rhetoric. The department will be the University's latest "one-stop shopping" center, where students, faculty and staff, as well as high school teachers in the College of Continuing Education's College in the Schools writing outreach program, can find one-on-one help in writing-related topics as well as traditional writing courses. Also, new faculty scholars who study such areas as writing theory and pedagogy will be added. "It will be a full-scale department," says Vice Provost Craig Swan. "We want to create a unit with national and international distinction in teaching and research. Great writing should be a hallmark of all University of Minnesota graduates. Strengthening the writing components of undergraduate education will help us attract even stronger students." "This initiative is fundamental to providing all undergraduates at the University of Minnesota with an extraordinary education," says Steven Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. The importance of writing goes beyond its role in expressing thoughts clearly. It's also a means of shaping thoughts and discovering, for example, the strengths of one's position on a topic or holes in one's arguments. "Writing is a way for both students and teachers to discover what students know and don't know," says English professor Donald Ross, who co-chaired the writing task force. About six years ago, the University began its "Writing Across the Curriculum" program, which requires students to take four writing-intensive courses, at least one of them in their major subject. "That was a wonderful idea," says Ross, who until recently was director of composition in the English department. "It has increased the amount of writing outside of composition classes tremendously. But the four courses can be isolated from each other, with no sense of coherence or development among them." In its final recommendations, reported in February of this year, the task force proposed having faculty in each major define the writing requirements and needs for their students, from introductory courses through capstone courses or senior writing projects. "The idea is that faculty will think through the kinds of writing appropriate for students and designate courses where that takes place so students will have an idea of how to link writing, research, thinking and reading as they go through their majors," says Ross. The task force also proposed a new wrinkle for freshman composition: a significant research paper for which students will have to use the library. This may prove especially helpful to students in nonliterary fields, where the power of writing to express ideas and persuade others doesn't always receive a lot of attention. "In the past, people saw the teaching of writing as the responsibility of the English department only," says task force member Kirsten Jamsen, director of the Center for Writing in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). "This writing initiative recognizes that all disciplines are responsible for the teaching of writing." Conversely, students will learn how to tailor their styles to other readers besides their professional peers. "One thing I see in my students is that some don't have a sense of audience and purpose," says Gurak. "They might be assigned to write about a topic for a general audience, and they write for a more technical audience." Currently, entering students with strong writing skills may be exempted from freshman composition. But the task force has proposed an end to such exemptions; instead, high-ability students would be placed in a more advanced composition course. Also, students who need extra help, especially nonnative speakers of English, will receive it not only in freshman composition but throughout their University careers. Of course, students don't become good writers overnight, and the earlier they start the better. Through the College in the Schools writing program, high school teachers already work with University faculty to improve writing instruction, and many design courses that carry college credit. The University is also taking a closer look at writing skills in prospective freshmen. "This fall the University is requiring the writing components of the ACT and SAT exams for admission," says Swan. "It's absolutely the case that strong preparation in writing in high school is critical to college success." The emphasis on writing will likely sharpen students' thinking and understanding of the subjects they study. "In senior exit surveys, students who do more writing report more satisfaction with their undergraduate experience," says Swan. "I think it reflects their deeper engagement with their learning."

Read more about the writing initiative.