The Thinking and Writing course was conceived as one of two foundational courses in Keene State College’s Integrative Studies Program. The genesis of the course, however, is inextricable from an ongoing campus-wide conversation about the teaching and learning of effective writing.
The Writing Task Force: Since the early 1990s our Interdisciplinary Task Force on Writing has sponsored dozens of workshops to assist faculty around such issues as creating good writing assignments, preventing plagiarism, and techniques for commenting on students’ papers. The Task Force has undertaken campus-wide research projects and newsletters; facilitated conversation about writing on campus; supported and advanced writing-across-the curriculum projects; supported faculty development and training that improves the practice of teaching writing; and collaborated with the Writing Center staff. In 2004 the Task Force refined its mission and articulated a vision for writing consistent with Keene State’s mission as a liberal arts college: that students should be able to use writing for a variety of purposes: to wrestle with complex ideas; to compose well-supported arguments; to express themselves creatively; to communicate effectively; to demonstrate learning; and to better understand what it means to write both as members of an academic discipline and as liberally educated people.
The Task Force did not advocate for a particular course or curriculum. Instead, it offered the campus a broad vision for writing at the College: “In order for Keene State students to learn how to use writing for a variety of purposes, they must be provided with sustained writing instruction. Writing should permeate the curriculum rather than remain relegated to English 101 and the few discipline-specific writing courses now offered.” The vision of the Task Force was a campus-wide commitment to the teaching of writing.
The Calderwood Institute on the Teaching of Writing: In 2002 Dr. Phyllis Benay, professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Center for Writing, Dr. Kirsti Sandy, associate professor of English, and Dr. Mark C. Long, professor of English and American Studies, designed and received funding for a faculty institute on the teaching of writing. With generous funding from Boston’s Calderwood Foundation, the Calderwood Institute was designed to improve student writing by helping faculty across all disciplines become better teachers of writing. Since 2003 the Institute has provided an opportunity for eight Keene State faculty members each year to engage in the kind of reading, reflection and dialogue around more effective ways to teach, assign, and evaluate student writing. Drawing on readings about student writing and its relationship to learning, participants examine what we know about students as writers, and the relationship between writing and cognitive development. Participants then work individually and collaboratively throughout the academic year to transform their own writing assignments, methods of evaluation, and course design.
Rethinking English 101: One of the most significant discussions facilitated by the Task Force was about the relative effectiveness of our previously required English 101 course. In a Task Force newsletter we asked the entire campus community to think seriously about whether English 101 was a good idea. Based on a traditional model of required first-year writing courses, Keene State College students were asked to write five essays, most of which were subjective, narrative-type compositions that neither furthered students’ research skills nor asked them to investigate meaningful academic issues.
From Theory to Practice: Although The Thinking and Writing course was conceived as part of a larger revision of the general education program at Keene State, its fundamental premise is significantly different from English 101. The course design now asks students to write about an issue of interest by focusing on a creative and complex question—investigating the question with critical analysis of readings, research and data, and using appropriate research techniques in documentation. Moreover, the course takes seriously its role in furthering the process whereby students make the transition to college. As former Director of Expository Writing at Harvard University describes this purpose, “In entering a live debate—a conversation in which more than one view is acceptable and for which there are no easy answers—freshmen see that something is at stake in their work, that their writing is not simply ‘academic’” (Sommers and Saltz 137). Thinking and Writing students do not merely quote from sources and compile a research report. They are asked instead to engage with the thoughts and words of others and to construct their point of view from a generative reading of their sources. Students benefit from sustaining their writing projects across the semester in multiple drafts; and faculty and students learn together the value of ongoing and constructive feedback during this process.
Thinking and Writing is taught by faculty members across the three schools of the College—situating the teaching and learning of writing in genuine academic contexts. The faculty members who teach Thinking and Writing have from the beginning collaborated in refining the pedagogical methods required when student reading, thinking and writing comprise the intellectual core of the course. The Center for Writing also collaborates with faculty through an innovative Partnership Program that provides peer instruction and faculty support.