The College Writing Program offers the most important sequence of courses for students making the transition from high school to college at American University. Students often start with a host of assumptions about writing. They may regard writing as a rarified skill available only to a few. And they may, further, regard themselves in a limited sense as students faced with writing tasks rather than as writers seeking to engage with readers--to inform, instruct, or persuade. They may try to decode an assignment and produce a single "correct response" for a teacher, without a wider and more complicated sense of audience and purpose. And increasingly, they may have been trained to produce formulaic essays that meet the requirements of standardized tests and college applications but don't meet the demands of college-level academic writing. In fact, they may see a conflict between intellectual creativity--originality--and academic convention.
In the College Writing Program, we encourage students to think as writers and scholars—anticipating the responses of a reader, exploring the depth and breadth of a subject through research and analysis, and working with language and form to best express their understanding. Our work with students prepares them for the writing that they'll do in the academy and for a lifelong process of intellectual discovery.
The College Writing Program, therefore, offers writing-centered, interdisciplinary courses. These courses promote approaches to writing that can be transferred to all academic disciplines. We base our instruction on the premise that while most students are not fluent in “academic English,” the skills involved in academic prose can be taught and learned in the classroom.
College Writing courses emphasize intellectual creativity in concert with—not in opposition to—academic conventions. Exploring this tension not only prepares students for the writing they’ll do in the academy but also promotes inventive thinking in writing and critical interactions with readings. In negotiating the needs of an audience and adhering to academic conventions while expressing original ideas, students develop what the National Council of Teachers of English refers to as the "habits of mind" that promote critical thinking and engagement with content. We treat writing as a mode of critical thinking, and we also cultivate the skills of information literacy, creating student-researchers who evaluate a variety of sources, read them thoroughly, and engage with them meaningfully in their arguments. Courses are organized around themes, prompting students to think and write in-depth about a subject in order to create a meaningful, directed writing experience.
College Writing courses treat writing as an entry into the "academic conversation". We recognize that all members of the academy--students and teachers--are part of an intellectual community engaged in inquiry and dialogue, and we believe that mastery of academic writing skills allows students to participate successfully in this community. This imaginative act of envisioning the "conversation" requires students to recognize that writing is not merely an interaction between a student and a teacher; it also makes persuasion a primary component of a writer's purpose, with the requisite researched evidence and rhetorical strategies. And it requires students to engage with a multiplicity of perspectives and recognize the validity of other points of view. Students must also learn to anticipate the expectations and skepticisms of audiences in order to enter this "academic conversation".
The College Writing Program values reading instruction as an important component of writing instruction. As with writing, we teach reading, especially the reading of challenging scholarly writing, as a process that requires choices, in particular how to engage with a text's ideas, how to enter the conversation of which the text is a part, and how to engage with the text to contribute to that conversation. Recognizing that different situations call for different reading strategies, we teach multiple ways of reading, among them reading for content (the simplest kind of reading), rhetorical reading (reading like a writer to identify and practice the moves a piece of writing makes), and critical reading (reading to question context and the writer's motives and assumptions, and to connect ideas and themes).
College Writing courses recognize that writing embodies a mixture of learned skills and individual expression. We reject the prevailing expectation that academic, scholarly prose will be convoluted and devoid of personality. In fact, student writers can learn to communicate their ideas with originality, grace, and evocative language, without sacrificing precision and mechanical correctness. We see content and form as indivisible: clear, logical thinking--well expressed--is the foundation of style. And attention to style and correctness can also improve the clarity and quality of thought. Thus, writing is difficult, but it can be taught and learned and needn't be a mystical--or mystifying--process.
College Writing courses present writing as a process that takes time, is recursive, and involves revising, editing, and making conscious choices. We seek to help students realize that to re-see (revise) one’s ideas from an earlier draft and rewrite with new insights are both difficult and rewarding; this interaction among writer, text, and research is at the heart of the writing process. Students will gain confidence in making the choices that will allow them to enter the academic conversation.
In College Writing courses, students not only learn that writing is a process, but research is, too. Through instruction designed by faculty and librarian partners, students master the concepts and behaviors involved in information literacy: Students will learn not only how to locate information, but also how to navigate the complex process of working with that information. In their own research projects, students find that research and writing are part of a recursive process that requires pairing mechanical skills with conceptual understanding and then putting those skills and that understanding to work as they integrate sources elegantly in a piece of writing, position themselves in relation to the research, attribute sources responsibly, and join the conversation they've identified.