Thursday, October 23, 2014

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New Professor Stresses Importance of Academic Writing

“I think I already write pretty well, thank you. What are the goals of the first writing requirement?” 

This is the first “frequently asked question” listed on the English department website that describes the writing requirement undergraduates at the University of Virginia must meet.

On Grounds, most undergraduates are required to take two writing-intensive courses before graduation, though some  “place out” of the first writing requirement based on their score on the writing portion of the SAT. More than one-third do place out of the requirement – a situation that James Seitz, the new director of U.Va.’s academic writing program, thinks the University should reconsider.

“It’s not a question of whether our students can do well on the SAT writing exam – of course many of them can,” Seitz said. “The point is that writing is an essential element of a strong undergraduate education, and we’re giving the wrong message when we say that an SAT test is the equivalent of what we ask students to do as writers in college. It goes beyond competence,” he said. “It’s more complicated.”

Seitz recently pondered the opportunities to make the academic writing program align with one of the freshly approved U.Va. strategic plan’s five pillars: “Provide educational experiences that deliver new levels of student engagement.”

He said writing courses contain the necessary – and innovative – features: a seminar atmosphere with fewer than 20 students allows teachers to get to know students well, and they are required to write and review each other’s work on a regular basis. The teacher can tailor the class according to the students’ questions and concerns to create that “new level of engagement.”

“What happens each day depends on the students,” Seitz said. There’s also more of a chance the teacher can learn something new, too. “I’m constantly surprised and informed by the directions that students take our discussions,” he said of teaching writing classes.

A specialist in English composition and pedagogy, Seitz joined the U.Va. English faculty this semester. During his previous 20 years at the University of Pittsburgh, he twice served as director of composition and also chaired a committee on pedagogy. One of the committee’s activities was bringing together faculty and graduate students from various disciplines to discuss teaching.

As director of U.Va.’s Writing Program, he oversees the administration of the writing requirement for about 1,600 undergraduates yearly in the College of Arts & Sciences, the School of Architecture and the School of Nursing. The courses that meet the first writing requirement offer instruction in several key features of academic argument: finding an argument worth making, framing a problem so that readers care and persuading readers who might initially disagree with the writer.

Building on this base, the first writing requirement currently has two main goals: to give students practice developing academic arguments, and to help students become more articulate about their own knowledge of writing.

Seitz would like to see writing courses at U.Va. expand their mission through what is known as “inquiry-based education.” 

“The University is one of the few institutions in our society where serious inquiry still occurs,” Seitz said.  “The first-year writing course can be a place where incoming students learn how writing can help them discover what they think about the subject at hand.”

He is discussing with administrators and faculty what it would take to enhance that part of the writing program.

“We want to introduce students to how to inquire before declaring an opinion. They usually haven’t learned this step,” he said. The inquiry method encourages research into multiple perspectives and more in-depth understanding of the topic.

The U.Va. writing program offers a choice of more than 30 courses that fulfill the requirement, such as “Privacy and Property,” “Representing Climate Change,” “Monsters and Monstrosity,” “Sex, Faith and Rock-n-Roll” and “Psychology of Advertising.”

Using popular culture is a good way to get students to think seriously about the meanings of common elements in daily life and to frame academic discussions around them, Seitz said. Next semester he’s teaching one of the required courses, and he plans to focus his section on writing about music.

The College requires that all undergraduates also fulfill a second writing requirement, taking another course that includes at least two papers of 10 pages each.

An infusion of planning and resources could reinvigorate undergraduate writing courses that are offered “across the curriculum,” combining the best ways of teaching writing for a broad range of specific Arts & Sciences disciplines, Seitz said.

Writing across the curriculum, also called “writing to learn,” assumes that being able to explain or express concepts in one’s own words builds and reflects understanding, according to Susan McLeod in her article, “Defining Writing Across the Curriculum” in the journal Writing Program Administration.

Instructors and graduate teaching assistants have not necessarily had much training in teaching writing, having spent much of their time concentrating on the content of their disciplines, he noted.

“There are ways to teach writing for different disciplines,” he said. “New teachers need support and guidance.”

Seitz has written about teaching in “Motives for Metaphor: Literacy, Curriculum Reform, and the Teaching of English,” as well as essays on “College English,” “College Composition and Communication” and many other publications.

After receiving a B.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he earned a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico and a Ph.D. from New York University.

Seitz is currently teaching a course on memoir, a genre that he finds crucial to the study of American literature.  He is also writing a memoir of his kindergarten-through-12th grade education growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., where he went to a Catholic school, then a public school and then a rigorous private day school.  

“The book explores the personal dimensions of learning, which I believe to be emotional as well as cognitive,” he said. “The current push for ‘accountability’ in American schools and its obsession with quantifying ‘competencies’ completely overlooks the intrinsic motivation that’s essential to a real education. Where such motivation comes from and what it feels like on the inside is part of what I’m exploring in this memoir.”

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