Writing and Inquiry in UNC Asheville’s HUM Program, Part I
Writing is the circulatory system of a liberal arts education. It extends into all parts of the curriculum, oxygenating and sustaining learning in every discipline. Writing as learning is not identical to learning to write, though. The Buddha once said that his teaching is like a raft: once you reach the opposite shore you do not continue to carry the raft with you (Alagaddupama Sutta). Learning to write is focusing on the raft. The writing that we hope students then do, while in classes and afterward, is more focused on the journey across the river and on the other side. Not that one ever reaches the further shore in learning or perfects one’s writing. It is simply that the two inform each other but are not the same.
We agree about the importance of writing, but we regularly debate the ways and places in the curriculum where it is taught. Is there a core writing course? Does every class teach writing? Does every department teach writing? These questions have taken on a particular urgency for us as we see our retention rates decline and we consider possible causes. Data suggests that students who continue to struggle with writing may not stay past their first year, so we have to attend to where writing appears in the core curriculum.
In this discussion, that important distinction of writing as means and writing as end often seems to me to be assumed or lost, although I suspect most colleagues recognize and agree with it. Those are two compatible but different ways of talking about writing. First, as an end, writing is a skill or a craft that can be learned, honed and perfected. Second, as a means, it is an indispensable tool of learning. I think that different parts of the curriculum can align themselves with one of those roles of writing more than the other. If students understand both of these roles—and if instructors explain them clearly—then they are more likely to understand what constitutes good writing and to develop writing skills that transfer across disciplines.
The HUM Program does not have a writing requirement for its courses, but we have an expectation of writing. When I met new instructors, I encouraged them to have their students produce 15-20 pages of writing during the semester, and we talked about the different forms that writing may take: in class or weekly short response papers to prompts, lectures or performances; reading journals or annotations; essay exams; interpretive or research papers. After that, each faculty member is free to decide what types of writing and what assignments they will incorporate into their course. Faculty also share assignments and exams, and there is the presumption that the expectations rise with the course level. Students in their first year will probably focus on making clear interpretive claims and supporting them with evidence from the class material, and students in their final year are more likely to be asked to introduce and evaluate different scholarly sources.
One difference between these two approaches to writing in the classroom—as perfectible skill or as tool of learning—is the emphasis on the product rather than the process. A focus on writing as a skill tends to evaluate the final product as the measure of success. Every rubric that I have seen has this explicit or implicit focus. Excellent writing will be demonstrated (for example) by a thorough awareness of content, context, audience and purpose; by a mastery of the conventions of disciplinary writing including organization, structure and formatting; by skillful communication and eloquence. Most academic writing can be evaluated by these characteristics, which can serve as instruction and guideline for writing that falls short of excellence.
The emphasis on the product may obfuscate the reason and role of writing in the learning process: if the student’s only reason for writing is the assignment itself, then not only is an opportunity lost, but the student may be writing without investment in anything beyond the grade. I trust that most writing instructors fold the process and the product into each other in their assignments, but in disciplinary classes, and maybe most in general core classes, those two aspects of writing may become merged or divorced.
If we emphasize writing as an indispensable tool of learning, the focus shifts to the process of writing, especially the early stages of the process. Writing is a way to get started; it is a means to their end, not the end itself. We invite students to think more deeply about their response to a prompt in a short in class assignment. If we want to use writing to emphasize inquiry, we may require students to submit their own questions and their initial responses to one or more of them. Writing becomes part of the inquiry process, analogous to class discussion but in a more rigorous and sustained way. Writing becomes a way for us to engage in a dialogue with ourselves by recording our thoughts and revisiting and evaluating them later. It allows us to see where our questions are too broad, our thinking too narrow, or our arguments too weak. Neither class discussion or internal reflection is likely to lead to the same level of critical distance or sustained engagement that writing creates.
In most ways, the Humanities Program is more committed to writing as a fundamental tool of learning than to the teaching of writing as a perfectible skill. Some instructors provide grading rubrics for writing but not all; few spend class time on the conventions of writing or bibliography.
But I sometimes feel—and express to my students—a tension in these two dimensions of writing. In most sections of our first year course, HUM 124 (The Ancient World), I assign two papers, the first in response to a prompt that I provide them, and the second in pursuit of a question that they want to answer. (I also work with them on articulating their questions.) I do not require drafts but I will read them and offer feedback. In the structure of those writing assignments, I evaluate the final paper; I am privileging the product. I look for the clarity of the question and the interpretive claim, the control of the original content and the persuasive marshalling of evidence and argument in support of the claim. The excellent paper meets all those criteria.
But every once in a while, I get a paper that doesn’t quite reach a clear conclusion, that considers several different arguments without settling on any, that pursues one or more textual tangents because they are interesting. I get papers that reveal the rough struggle that has not yet been polished away, the chaos of ideas that never settled down into orderly creation. My rubric doesn’t change. Such a paper will probably be average, maybe good at best, never excellent. But I tell my students that there is often something thrilling in those papers, at least for an instructor committed to student learning. Those papers show learning at work.
This experience encourages me to include more writing in my courses, low stakes writing with limited and specific evaluation, with little weight in the grade. I want to encourage the process of writing in the process of learning. I want that connection to become more natural. If it does, it is hard to imagine that the skills and conventions of good writing will be as rare as they have become.