Thinking and Writing Dinner Meeting: Friday, 28 September 2007

In attendance: Phyllis Benay (Interdisciplinary Studies), Mark Long, Jack Bouley, Tony DuBois, Jack Hitchner, Daryl LeDuc, Steve Kessler, Tracy Mendham, Tracy Botting, George Russell, Beth Stickney (English), Helen Frink (Modern Languages) Graham Warder (History), Allyson Mount (Philosophy); Not in attendance: Nick Germana (History), Heather Gigliello, Ellen Moynihan, Anne-Marie Mallon (English), Kristen Porter-Utley (Biology), Catherine Cadieux

We met in the Harry Davis Room in the Arts Center to share our experiences with the first few weeks of the thinking and writing course. Participants each described their excitement, as well as some of the challenges, as they teach the Thinking and Writing course.

Mark opened the discussion with a comment about the idea of the course: how it challenges not only our students but us as teachers in new and exciting ways. Mark shared comments from two members of the group not present. Ellen Moynihan reported on the excitement she and her students are having as they explore the Irish potato famine. Anne-Marie Mallon commented on the difference between her experience teaching essay writing in English 101 and the experience teaching students how to do academic writing for their college careers. Her discussions with students have included a number of issues associated with academic writing. What strategies of research will help you refine your search? Here’s why being able to do a summary matters. This is the difference between an article and a scholarly journal.  You can’t make a claim about a topic until you know what other claims have been made about that topic. Mark then shared his experiences teaching a section of ITW with Kristen Porter-Utley. Mark and Kristen are finding that their collaboration is teaching them much about how reading and writing is central to intellectual development in any discipline. They are learning much about how writing and reading are modes of intellectual engagement in teaching English or Biology—more than simply as a baseline set of skills to be assessed and built upon later.

The group in attendance discussed a range of issues. Two key questions emerged:

What is the relationship between reading and writing in the ITW course?

We talked about the challenges of integrating reading into a course focused around a significant writing project. How do we build an intellectual context for student work in the course through challenging reading on the course topic? How do we challenge and support students as they learn to grapple with sophisticated writing? In what ways does the common reading we assign in the course support and reinforce the semester-long writing project? How do we use reading to teach writing? How do we use writing to teach reading? One essential pedagogical question (that we raised at the summer workshop) is to ask ourselves, what role does reading play in the course? Disciplinary rationales for the importance of reading (believe me, I have a cartload of them) do not always provide the best rationale given the goals and outcomes of a course like ITW,

How does one teach a semester-long writing project?

As we went around the table it became evident that the timelines for producing the writing project are quite different across sections of the course. At this point in the semester, some students have already chosen topics or are completing annotated research installments and other preliminary steps. In other sections, students are currently being asked to choose their topics. In most sections, it appeared, students are doing lots of writing—brainstorming, responding to readings or mapping argumentative strategies in the readings. Some are guiding students to write the essay in segments. Others are asking for a full draft by the middle of the course. We also explored the merits (and the limitations) of having students choose topics for their essays earlier in the course.

The answers to these questions, of course, have no single answer. In fact, it became clear (to me at least) that different course topics will require different pedagogical decisions about the relationship between reading and writing in the course, and how the semester-long writing project will be designed. I can also say with some degree of confidence—having participated in the summer assessment project on the ITW pilot—that the challenges of guiding students from simple to complex claims is one that we will all struggle with in the weeks to come.

We learned of a range of student experiences in the course. One of Tracy’s students received a response on her blog from the writer Emily Nussbaum(!!); George described the range of emerging topics in his course on national language; Jack offered examples of students discovering a passion for writing about what interests them; Tracy Botting spoke of the renewed excitement she is having as a teacher of writing as she anticipates reading writing that she actually wants to read; Daryl LeDuc offered his use of the work of George Gopen, a Professor of the Practice of Rhetoric at Duke U; Mark shared some examples of his students and their emerging interests in the natural and cultural history of plants; and Phyllis shared her enthusiasm for working with her students on group conformity and authority.

Finally, we discussed the advantages of a document exchange or archive. Mark agreed to explore options for this exchange or archive.


Our next meeting will be 4-6:30 on Friday, 26 October. Our focus will be on moving student writing from the simple to the complex and on discussing the art of giving feedback on student writing. We will watch Nancy Sommer’s 18-minute film, Across the Drafts: Students and Teachers Talk about Feedback and then discuss the opportunities (and difficulties) of raising the level of challenge for students in the Thinking and Writing course. I will send an agenda with a key question to consider a week before we are scheduled to meet.

Our final meeting of the semester will be on Friday 16 November.

Please share with colleagues your experiences teaching ITW. We are already looking ahead to next year with the hope of recruiting new faculty to teach this important foundations course in the Integrative Program.

I look forward to continuing our conversation. Please be in touch if you have any questions.

My best wishes,


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One Response to Thinking and Writing Dinner Meeting: Friday, 28 September 2007

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