Blogs > Liberty and Power > Some Brazen Self-Promotion

Sep 4, 2007 5:00 pm

Some Brazen Self-Promotion

As my time as an administrator has now come to an end, I've been able to write a couple of short commentary pieces about some of the issues I dealt with while running a first-year seminar program. Two of them have recently been published on the web.

The first, co-authored with Hillory Oakes, the Writing Center director at SLU, A Writing Program that Works
St. Lawrence’s Faculty-Driven First-Year Program
appears at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy's website. Here's the opening:

The Pope Center has focused attention on college writing programs that don’t work very well. We would like to inform readers about one that does.

Over the last thirty years, university writing programs, particularly those geared toward first-year students, have become increasingly professionalized. Graduate programs in composition theory have produced Ph.Ds who are trained in writing instruction, and they have redesigned writing programs for undergraduates. On many campuses, the responsibility for teaching writing has been turned over to these faculty, and therefore we find that courses specifically devoted to writing skills – as opposed to content-based but writing-intensive courses – have become standard.

This change raises concerns. Does it really best serve students to separate a task so central to liberal education as the teaching of writing (and, we might add, speaking and research skills) from courses that are rich in content and taught by professors expert in those areas? What happens to students when they leave the composition course and scatter to the classrooms of other faculty members, who now perhaps now feel little or no obligation to teach their students how to write well? The poor skills of many college graduates may be caused by a lack of systematic attention to writing across the faculty since writing has been isolated in composition courses.

At St. Lawrence University, the responsibility for teaching college-level writing and other communication skills to first-year students rests on the shoulders of the faculty as a whole. Our two-semester First-Year Program (FYP) involves one course each semester devoted to students’ writing, speaking, and research skills, where most of the teaching is done by faculty drawn from across the campus – not just by those with background in composition.

The second piece Are Our Graduates College-Writing Ready? What High Schools Could Do to Help just came out today at Education Week. It will be in the print issue tomorrow, but is available on the web (free registration required). The opening:

Teachers of the students who graduated from American high schools in the spring may think that their charges are well prepared for the colleges they are entering this fall, but the professors who will greet them on campus disagree, according to a recent national survey.

The differences in perception among 6,568 teachers and professors who responded to the survey, conducted by the educational testing organization ACT Inc., were apparent in virtually every college-preparatory subject.

Perhaps most significantly, the high school teachers surveyed had more confidence that their students were prepared to handle the fundamentals of writing—basic grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation—than the college professors did.

As someone who deals each fall with the orientation of college freshmen, I believe that their writing problem goes deeper. High school students need more preparation in the critical-thinking skills essential to writing college-level research papers. The Internet and other technologies divert attention from the basic skills of evaluating sources critically and gracefully integrating them into an argument of the student’s own making, which will and should be expected of students in college and university classes.

New college students who have grown up in the world of the Internet are often very good at the brute mechanics of finding sources, but they are largely unaware of the differences between peer-reviewed, scholarly sources and popular sources like Time magazine. They need to be engaged in high school projects that ask them to assess sources with a critical eye, no matter how they are found or in what form.

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More Comments:

Steven Horwitz - 9/5/2007

Thanks for the heads up Sheldon!

Sheldon Richman - 9/5/2007

There's a third Steve. "Capitalism and the Family," appearing in the July-August issue of The Freeman, is now online: