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May 26, 2018

UMass Lowell's first-year writing classes get creative

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  • Lowell
Students research, write, revise – and more

Math major Nicquela Roach says she expected her first-year writing classes to be “just a lot of long papers.”

They weren’t. In fact, Roach’s College Writing II professor broke the ice by having students read satirical essays, analyze them and write a response. Roach really liked that.

“Her research is on how to use humor in writing, so we critiqued how authors use humor,” Roach says.

These days, College Writing, required for decades of all first-year students at UMass Lowell and at most other colleges, looks nothing like the old “freshman comp.” While students still read, write and revise, College Writing I and II come in a variety of “flavors” that give students and faculty more flexibility – and more opportunities to connect their writing with both academic and real-world experiences.

Some classes involve service-learning partnerships with Lowell schools. Others send students out to explore Lowell’s history, literature and culture, including Cambodian food. “Studio” classes offer extra class time (and credit) to nervous and gung-ho writers alike. Some sections are taught by faculty with multilingual teaching experience. 

Even in the regular, no-frills sections, there’s no standard textbook or syllabus: Faculty are free to get creative, and students have wide latitude to write about what interests them.

“College Writing is famously known as that class you get out of the way,” says Assoc. Prof. Ann Dean, director of the First-year Writing Program. “We’re fighting that by offering a lot of options and showing students it’s an opportunity to learn how to write for their particular major.”

The First-year Writing Program serves 2,000 freshmen each year in more than 100 sections taught by more than 50 faculty members, Dean says.

All students learn how to formulate a research question, find and evaluate sources, write clearly, make an argument and support their findings with evidence. But professors can choose their own texts and assignments while giving students individual feedback in sections capped at 19 students. That’s possible because all of the faculty are experienced teachers, not graduate students, Dean says.Cory Sanon, an exercise physiology major, worked on a literacy project with students at the Bartlett School in College Writing I. The service-learning component made the class more engaging, he says.

“I had to learn how to incorporate my experience into my writing and make an argument about it,” Sanon says. “For my paper, I landed on how younger kids benefit from having an older mentor. It was interesting – and I enjoyed working with the kids.”

Since Dean became the first faculty director of the First-year Writing Program three years ago, she’s drawn from best practices nationwide to introduce innovations, including:

  • All students in College Writing II must complete an assignment that exposes them to research at the university so they see that “there are adults who do research as their job because they have questions they want to answer,” Dean says. 
  • Students must learn and use the correct writing and citation styles for their major – and the writing professors do workshops with faculty in other departments to learn more about the writing needs and expectations for students in science, engineering and business. 
  • The First-year Seminar in Honors, in which students explore Lowell and read about it, now also counts as College Writing I for freshmen in the Honors College, instead of being an additional requirement. (If they have AP credit for College Writing I, the honors seminar counts as an arts and humanities elective.)
  • Starting this fall, all incoming students will choose their own placements – College Writing I, the studio option, College Writing II or a section in which the professor has multilingual expertise – instead of being assigned to a class based on standardized tests. 

The last innovation is the most important, Dean says, because research shows that standardized tests don’t measure writing ability accurately and consistently underestimate students of color. 

Instead, UML is using an online self-assessment tool, the Writing Course Finder, that the writing faculty developed based on a model used successfully at other top universities.

The Writing Course Finder asks students about what they like to write, their history with writing and their knowledge of languages besides English. Although students must write a brief essay in response to a prompt, they evaluate the essay themselves. Then they’re provided with detailed course descriptions and asked to choose the one they prefer.

“We’re finding more students than expected are choosing studio, while fewer are choosing College Writing II,” Dean says. “If they do choose College Writing II but we look at their essay and think they’re going to struggle, we discuss that by e-mail.”

Visiting lecturer Julia Hans, who teaches multiple sections of both classes, says she spends the fall teaching College Writing I students to break out of the rigid format of the five-paragraph essay that they’ve learned for standardized tests. Instead, she has them respond to increasingly complex texts with their own thoughts. Writing “I think” is new and surprisingly difficult for most of them, she says.

“It’s more about unlearning than learning,” she says. “The whole idea of academic writing is that now you’re part of a community of scholars who are all joined in conversation, asking questions and giving opinions on things that matter in the world: social issues, political issues, economic issues, scientific issues.”

In College Writing II, Hans teaches students how to evaluate sources, especially online – and shows them every trick she knows about database searches. She also lets them pick any topic about which they’re passionate for a research paper and oral presentation.

“When a student’s engaged, it makes a world of difference in their writing,” she says. 

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