Writing for the Real World

By Caitlin Barker

Starting as early as kindergarten, children encounter writing teacher after writing teacher, each with something different to teach. Yet by the time students reach college, their writing education is often just beginning. In an effort to strengthen undergraduate writing skills, colleges and universities are establishing new programs that hone writing skills while teaching students how to write for particular audiences. 

“The truth is, everyone thinks whoever went before him or her was responsible for the job of teaching writing” writes Rachel Toor in an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: “College instructors believe students learned the mechanics in high school.” Unfortunately, many of them do not.

With data from the 2011 Nation’s Report Card indicating that only twenty-seven percent of twelfth-graders write “proficiently” (meaning that they are able to demonstrate competency in challenging subject matter on a writing exam), many students enter college lacking the writing skills they need to write clearly and effectively. However, with limited resources and pressure to ignore poor writing and focus on content when grading papers, college professors are hard-pressed to offer each struggling student the writing instruction they require.

Even those students who have learned to write competent papers for their high school English classes will soon discover that they need to write differently for audiences in different departments. “If you try to please everyone, you please no one,” observed Kenyon College Writing Center Director Jeanne Griggs in an interview. As a result, while writing centers and writing tutors were once the exclusive territory of English departments, today some of the most successful programs are based on a “writing across the curriculum” or “writing in the disciplines” approach that focuses on genre and audience-specific writing techniques. 

As these models have become more popular, many colleges have instituted “writing fellow” programs. Although they go by a number of different names and take a number of forms, writing fellow programs typically consist of a trained, peer writing tutor who is paired with a particular section of a writing-intensive, intro-level course. The writing fellow meets with students individually throughout the semester, working to strengthen their writing skills but refraining from offering content-related advice. In addition to providing students with ongoing attention in a way not typically available in a traditional writing center, writing fellows are familiar with the particular styles and conventions of the discipline. 

The Duke Reader Project offers another innovative approach to undergraduate writing instruction. Established in collaboration between Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program and the Office of Alumni Affairs, it matches undergraduates in certain classes with alumni who have some expertise in the field about which the student is writing. According to an article by Cary Moskovitz in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the alumni readers are asked to respond as “consumers” of the student writing, rather than as professors or editors. This approach helps prepare students for the sort of writing they will spend the rest of their lives perfecting: writing intended to communicate information to a specific audience, rather than writing designed to please a professor.

At Stanford University, a program called Education as Self-Fashioning provides yet another take on college writing. Designed to integrate writing with critical thinking across the disciplines, the program pairs writing instructors with professors from a wide variety of departments to teach freshmen seminars. In an essay from Inside Higher Ed, Professor Ruth Starkman reflects on her experience serving as the writing instructor for a mathematics course titled “Rigorous and Precise Thinking,” which sought to show students that “writing in the humanities and writing in math gained force and excellence through similar structures of precise reasoning.” Through this approach, students learn to apply techniques from the humanities to their writing for a scientific audience. 

By explicitly demonstrating the connection between clear thinking and clear writing, these new approaches to writing instruction help students understand that the process of clearly and concisely expressing one’s reasoning is an integral part of the reasoning process itself. And in learning to think about the audience for which they are writing, students develop valuable communication skills that will remain with them wherever they choose to go. 

Caitlin Barker is a senior at Kenyon College majoring in political science.  Kenyon College is home to the Beta of Ohio chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.