The Center for Writing

The Keene State College Center for Writing supports faculty teaching our first-year writing course, strengthening the learning experience of our students. The Center recognizes that support of faculty teaching and student learning is most effective when faculty and students have options.

Students in Thinking and Writing courses benefit from a menu of experiences:

ITW Partnership Program Options

Option A. No Classroom Writing Support For faculty who not anticipate needing support from the Center this semester, but may refer students on a case-by-case basis.

Option B. Workshops/Optional Visits This model includes: In-class workshops as needed preceded by meeting with an assigned tutor one week prior to the workshop to review specific points you would like to see addressed in the workshop(s), and referring students to the Center for support on a case-by-case basis.

Option C. Workshops/Required Visits This model includes In-class workshops as needed preceded by meeting with an assigned tutor one week prior to the workshop to review specific points you would like to see addressed as well as other ideas or issues, or requiring students to make 1 or 2 Center for Writing appointments, preceded by a meeting/conversation with the Center’s Assistant Director or a tutor to review specific expectations/outcomes for these tutorials.

In-Class Workshops

The Center for Writing also offers in-class Workshops arranged sequentially to work with ITW course content, as students move from draft to draft. Workshop information can be found by clicking on the “Faculty” tab of the Center for Writing web page.

Writing Center Sessions

The Center for Writing offers one-one-one tutorials with trained writing assistants. To make an appointment, students can visit the Center or call (603) 358-2412. The Center also offers weekly appointments with the same tutor for students who would benefit from coming to the Center consistently throughout the semester.

Our Thinking and Writing courses challenge students to take up the demands of college-level writing. And our Center for Writing offers multiple options and layers of support as students rise to meet those challenges.

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Leaf Seligman’s Writing Prompts

Leaf Seligman recently appeared on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. Her podcast “Prompt and Circumstance” is part of the summer 2016 series “Bookish: a Celebration of Books.” Leaf discusses her wonderful book A Pocket Book of Prompts.

 

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A Note on College Retention: Thinking and Writing in the First Year

The Thinking and Writing course has been among the most successful initiatives at Keene State College. The course has challenged faculty to re-examine their assumptions about the expectations of lower-division courses; it has raised academic expectations for students in the first year; and it has led to measurable gains in students’ reading, critical thinking and writing. So it was not a complete surprise to see in a fall report from our office of institutional research that far and away the best predictor of first-to-second-year retention is earning credit for thinking and writing in the first year.

According to the study, credit for Thinking and Writing increases the probability of being retained by 32.4%–from 52.8% to 85.2%1. Morever, Completing ITW in the first year does more to improve the probability of retention for women, racial/ethnic minority students, first-generation students, low-income students, non-residents than for their peers who are not in these groups. These findings, in conjunction with the annual course assessment as part of the integrative studies program, give us confidence that the course is helping students make measurable academic progress while supporting them as they meet the challenges of their first year in college.

1See Katherine Turrentine. “Predictors of Retention and Progression Toward Graduation. Part Two: Factors Predicting First-to-Second-Year Retention and Progression to Sophomore Status for the 2010 Cohort.” Keene State College Office of Institutional Research. December 2011. Web.

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Center for Writing Tutors attend Conference

Students in Thinking and Writing are fortunate to have the support of undergraduate tutors who work at the Center for Writing. The tutors bring to their work practical experiences working with writers and theoretical understanding of the mission and philosophy of the course.

On April 10, Center for Writing tutors Josh Starkey, Allison Siwacki, Karah Dunn, Kate Curtis, and Administrative Assistant Jahleh Ghanbari presented “Close Knit or Closed Off?: How Writing Centers Project Images of Inclusion and Exclusion” at the Northeast Writing Center Association’s annual conference at Boston University. Their presentation included an analysis of data from different constituencies on campus in order to understand how writing centers are perceived by faculty, students, and administration.

Our writing tutors work closely not only with student writers, but with faculty as well. In addition to arranging opportunities for their students to visit the Center, faculty meet with tutors in a Partnership Program designed to strengthen the support for first-year students in the ITW course. In addition, faculty member invite tutors to conduct workshops in class on all aspects of the writing process. These peer-to-peer teaching workshops reinforce the necessary and ongoing work that is required to produce an effective piece of writing.

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Writing and Integrative Studies

Faculty teaching thinking and Writing have asked whether we have any information about how Keene State College students are doing as writers once they move beyond the first year course.

A report on writing assessment released in the fall of the 2009-10 academic year suggests that our students are transferring some of what they have learned in the Thinking and Writing course. The assessment is based on a random sample of assignments submitted by students from ISP Perspectives and Interdisciplinary courses that had identified writing as a primary area of skill development. A total of 60 assignments, 20 per evaluator, were assessed.  Dr. Susan Whittemore, Professor of Biology, Dr. Katherine Tirabassi, Assistant Professor of English, and Dr. Michael Cullinane, Associate Professor of Mathematics, completed the writing outcomes assessment of student assignments.

The following table summarizes the results of the assessment.

Outcome Needs Improvement Meets Expectation Exceeds Expectation % Meets or Exceeds
#1 Develop complex perspectives, positions, and/or arguments.

12 out of 60 (20.0%)

30 out of 60

(50.0%)

18 out of 60

(30.0%)

80%

#2 Support complex perspectives, positions, and/or arguments.

2 out of 60

(3.3%)

35 out of 60

(58.3%)

23 out of 60

(38.3%)

96.7%

#4 Use grammar to effectively communicate ideas.

11 out of 60

(18.3%)

35 out of 60

(58.3%)

14 out of 60

(23.3%)

81.7%

#5 Use organization to effectively communicate ideas.

11 out of 60

(18.3%)

35 out of 60

(58.3%)

14 out of 60

(23.3%)

81.7%

Students were successful in meeting all four of the outcomes assessed, though the success in meeting Outcome 2 was extraordinarily high. Compared to the assessment results from Spring 2009, the percentages of students who met or exceeded the expectations for Outcomes 4 and 5 were about the same, while performance relative to Outcomes 1 and 2 improved significantly.  In particular, the Spring 2009 results show only 42% of students met or exceeded the expectation for Outcome 1, and this percentage nearly doubled to 80% for Fall 2009.  Evaluators did not have assignment descriptions in either semester, but we suspect that many more of the fall assignments required students to provide interpretations or perspectives beyond their own personal ones. Some of this may also be attributable to faculty adjusting their assignments so that they are better aligned with the writing outcomes. There is good reason to believe, moreover, that the overall strong performance of students relative to the writing outcomes is correlated with student work and faculty efforts in the foundational ITW 101 experience.

We recognize that snapshot assessments of artifacts seeking to assess student performance do not address the changes taking place in a writer as they move from the first year. As Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz write in “”The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year,” a longitudinal perspective on student writers suggests that changes in attitude about academic work and the ability to see a greater purpose in writing beyond completing an assignment are crucial to continued development across the four years of an undergraduate education. “The story of the freshman year is not one of dramatic changes on paper,” they conclude, “it is the story of changes within the writers themselves” (144). How students experience writing in the first year course therefore matters very much.

Students need to accept their status as novices, for sure. But we need to learn how to help them (and not punish them) as they struggle to accept their role as novices. Helping students write their way into expertise gives most of our first-year students their first taste of serious academic work. The challenge for us is to make that experience something these students can build on as they meet new challenges in their subsequent years of school.

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Writing as a Means of Becoming: “Religion, Secularism, and the Pursuit of Justice”

Thinking and Writing begins in the idea that writing matters. Robert Daniel Rubin, a professor of American Studies, believes that the practice of writing brings order to a young person’s life—helping them to understand the world in all its diversity and to construct a supple, open belief system. Writing propels students through a series of cognitive and emotional changes that enable the student to see and speak in new ways. This concept of writing as a means of becoming drives Rubin’s ITW course, “Religion, Secularism, and the Pursuit of Justice.”

During the present historical moment, questions about religion’s place in society and government have ascended in the popular imagination and in academic discourse. Students in “Religion, Secularism, and the Pursuit of Justice” consider whether separation of church and state fosters or hinders fairness within society; whether a government needs to rely on religion in any form when it chooses to inculcate its young citizens with civic virtues; whether, in a constitutional republic such as the United States, a majority should be able to impose its preferred moral vision, or whether protecting the rights of religious dissenters takes precedent; whether a religious political movement inevitably occupies the right wing, and whether certain circumstances give rise to religious political groups that lead the vanguard of progressive politics.

In Dr. Rubin’s course, students typically investigate some aspect of religion’s relationship to issues such as abortion, homosexuality, stem-cell research, euthanasia, music and art, advertising, war, poverty and wealth, public education, and the election of public officials. Where do students end up? The essay titles and brief abstracts produced in Dr. Rubin’s class suggests how one group of first-year students are finding in writing a means of becoming:

  • “Science, Ethics, and the Religious Obligation”: The scientific method is an appropriate and reliable method for knowing; therefore, it, and not religious doctrine, should be taught to schoolchildren as a method for understanding the physical and social worlds.
  • “Music and Its Effects on Society and the Church”: Christian churches’ use of music from popular genres signals a cultural shift over recent decades—one toward a less formal liturgy that younger Christians experience as a more authentic way of worshipping God.
  • “Abstaining from Sex and the Religious Influence”: By continuing to encourage abstinence from premarital sexual intercourse, the Catholic Church continues trying to controlling its members rather than trying to serve their practical needs.
  • “Ideological Diversity”: The primary virtue of U.S. politics is its ideological diversity.  This diversity is grounded in regional cultural differences.  In particular, the South provides a necessary counterbalance to our generally liberal electorate.
  • “Domestic Violence and Religion”: Although the world’s major religions generally discourage or forbid domestic violence against women, many adherents draw the contrary conclusion.  Schools everywhere should use religious scripture in counseling against the domestic abuse of women.
  • “The Public and Private Uses of Religion”: American religious leaders should emphasize the those aspects of religion centered on ethics and justice. Those same leaders should stop using religion as a cover for fighting battles over personal (sexual) issues.
  • “A Few for the Many: America’s Democratic Dichotomy”: Society’s need to survive outweighs the individual’s need to survive.  The U.S. should thus determine church-state policy more democratically than it now does—it should minimize the Supreme Court’s authority on such matters.
  • “Religion in the Stadium”: Americans fill sporting events—particularly, high-school and college football—with religious significance.  Ultimately, this is the product of a nationalism that relies on demonstrating God’s favor toward “team” America.
  • “Christian Denominations against or Supportive of Homosexuality”: Although churches have traditionally helped repress homosexuals, America’s churches are increasingly helping many individuals live dignified lives as openly gay men and women.
  • “The Exploitation of Women in the International Egg Trade”: Governments worldwide have a moral imperative to protect the interests of women tempted to sell their ovaries for stem-cell research.
  • “Destructive Religious Cult Leaders’ Power Takes Over”: Charismatic leaders of destructive cults attract vulnerable individuals seeking guidance.  Rather than guidance, such leaders frequently draw out their victims most self-destructive impulses.
  • “Ethics and Morality in Stem Cell Research”: “Pro-life” opposition to stem-cell research is hypocritical and counter-productive.  Strong support for stem-cell research is much more compatible with a genuine concern for protecting life than is an oppositional stance.
  • “Homosexual Parenting: The Debate within Catholicism”: By opposing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children, the Catholic Church helps prevent these human beings from exercising their inalienable, God-given rights.
  • “An Unjust War”: The Iraq War failed to meet the requirements specified in the Just War Doctrine.  Because the roots of that doctrine are Catholic, Americans committed to their Catholicism who nonetheless support the war engage in hypocrisy.
  • “The Beginning of an End”: The means that Catholics have historically chosen for coping with fear of death, a belief in heaven, only distorts and dampens one’s life experience.
  • “Religious Conservatives’ Opposition to the Natural Rights of Minorities: Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, and the Civil Rights Movement”: Throughout U.S. history, religious conservatives have operated mostly to suppress or stop movements for social equality.  A common theme running through the prejudices of religious conservatives has been the supremacy of men, maleness, and heterosexuality.
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The Life of a Writer

The students who enroll in Thinking and Writing do not often know much about the life of a writer; and, for the most part, students do not know much about the writer teaching their class. The opportunity for first-year students in Thinking and Writing is more than to explore the intellectual work of writing. It is to consider the formidable power of the written word with the support of a professor immersed in a life of writing.

Lorianne DiSabato brings impressive academic credentials to her Thinking and Writing courses—an MA in English literature from Boston College and a PhD from Northwestern University. She is also trained as a Senior Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. But like many of us who are devoted to teaching college writing, Lorianne is a writer. Her Thinking and Writing course, “The Art of Natural History,” has been a favorite of many students. Lorianne  also teaches sections of Environmental Literature for the department of English. As she explains in a recent reflection on her courses this semester, “Rivers and Literary Imagination” and “The Literature of Birds and Birding,” students learn through writing some of “the way[s] humans derive meaning from natural objects: looking at a river, we imagine the flow of time, or watching the migration of birds, we consider the passing of our own lives.”

The fallen Silver Maple on Fiske Quad, May 3, 2010, photograph by Lorianne DiSabato

Words like these suggest the generative connection between the practice of writing and the teaching of writing, especially in a course designed to develop student writers. In a recent post on her blog, Lorianne writes about a favorite Silver Maple that has long stood along the edge of Fiske Quad. This elegant maple was once described to me by my friend Jeff Garland, the campus arborist, as a beautiful tree in exactly the wrong place. The metal cables Jeff placed to hold two of the four trunks in place were reminders of its fragile place in our lives.

The occasion of Lorianne’s post was “Old Silver,” a tree she describes as “a natural object that I derived meaning from. . .an actual tree and a symbolic one, a being that shared my campus habitat as I’ve tried to teach countless students over the years.” But when the thick metal cable snapped on a clear and windy early-May afternoon as we went about our end-of-the-semester work of reading and grading student writing—as two of the four trunks came crashing down on to the soft green grass of the quad—she began to think. As it happens, one of the things that happens when talented writers begin thinking through writing is that they find their way. And it is not surprising that Lorianne finds in the falling of a beloved tree words that capture the commitment to learning and growing (and sometimes falling) with the students we teach:

This semester, I put a lot of time into helping my Environmental Literature students succeed with the very papers I was grading when Old Silver fell: my students and I spent an entire class period brainstorming potential essay topics, we spent part of another class meeting doing peer reviews, and we spent a good portion of a third class session doing revisions based on my draft comments, followed by a second peer review. I’m gradually learning that although trees sometimes fail for no apparent reason, success is never an accident. If I want to enjoy the papers I’m reading–and today when Old Silver fell, I was largely satisfied with the essays in my paper-pile–I have to take care in designing assignments and actively helping my students produce the kind of work I want to read. Good papers don’t just happen by chance.

Students, like old maple trees, are prone to becoming prone: both gravity and inertia are forces of nature, and at a wearisome point of the semester, it’s easier to give up than stand up. Old Silver has stood for years with a little help from the Keene State College grounds crew, and I’m learning that students also need an occasional prop or prod. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like students just aren’t getting the lessons you’re trying to teach; it’s easy to think it’s somehow your students’ fault, or the fault of their previous teachers. Why don’t students come to us, we lament, already knowing the Big and Basic Lessons we see as being so vital? Why does teaching always feel like starting from scratch as we emphasize and re-emphasize the lessons we think our students should have already learned?

I no longer expect students to understand difficult ideas the first time I explain them, and I no longer expect students to master complex skills without repeated opportunities for practice. I no longer expect students’ previous teachers to have taught them the skills I want them to have…or, more accurately, I no longer expect students to recall the lessons their previous teachers taught. The business of teaching is grueling work: it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of failing before you can succeed; sometimes your approaches to teaching–just like your students’ papers–need to be revised.

Lorianne’s words resonate deeply for all of us who have worked to make Thinking and Writing an essential piece in a Keene State College education. Her words capture the real work of teaching, and the challenge of learning (and relearning) we all experience in our day-to-day work with students. If you are interested in reading all of the blog post, and I’d recommend it, you can find it at Lorianne’s blog, Hoarded Ordinaries.

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