Our mission is to introduce students to the importance of writing in the work of the university and to develop their critical reading, thinking and writing skills so that they can successfully participate in that work. Writing is intellectual work, and the demands of writing within the university community include the need to
synthesize and analyze multiple points of view;
articulate and support one's own position regarding various issues; and
adjust writing to multiple audiences, purposes, and conventions.
Students in our courses are expected to engage the ideas encountered in academic and serious public discourse, to develop complex ideas and arguments through serious consideration of different perspectives, and to connect their life experiences with ideas and information they encounter in classes. Our goal is for them to explore what others have written about issues and to use their readings to expand their notion of what counts as an appropriate position. We encourage students to explore the multiplicity of any topic and to realize that multiple stories or interpretations are told about any one occurrence, idea, or issue. All these stories compete for authority (i.e., the ability to tell the "truth" of an event or issue), working against each other and having different investments. These stories have real effects on the world and our perceptions of ourselves. Our work is grounded in the belief that writing is not only a way of knowing, it is also a way of acting on others in the public sphere. As teachers, we help our students discover the complex nature of the ideas and issues they write about and consider how these ideas and issues affect and grow out of their own cultures. By reading and writing about texts that illustrate a multiplicity of perspectives on issues, students will begin to use writing to broaden their ability to communicate effectively about issues of social relevance. We strive to
teach students to become conscientious and responsible writers, both in college and beyond; provide students with access to and involvement with the discourses of the university community; encourage the development and preservation of students' critical relations to those discourses; and help students develop questioning abilities that move them beyond the passive acceptance of new materials to thinkers who can hold those materials up to genuinely informed scrutiny.
To those ends, our courses encourage students to see that writing is a way of thinking and that in the very act of writing about a particular subject for a particular audience, the writer will construct new knowledge; to understand that writing is something they can learn to do; and to illustrate the ways in which writing and reading are interrelated by teaching students to read not only to cull information from texts, but also to observe writers at work and, in the process, to discover a range of strategies available to them. Because our courses stand as students' initiation into the discourses of the academic community, we believe certain classroom practices are crucial. Our classes need to encourage active participation, and they need to expose students to the processes of critical thinking, reading, and writing as well as to the thoughtful and informed critique of these activities. We believe context is also central. Students need to see that culture in general, and texts in particular, are constructed and shaped by people and by various voices in competition and conversation. This active shaping is central to the way we understand writing and its place in the world. We consider writing to be an epistemic activity that serves to develop, focus, and refine thinking as well as allow students to communicate effectively. We want our students to feel that our classrooms are ideal environments for testing new concepts and advocating new points of view. We work to help students focus on framing arguments and engaging in conversations in which they seek to persuade others to see things their way. To do so, students need to understand the ways they use language to construct their own arguments. Helping students gain access to rhetorical practices begins a process of sharing and making knowledge within the classroom. Regardless of the texts used or the topics investigated, our courses emphasize students’ engagement with other perspectives and their exploration of the historical and cultural roots of their own perspectives. To that end, all our courses include the following practices:
Teachers will assign rhetorically sophisticated projects that are consistent with the goals and objectives listed here. Three or four such projects or their equivalent (determined in consultation with the Writing Programs Director) will be assigned. All of our writing courses place strong emphasis on producing multiple drafts of each project. Students analyze and develop their writing processes through various strategies. Assignments are designed to engage students in the practice of using texts, as well as other kinds of research, to support, extend, and complicate their own thinking. All writing assignments should encourage students to understand the historical and cultural antecedents to their opinions so that they can then make more informed, more critically situated arguments about issues. We believe that rather than simply writing about texts and what students learn from their writing and research, they should learn to write with and against what they know. In addition, all assignment sequences should encourage the use of shorter forms of writing, such as in-class planning and invention work, audience analysis, and reflective commentary.
We require the use of college-level non-fiction readings that invite students to become actively engaged with the author's point of view, rather than simply to read for "information" or "main ideas." Through the give-and-take of class discussion, students learn to evaluate arguments, weigh evidence and scrutinize reasoning. They learn that multiple interpretations are possible, but that not all are "equally valid," that although language is semantically rich, more responsible readings are distinguished by careful analysis and textual support. Through this process, students learn to use reading to examine identified perspectives through historical and cultural analyses that consider both the antecedents and the implications of a particular perspective, and that explore how such perspectives are embedded in complex cultural contexts. These processes help students learn how to develop a responsible, considered interpretation that supersedes precritical opinion and vague impression.
These courses teach students how to write persuasively and to understand the demands made on them by the arguments they encounter. Argumentation involves articulating a claim, using definitions consistently, supporting the claim with a variety of evidence, and drawing conclusions. Shaping an argument means assessing not only "factual" evidence, but the values, emotions and needs that affect the reasoning process. Students also learn how to construct and present a persuasive character for themselves. In addition, students need to develop their understanding of the relationship between evidence and conclusions.
The courses emphasize that research is not merely mechanical or abstract: it contributes to the goals of the entire course. That is, rather than emphasizing the mere ability to find evidence to support a given argument, the course emphasizes the ability to judge the merit and appropriateness of that evidence, to weigh different pieces of evidence against one another and to engage in intellectual dialogue with the authorities represented by that evidence. Our approach combines speaking, listening, reading and writing. Whether collecting data through fieldwork, interviews, listserv participation, web-searches, or library holdings, students are encouraged to investigate how language defines a particular community, how its members communicate with one another in writing, how writing generates concepts for understanding human experience, and how it sometimes results in community action. Part of students’ research involves collecting relevant samples of writing that the community or communities has produced. Thus, the kinds of research we emphasize enables students not merely to conform to convention, but to enter into the scholarly debate which the conventions are intended to facilitate.