There’s more to Writing 1 than meets the eye

Michael O'Bryan | Writing 1 Professor

As another academic year wraps up, we can depend on inevitable events. Sniffles abound as the diverse plants of our beautifully manicured campus barrage us with allergens. Everyone becomes cautiously optimistic that erratic temperature drops are over, and they retire the sweaters and galoshes. And students beset by brutal finals schedules vent their frustrations about curricular requirements, especially Writing 1. As an instructor of Writing 1, among other courses, I firmly believe in the benefit of my profession to the students whom it is my job and my privilege to teach. As another academic year wraps up, I’d like to address some common misconceptions about CWP 1 in recent Student Life editorials, which represent opinions that I hear more generally.

The biggest misconception is that writing has no established principles. This is true insofar as “writing” encompasses blog posts, text messages, poems, housing legislation and academic writing, among other genres. Few principles unify all of those forms, sure, but in College Writing 1, we focus on scholarly writing for university coursework. As successful academic writers in our respective fields, the graduate students and Ph.D.s who teach CWP 1 know that academic writing certainly has fixed guidelines: a clear statement of the argument needs to appear early; claims must be supported by cited evidence; arguments have to engage with the conversations of academic peers. I could list more, but I bet your Writing 1 instructor already covered them.

In fact, as with programmatic curriculums at universities nationwide, CWP 1 instructors receive a detailed list of instructional objectives, such as fostering critical thinking, presenting writing as a multifaceted and involved process and presenting strategies for creative insight. This list is developed and revised in consultation with CWP faculty and other academics across campus. So, though the student atmosphere sometimes resounds with the notion that Writing 1 varies widely by section, instructors in fact gain significant consistency by operating from a shared set of objectives. Of course, this isn’t the only way we ensure that we teach with common goals and standards. Everyone has probably heard from many teachers that we have a lot of work outside the classroom. Beyond grading and class prep, this work includes a lot of meetings with our colleagues. Without getting into the weeds over what these meetings entail, I can say that one of their primary purposes is exchanging our lesson plans, our challenges, our successes and our theories of teaching and evaluation. As with most educational institutions, we use this practice to foster a community of instructors who work toward the same ends.

Finally, I sometimes hear it said that the course should focus primarily on grammar and sentence construction. Forty years ago, most composition instructors would have agreed with this idea. But since then, researchers have developed rigorous quantitative methods for studying the best methods of teaching composition, and the field agrees that a course that privileges grammar over content and critical thinking skills will, at best, produce clearly written essays of no particular insight. Washington University students can do better. Pedagogical experts have designed our curriculum, and they cede to the wisdom of 40 years of research into writing instruction. Besides, how many freshmen at our school really want to spend 15 weeks diagramming sentences and memorizing the names of every syntactic component of a sentence? Based on my experience of running such lessons briefly, I think the response wouldn’t be enthusiastic.

So, when you next discuss the merits and weaknesses of CWP 1 with your peers, I hope you might remember that curricular programs work like Hemingway’s iceberg. Your 40-something days in the classroom are the portion that you see as a student. Under the surface lies a much larger structure of research, strategic design and faculty collaboration, and that supporting structure remains invisible without diving into waters that most non-specialists leave unexplored.

Here’s hoping that faculty and students alike survive another finals season in good mental and physical health, and I wish everyone relaxing and productive summers. I’m already looking forward to seeing old students again next semester, and to teaching writing to a new class of freshman.

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