The Undergraduate Writing Experience at Pacific
The University of the Pacific boasts that upon graduation, our students will be well-prepared to enter the workforce and to continue their graduate studies[i]. Among the many reasons for this are small class sizes, practical experiences, dedicated faculty, and the university’s dynamic writing program. From their first semester through graduation, students develop their writing through the Pacific Seminars, through writing-intensive courses within their majors, through support from the Student Writing Center, and through the efforts of faculty engaged in innovative teaching methods. In this statement, we offer a brief rationale for this unique and successful approach to student writing.
There are two pervasive myths about college writing that continue to shape the academic landscape of even the most prestigious universities: first, that the teaching of writing should be the primary responsibility of the English department; and second, that one or two first-year writing courses, if administered properly, will adequately teach students the conventions of academic writing.[ii]
Fortunately, even if these myths still linger, they have lost their shaping power here at Pacific. The teaching of writing has come to be accepted, instead, as the shared responsibility of staff and faculty in all programs of study. Students aren’t expected to master academic writing their freshman year, but are provided the means to develop their writing through their entire academic experience.
Through deliberate choices, Pacific has broken away from the traditional centralized model of writing instruction where English faculty alone shoulder the burden of teaching writing, usually through first-year writing courses. Instead, Pacific has established a decentralized[iii] model of writing instruction, where staff and faculty from across the university oversee and teach writing through the Pacific Seminar series and through various other writing-intensive courses in the disciplines. Many universities are transitioning to this model of writing instruction, but breaking from tradition is a slow and complex process.[iv] Pacific is ahead of the curve and serves as a role model for these universities.
The Pacific Seminar series is one of the most crucial elements of Pacific’s writing program.[v] Pacific Seminar I & II are writing intensive and focus on the same central question: “What makes a good society?” Serving as the first-year writing requirement, all freshmen and many transfer students take the Pacific Seminars. In both courses, students produce about 20 pages of polished, formal prose. Students in Pacific Seminar I use a common syllabus and reader, and most formal writing is in the form of analytical argumentative essays. In Pacific Seminar II, students conduct and present research and are introduced to a wider range of genres and discourse conventions as faculty approach the question of a good society from their own disciplinary backgrounds.
Through the two seminars, students are taught writing as a process, they are taught the common conventions of academic discourse, they are provided with writing workshops, they are given opportunities to write both formally and informally, they receive feedback on drafts from peers and their instructors, and they are exposed to multiple genres and conventions through various reading and writing assignments. Writing is approached as a means of exhibiting critical thinking, reading comprehension, and information literacy. Pacific Seminar faculty use a common rubric, developed by faculty from across the university, to teach and assess student writing. Lower-order concerns, such as grammar,[vi] punctuation, and mechanics, are taught within the context of the students’ own writing, but greater attention is given to helping students learn the higher-order conventions of academic writing, such as focus, argument, and organization. Students learn to develop purposeful claims and clear theses, they learn to use reasoning and evidence to strengthen their arguments, and they learn to organize their writing into coherent papers.
In addition to classroom instruction, students are also provided with the resource of the Student Writing Center, where they can consult with a peer writing mentor about any writing project at any stage. Writing mentors work closely with Pacific Seminar faculty to better assist students with their writing needs. Pacific Seminar faculty are also provided with training, workshops, and resources on how to teach writing. As students finish Pacific Seminar II, they continue to receive guidance and instruction in writing through other writing-intensive courses in the disciplines and through the continued support of the Student Writing Center.
There is no panacea for student writing. And perhaps the greatest virtue of offering the Pacific Seminar series as our students’ first-year writing experience is the overwhelming acceptance by faculty and administrators that student writing isn’t something to be “fixed” in one or two semesters. The Pacific Seminar series and Pacific’s Writing-in-the-Disciplines courses do an unparalleled job of beginning, continuing, and rounding out our students’ overall experience of learning to write.
December 10, 2012
Gesine Gerhard, Associate Dean and Director of General Education, College of the Pacific
Mike Peterson, Director of University Writing Programs
[i] See the Undergraduate Admission page at http://www.pacific.edu/Admission/Undergraduate.html
[ii] David Russell calls these the myths of transience and transparency—transience meaning that students should have learned and mastered writing at some earlier stage, such as high school or their freshman year, and transparency meaning that the rhetoric and discourse practices of varying disciplines are universal and generalizable enough that they can be taught out-of-context by the English department. For more information, see Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990: A Curricular History, by David Russell, 1991, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
[iii] For more information on centralized and decentralized writing-program models, see “Writing Across the Curriculum,” By James Kinneavy, in Landmark Essays on Writing Across the Curriculum, edited by Charles Bazerman and David Russell, 1983, Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.
[iv] For more information on the widespread acceptance and implementation of Writing in the Disciplines over the last forty years, see WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs, edited by Susan McLeod, 2001, Urbana, IL: National Council of the Teachers of English. And for a shorter, more concise history of the evolution of Writing in the Disciplines, see “American Origins of the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Movement,” by David Russell in Landmark Essays on Writing Across the Curriculum, edited by Charles Bazerman and David Russell, 1992, Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.
[v] For more information on the value of first-year writing seminars over traditional first-year composition courses, see Composition in the University: Historical and Polemic Essays, by Sharon Crowley, 1998, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
[vi] For more information on the role of formal grammar instruction—specifically, the effectiveness of teaching it in small doses and in the context of students’ own writing—see “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” by Parick Hartwell, 1985, in College Composition and Communication, 47(2), 105-127. Also, see “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” by George Hillocks, 1984, in American Journal of Education, 93.1, 133-170.