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Freshman writing seminars lay the foundation for scholarship

Learning to write on a college level isn’t easy. Turns out, teaching students to write on a college level is no walk in the park either.

Furman professors found this out in 2008 after the University joined a national trend and traded the composition courses the English department had taught for years for a system of First-Year Writing Seminars (FYW) which could be led by any faculty member.

Biology professor Wade Worthen, Ph.D., volunteered because he was excited about “the opportunity to do something new and express my passion about biology in different ways.” He discovered, however, that his students weren’t the only ones who had some things to learn.

“Like most people outside the English department, I was particularly anxious about actually teaching writing instruction,” he said. “I wasn’t really sure what that was and how to do it. I can recognize both effective and poor writing when I see it, but the question then becomes how do you instruct someone to improve their writing beyond just correcting it and marking what’s wrong or suggesting a rewrite?”

The answer wasn’t intuitive.

“After that first class, I had a lot of trouble figuring out and finding techniques and classroom examples that I could use. Instead, I relied more on content,” Worthen said. “When it came to writing instruction, I think I was probably treading water most of the time.”

Optional one-week instruction workshops have been offered since the switch, but they weren’t enough to climb the learning curve. So beginning this school year education professor Paul Thomas, Ed.D., Furman’s FYW faculty director, and English professor Margaret Oakes, Ph.D., who chairs the FYW oversight committee, created a Faculty Writing Seminar (FWS) to provide “a year-long examination of teaching writing to undergraduates” for 12 participating faculty members.

Included was a weeklong workshop in July as well as three more workshops per semester led by Thomas, Oakes, and Jane Love, Ph.D., Furman’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) director. Among many things, the importance of revision and giving students ownership over what they’re writing about were particularly stressed.

“What I’ve learned is to take the emphasis off the subject matter at hand and put the emphasis on learning about the topic through writing and learning how to become researchers,” Victoria Turgeon, Ph.D., Worthen’s colleague in the biology department, said. “So instead of me lecturing about scientific claims in the media, it’s really a process for students to be scholars and learn how to look at literature, how to determine if a source is valid, and how to know whether or not they should believe it.”

Thanks to the Internet’s ever-growing propaganda mountain posing as information, teaching that skill has never been more important. First, though, incoming freshmen must be broken of some bad habits that have served them well on standardized tests.

“I have people who have a lot of potential, but they don’t seem to have had the practice in high school that the kids used to have. We have a lot more territory to cover in some respects than we used to,” Oakes said. “The level of quality out there is … appalling to me. We’re on this little mission to make things better. That’s pretty much my mission in life these days, I have to tell you.”

“It’s not so much the basic writing skills, it’s getting them to step away from the laws that they were taught in middle school and high school,” Turgeon added. “They all want to write a five-paragraph essay regardless of whether the assignment is two pages or 15 pages, and they do have problems discerning between what’s a topic of a paper and a thesis of a paper. So I spend a lot of time on that.”

Political science professor Glen Halva-Neubauer, Ph.D., has his students write everything from cover letters to emails to papers, all of which they’re required to read out loud during the revision process. Mostly, though, he wants them realize good writers are made, not born.

“Writing is tough work, even if you do a lot of it, and I think it’s a good message for young people to know that it’s mainly about hanging in there and continuing to write drafts,” he said. “I work really hard at telling them my own stories. My wife’s a really good editor and cut 140 pages out of my dissertation, and the poor woman has an armadillo skin to endure my kvetching about every little word that was lost.”

Crystal Brockington ’18 took Psychic Disorder and the Social Order taught by Gretchen Braun, Ph.D., which was part of the Healthcare Today Program for Engaged Living. A political science and communication studies major from Conyers, Ga., who hopes to go to law school, Brockington wanted “exposure to something different.”

“It was one of my favorite classes as a freshman,” she said. “We learned how to develop a thesis and hold an argument and how to support that argument on both sides. I took away a lot more than writing. I learned how to engage in a class, how to think critically outside of the ordinary questions, and to dig deeper into my reading.”

That’s exactly the transformative outcome Oakes is looking for. Professors who participate in the faculty writing seminar receive a small stipend, but Oakes thinks more should be done to recognize their value.

“Over the years we’ve developed a cadre of folks who like it and are good at it, and we felt that they need a couple of things: More visibility and more support,” she said. “Part of my goal is to give them some credibility and some honor on campus for all the work that they do, which is legion and takes many hours.”

She’ll be a prime position to do just that from her new position as Furman’s director of writing programs, a job Oakes will assume in May. The appointment is the final step in Furman’s integration of the Writing and Media Lab into the Center for Academic Success, and her responsibilities include the development of programs and resources in support of writing for both faculty and students.

The inaugural FWS campaign was so successful, 12 new teachers have signed up to “join the cadre” next year. “This is something I think the faculty recognizes is very valuable for them. This is not just Furman Hall types doing this. It’s people from all over the campus,” Oakes said.

Furman needs as many qualified writing instructors as it can get to handle another change to the University’s curriculum, which will go into effect in the fall in response to a recent study of graduating seniors that showed Furman students write “far fewer papers” of eight or more pages than graduates of other schools.

“We saw that as a significant shortcoming of our program, and as a consequence have instituted an additional general education requirement … that all students, in addition to taking this first-year writing seminar, will at some point during their curriculum here at Furman take a class that is designated as writing and research intensive,” Worthen said.

That will ultimately only help the institution and its students, Oakes thinks.

“This is something that should attract students: The fact that we are a small school that can teach them how to write,” she said.

Read more on the FYW Seminars.

Last updated August 5, 2022
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director