All students at the University of Connecticut take either English 1010 or English 1011 to meet their First-Year Writing requirement. Both courses are four-credit, single-semester writing seminars. Students with verbal SAT scores of 540 and above may choose either ENGL 1010 or ENGL 1011. Students whose SAT ”Critical Reading” (“verbal”) scores fall between 440 and 540 have the option of taking ENGL 1004 (Introduction to Academic Writing) if they would like a smaller class with more individualized attention and need to spend some more time writing before moving on to 1010/1011. Students with SAT verbal scores of 430 or below are required to take English 1004 before proceeding to 1010 or 1011. To verify students’ placement, instructors review first-day writing samples and discuss any concerns with the First-Year Writing Assistant Directors and Directors. The only exemption from the FYW requirement is for students who receive either a score of 4 or 5 on either AP English exam.
In the ENGL 1010 course, “Seminar in Academic Writing,” students practice writing in response to interdisciplinary readings. Students examine and use the practices of academic writers, situating themselves in a conversation with other writers, engaging with them in meaningful ways, and developing new ways of approaching texts. Students further develop their understanding of the choices writers make and the effects of those choices through revision of and reflection on their work. In the context of “making meaning,” students also work on presentation and delivery (which includes grammar, mechanics, and style).
While ENGL 1010 emphasizes the intellectual purposes and discursive formations of academic writing, English 1011, “Writing Through Literature,” emphasizes the intellectual purposes and aesthetic dimension of literary texts. Both seminars engage students in the work of academic inquiry by grappling with difficult texts, participating in the issues and arguments that animate the texts, and reflecting on the significance of the critical work of reading and writing for academic and general culture and for themselves. There is no sharp boundary between the types of reading assigned in either course. Assignments in both courses highlight the work that writing does in academic, literary, and general culture and are arranged in sequences as a series of intellectual tasks.
In addition to achieving some specific writing goals, such as the ability to write critical essays that demonstrate a thoughtful engagement with complex readings of some length, the seminars are designed to help students develop, through revision and reflection, an understanding of themselves as writers and thinkers. Students should emerge from the seminars more powerful and self-aware writers, readers, and thinkers.
The First-Year Writing seminars stress the value of revision as a means of achieving depth of understanding in reading and coherence, clarity, and control in writing. Revision is, so to speak, where the action is in writing, since it is through revision that we develop a more nuanced understanding of the texts under consideration and the shared world the texts draw us into. We might think of reading and writing as a kind of conversation between the text and the reader about a world that both text and reader are in the process of understanding. Rather than promoting an adversarial or exclusively evaluative model of writing, with such questions as “What are the weaknesses of the author’s argument?” or “Do you agree or disagree with the author’s position?” (although such questions could certainly be part of a series of questions), the seminars should encourage students to think of themselves as participants—as they, in fact, are—in a collaborative process of questioning and discovery and making new knowledge, at times working with and at other times working against the views and voices in the readings and among other students in the class.
One goal of the seminars, then, is to provide a context within which students can work with academic texts, texts that constitute the work and the voices of the university. The students’ task is to make use of these texts and enter into the conversation. To do this, they must see for themselves that the meaning of a text, no matter the discipline, is not contained exclusively in the words on the page but that meaning exists only through readers’ active participation. Texts live through the work of readers. In reading anthropology or physics or literary criticism, for instance, students will have to become, as reader response theory would have it, co-authors; they will have to construct a “reading” that makes the text meaningful. And in order to make their reading meaningful to others, they will need to write their own text for others to read, extending the conversation.
Typical Activities in First-Year Writing Seminars
- Working with assigned readings, either in preparation for a writing assignment, as part of revising drafts, or to illustrate rhetorical principles and generic features
- Working with student essays for similar purposes
- Writing brief, exploratory in-class essays: for example, a 15-20 minute focused free-write in preparation for discussion of a reading assignment
- Revising, individually and in groups
- Participating in writing groups and conferences during the drafting process
- Meeting with the instructor for individual conferences
Note: As this list of typical activities and the conference discussion below indicate, student engagement on many levels is at the heart of the First-Year Writing seminars. Engagement is linked to attendance, as students cannot engage when not in class; as such, attendance is linked to engagement requirements in determining a final grade. The seminars are largely writing workshops, analogous to science lab courses (also four-credit courses). Lack of engagement (i.e., nonattendance or meager in-class contributions) may lower student grades. Instructors should distribute a course description, which must include at least a partial schedule, during the first week of the semester. The course description should include information such as the texts for the course, the instructor’s office hours, amount and type of work required, and grading policies, including an attendance/engagement policy.
The writing seminars should emphasize reading as a constructive activity, not merely the passive absorption or duplication of “information” from the reading. Reading involves the construction of a text that functions as a record of the interpretive activity of a reader who makes explicit some of the potential meanings embodied in the language of a text. Meaning in this sense is, to paraphrase Bakhtin, half the text’s and half the reader’s. In order to read, we need to consider the implicit assumptions or axioms upon which a text’s point of view is based and the larger discursive field a text locates itself within. We also need to bring out into the open, to evoke Hans-Georg Gadamer’s terms, our own presuppositions about the apparent object/s of the text. In the seminar, we read, read again, and write; then we test what we have written against the interpretations of other readers before reading and writing again, and so on. Through this recursive process of multiple conversations—between individual readers and texts, between teachers and students, and among students in the class—a preliminary understanding will gradually become more focused, more responsive to the text and a range of other possible responses or objections, and thus more controlled and complex. Rather than assuming a text’s meaning is to be unlocked, we ask students to take responsibility for making something of the text.
This kind of active reading requires that students spend more time than most students are used to in reading and rereading the assignments. To make that reading/rereading productive, instructors should select texts that give readers work to do, texts that pose problems, that resist easy and facile summation, and that open up as many questions as they answer. (Readings found in texts such as Ways of Reading serve as fine examples of reading appropriate to English 1010; English 1011 reading lists typically include an assortment of literature broadly defined to include popular literature as well as digital media, film, and television.) Both courses emphasize care and richness of reading, not the coverage of a selection of types of reading. In English 1010, a class might read four or five essays in one term, while in English 1011 a class might read a few short stories, one novel, selections of poetry, or a couple of plays—or perhaps a series of graphic novels or a set of pop culture texts. The course is not a literature course, and a “coverage” model has an entirely different goal from a course on academic writing for the University. Often, we introduce essays like those found in Ways of Reading as “frames” that build a critical vocabulary around an idea or approach and ask that students work with these framing essays, reading the literary texts as an artifact that may be understood differently when paired with the non-fiction piece. This pairing of literary and theoretical and philosophical texts (broadly defined) can also work well in English 1010 courses. While ENGL 1010 courses benefit from having some readings that could be described as literary or cultural texts, so too 1011 courses benefit from having some academic and/or argument-driven pieces.
The writing seminar should teach students how texts can complicate, support, extend, and challenge their own thinking. Rather than merely writing about texts, students should explore the ways in which texts provide other ways to think about and understand a shared world. In that effort, they will find themselves sometimes writing with, sometimes writing against, and sometimes writing to extend work initiated by a text. The writing should be focused on intellectual tasks, and the assignments should be sequenced to encourage extended and sustained inquiry as a way for students to build an intellectual project, rather than asking them to write discrete essays that demonstrate their “understanding.” For example, one might begin by asking students to interpret a single reading for the purpose of raising questions or to begin to develop an approach that would be explored in the next reading and writing assignments. The emphasis in all writing assignments should be on the intellectual work to be done in the assignment, not a pre-determined form (e.g., comparison/contrast) for the writing. That is not to say that the student essays will be formless—the forms that students end up writing will be the result of the intellectual work of the assignment. The forms will emerge from the thinking done through writing rather than the thinking having to be fitted into a form. After reading, drafting, rereading, revising, workshopping, and so on, students will amass by the end of the semester thirty pages of revised, edited, and proofread formal prose (a university requirement). This traditional page count translates into roughly 7,500 to 9,000 words. In addition to the university’s page requirement, instructors may also require a range of informal assignments, such as in-class writing, brief reading response papers, and journal writing. They may also require other formal assignments, such as small research projects and oral reports or presentations in the service of reading. Thus students will write more than the required pages, but not all writing needs to be or ought to be graded or evaluated (e.g., journals and free-writing). All the formal, finished essays that count toward the university requirement should be academic in nature, although the occasional “creative” assignment, for example, a narrative followed by analysis, a formal argument followed by self-reflection, and other mixed-genre efforts, can serve to extend the purposes of academic inquiry.
As an aid to showing students how to work actively on their reading through their writing, the seminars will familiarize students, through practice, with the conventions of citation, quotation, paraphrase, and so on, with an eye toward cultivating the practices of ethical scholarship and marking the circulation of texts in academe. To evoke the conversation metaphor, such conventions provide the part of the textual conversation the students respond to in their writing. Without those conventional practices of citation, student papers would read like the overheard words of one partner in a telephone conversation. Citation in one form or another enables textual conversation, a precondition for thoughtful exploration and testing of ideas. Such exploration and testing implies, of course, a bit of risk; as we write, we may find ourselves moving in unanticipated directions. But that surprise of discovery is, after all, one of the real values of writing. In important ways, students are not only learning about the conventions of academic writing, they are also anticipating and experimenting with the ongoing revision of these conventions.
Early in the term, instructors should not emphasize closure, symmetry, and clarity at the expense of exploration and risk. In the second half of the term, however, when students have developed a sense of how revision sustains the movement from open-ended exploration to clarity of point of view and sustained complex coherence, the seminars should devote progressively greater attention to student papers as discrete works, as public presentations of what each writer has learned in the process of reading and writing. Open reflection and committed, persuasive argument are complementary aspects of a single process. Without the former (open questioning and exploration of texts in their relation to a shared world), the writer learns nothing; without the latter (a clearly expressed, richly developed, and accurately documented essay), the reader learns nothing. The seminars, then, have a double emphasis: to teach students how to develop a point of view through reading and writing across disciplinary boundaries and on matters about which they have not previously given much thought and to enable students to produce a rhetorically effective text. The completed, revised essays written in each writing seminar should have a central idea and purpose that requires detailed argument and development, should be carefully contextualized and developed in light of the readings that stimulate the assignment and the central idea that grounds the student essay, and should be properly documented, formatted, edited, and proofread.
Working with Student Writing
Student essays should be given the same respect and attention as the assigned published reading. That means a substantial formal part of the plan of the course should involve direct discussion of student writing. There are a number of ways to organize and focus such discussion. For example, before asking students to work in peer groups on rough drafts, teachers might have a student or two submit drafts early for in-class discussion. Then a class could be devoted to working on the example drafts to illustrate the kinds of questions to ask and suggestions to make when working on drafts for revision, not proofreading. Once final drafts are done, the instructors might catalog the best passages and take note of the writing issues that emerged in their readings of student essays; the instructor may circulate selected parts of the final drafts, and add another post-hoc round of revision on, for example, engaging with, rather than relying on “sources” as validation or foil in a polemic. Such work could also be done in small writing groups. The general point is to demonstrate as concretely as possible how the critical reading skills one brings to the published readings can inform the way one reads one’s own and one’s peers’ writing. Thus throughout the term students should be required, either in groups or individually, to respond critically to their own work and the work of other students, especially in regard to conceptual significance, interpretive accuracy, organizational effectiveness, and general clarity, including mechanics.
In many ways, conferencing and workshopping, both individually and in small writing groups, are at the heart of the First-Year Writing seminar. These courses are designed to encourage as much student/teacher contact as possible, centering teacher responses to student writing on conversations with students. While some teachers prefer individual conferences to peer-review writing groups, and others prefer writing groups to individual conferences, both structures are valuable and workable. Some teachers require individual conferences for each project. Other teachers organize small groups to meet for each cycle. Perhaps most teachers make use of both methods, alternating between individual conferences and group conferences. However one chooses to structure this work, one should be sure that students have to prepare for the conference and that there are specific tasks and goals for each session. For example, one might structure writing group meetings as follows: (1) students organize themselves into groups of four with the intent to work together as a writing support group throughout the term; (2) the instructor assigns tasks related to the reading to each group; (3) when rough drafts are due, each member of the group provides a copy of the draft for the instructor and the other members at least one day before the scheduled session; (4) the group and the instructor read the drafts before the session and list the areas (strong parts and problematic parts) of the draft they would like to discuss; the group discusses the draft while the writer simply listens; (5) during the meeting, fifteen or twenty minutes are scheduled for each draft for peer conversation (it is important that the instructor take a backseat, acting as facilitator rather than the one with the last word); (6) after the groups discuss each paper, the writer responds to the discussion and summarizes the areas that she will work on in revision. Similar work can be done on “finished” papers as well.
Learning Goals for the Seminar
In order to contextualize and coordinate the goals of our First-Year Writing seminars with the goals of other first-year writing programs across the country, we have adapted the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (2014) to our program goals. To the basic tenets of the WPA Outcomes Statement we have added some of the specific language and emphases we have developed for our First-Year Writing program. In our adaptation, we have stressed particular aspects of the WPA’s general goals for our specific purposes, and added some specific goals of our own. Here is our revision of the three categories: (1) Critical Literacy, (2) Academic Rhetoric, and (3) Practices and Processes. What follows, organized under each of the three categories, is a specific list of official English Department goals for learning outcomes in the First-Year Writing Program at the University of Connecticut.
- Approach reading and composing as a productive means of inquiry, critical thinking, and communicating in various contexts;
- Read and respond to a variety of different texts, developing one’s own approach and project in the contexts of this variety;
- Discern the usefulness and appropriateness of other writers’ works to be included in one’s own work;
- Recognize a writer’s aims, methods, materials, and critical vocabulary, and analyze the assumptions another writer works from;
- Engage substantively with other writers’ work, extending the “use” of other writers beyond validation or foil for an argument;
- Delineate the relationship between one’s own ideas and ideas from reading (that is, to demonstrate how one reads by way of writing, and how one writes by way of reading).
- Approach reading and composing as a productive means of inquiry, critical thinking, and communicating in various contexts;
- Recognize the social nature of writing, situating one’s work as part of a critical conversation;
- Cultivate productive search strategies for research (broadly defined), locating appropriate materials for academic work;
- Develop facility with writing strategies, learning to adapt the way one writes to the aims one has, the methods employed, and the materials explored;
- Respond to a variety of writing situations and contexts by making thoughtful choices about presentation, delivery, design, medium, and structure;
- Practice writing with a variety of technologies on different platforms for a wide range of audiences.
Practices and Processes
- Develop reading practices relevant to reading not simply for information, but for entering a conversation;
- Adapt writing habits that include revisiting, reconsidering, redirecting, and revising one’s work over several drafts;
- Embrace peers as the most immediate audience to test one’s writing on, and accept the feedback from those peers as substantive and valuable critical responses;
- Learn to offer productive, substantive feedback to peers that moves beyond simple evaluative comments or notations that are limited to advice on sentence structure and grammar;
- Apprehend the demands of writing in different modalities and with different technologies;
- Accept that writing is an ongoing practice, not a vocational skill completed by the end of a single course.
Specifics about 1011
English 1011 should be fundamentally identically to English 1010 in that it should encourage the same sort of writing, even though many of the texts read are literary rather than interdisciplinary. Literary reading in English 1011 works as a wellspring for writing and discussion. While instructors are encouraged to teach texts that interest them, the course is conceived as a writing seminar and not as an introduction to literature or a course focused on a narrowly defined period or subject area.
- The readings should incorporate literature broadly defined (poetry, narrative, drama, autobiography, creative nonfiction, graphic novels, films, etc.), but with no requirement to cover major genres.
- Readings may also include contextual resources supporting literary readings, such as historical documents, criticism, biography, visual materials, films, etc., but again, the course should not emphasize literary or historical criticism, but rather literature as a place to begin academic writing.
- Instructors should aim to assign no more than approximately 300 total pages of reading.