UGA English professor Christy Desmet was a student at UCLA in the late 1970s when a professor there surveyed fellow faculty members about how they taught students to write and how student writing skills could be improved.
Results of that survey and similar studies at other universities on “writing across the curriculum,” provided much of the basis for how writing has been taught to undergraduates for 25 years.
But technological innovations and new instructional methods have dramatically changed classroom culture, and Desmet and several UGA faculty colleagues think it’s time to look anew at how students learn to write and how professors teach writing.
“So much of composition theory and pedagogy is based on important studies that were done in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Desmet. “We need to update our view of academic writing in order to serve students and faculty better.”
Desmet and her colleagues have formed a group called the UGA Writing Alliance to learn how writing instruction can be improved. Early this month a questionnaire created by the alliance was sent to all faculty members who teach undergraduate classes. The survey seeks feedback on attitudes, practices, problems and suggestions related to student writing and research.
“Basically we hope to find out what kinds of writing are being assigned and how our programs can best support writing across the curriculum,” says Desmet.
Del Dunn, vice president for instruction, distributed the survey in an e-mail memo and asked faculty to complete it by Nov. 23.
The survey grew out of discussions that began more than a year ago among Desmet and colleagues from other campus units involved in teaching writing.
Desmet, director of the First-Year Composition Program (See story, page 3), said alliance members are particularly interested in how instructional technology has affected student writing across the curriculum.
“What, for instance has been the impact of the word processor?” she asks. “What about the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface? Or WebCT, or instant messaging?”
The alliance also is looking at other questions, such as whether students now do most writing outside the classroom and whether they are writing longer or shorter papers than in the past, she says.
The survey comes at a time when scholars are recognizing a link between increased emphasis on undergraduate writing and efforts to heighten the academic challenge for undergraduates, according to Desmet.
“These two issues are at the center of curriculum analysis at many institutions including UGA,” she says.
Alliance members were already discussing how to improve student writing and instruction when UGA’s Task Force on General Education and Student Learning was formed last fall to study ways to strengthen academic rigor at UGA. The task force report, issued in August, calls on faculty to “reinforce and sustain a commitment to excellence in writing,” and recommends more writing assignments in courses and more “writing intensive” courses.
Desmet says today’s students are more academically advanced than those she taught when she joined the faculty in 1984. But she adds that while she can now focus attention in her first-year composition classes on “global issues” such as critical thinking and argumentation, students still “need to learn to edit and ‘publish’ their writing with professional care and to write with an eye to style.”