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Writing Initiative course assists first-year students

By : Eric Coker

A new University program is working to deliver better writing instruction to first-year students.

The Writing Initiative, which was launched this fall, unites the Writing Center, English as a Second Language (ESL) and first-year composition units. While the Writing Center and ESL have stayed the same, the composition course has changed, said Rebecca Moore Howard, dean’s professor of writing and rhetoric. A visiting professor, she is overseeing the startup of the Writing Initiative on an interim basis.

“(Writing 111) is a serious, dedicated attention to writing itself,” Howard said. “It’s a 100 percent writing course. This course assumes that writing needs lots of attention and instruction itself and is not just ancillary to other things. People need to look at writing itself as an object of study. That’s what this whole semester is about.”

Writing 111 was designed by Kelly Kinney, assistant professor and composition director in the English, General Literature and Rhetoric Department. Kinney’s course is not literature-based: instead it emphasizes writing in different genres for different audiences. For example, students focus on areas such as academic/research writing, the civic/journalistic genre and personal writing.

“The idea isn’t that every student needs to learn how to write a personal essay, but that they learn how to negotiate differences in genre,” Kinney said. “The course is designed to have them read models of those texts, engage in drafting those kinds of texts, get extensive feedback from their instructors and then go back and revise those texts multiple times.”

The final for the course is a portfolio in which students re-submit essays they have already drafted in their “polished, best form,” she said.

Kinney added that the constant feedback and opportunity for revision will benefit students.

“We’re doing something innovative that most research institutions would agree is vital,” she said.

Donald Nieman, dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, believes in the vitality of the Writing Initiative.

“The ability to write well is one of the marks of an educated person and absolutely essential for success in academia, business, government, the professions — indeed, almost any career,” Nieman said. “By providing first-year students with a rigorous, high-quality writing course grounded in contemporary research on how students learn to write, the Writing Initiative is helping our students develop vital skills that they can then build on as they progress toward graduation — whatever their academic major might be.”

Writing 111 has proven to be a major venture: Almost 900 students are taking the course this fall in 57 sections, resulting in small classes and better mentoring. First-year students unable to get into the class have been guaranteed seats for the spring, Howard said.

The classes are taught by graduate students in the English PhD program, as well as students from the School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching program and one staff lecturer.

A new class for so many instructors can be a challenge, Kinney said.

“When you ask 30 instructors to teach a course for the first time, there are going to be hiccups and rough starts,” said Kinney, who added that instructors have done a good job. “We’re all getting used to it.”

Both Kinney and Howard agree that the Writing Initiative would benefit from a fourth component: a PhD program in composition and rhetoric. This, they say, would provide future instructors with a high level of specialization, create a team of “writing scholars” on campus and better supplement the course if it becomes a first-year writing requirement.
There also is a possibility of developing other writing courses, but Howard said the priority is to get Writing 111 “on its feet and running.”

“We’re assuming that everyone who comes to Binghamton benefits from a course like this,” Howard said. “Whether they think of themselves as struggling writers or skilled writers, this is a course that can help them build and develop as writers.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08