Does the U.C. Berkeley Faculty Care about Student Writing?
Clearly we do care about student writing. Two hundred and forty-eight faculty members showed that by completing a "Faculty Survey on Upper Division Student Writing" in spring 1999. Faculty who teach in departments ranging from History and English to Civil and Environmental Engineering, Physics, and Economics registered their views on student writing.
How do faculty use writing in upper division courses, and what instruction or guidance do they provide? What are faculty perceptions of upper division student writing? In what kinds of writing programs or resources might faculty be interested? These are the central questions that the Faculty Survey, created by the College Writing Programs, posed to develop a picture of how we actually use and teach writing in upper division classes across the campus.
What kinds of writing do we typically assign in upper division courses?
The essay exam appears to be alive and well at U.C. Berkeley. "Short-answer or essay exam" was the most frequent response to the question, "What kinds of writing do you typically assign in your upper division classes?" This was true for respondents who define their courses as having a "significant writing component" (over 25% of the course grade is based on writing assignments) as well as for those respondents whose courses do not have a significant writing component (25% or less of the course grade is based on writing assignments).
But then things gets more complicated and interesting. After "short-answer or essay exam," the research paper (65.2%), analytical paper or essay (56.7%), and oral presentation/speech (43.3%) are most frequently assigned in courses that have a significant writing component. In courses without a significant writing component, the emphasis is on the project report (32.8%), oral presentation/speech (29.5%), and lab report (24.6%).
These findings confirm common sense assumptions about the different demands and genres of different disciplines. That is, in scientific and technical fields, students are doing tasks other than writing—problem sets or lab experiments, for instance—and the writing they are assigned—project and lab reports—reflects the distinctive work of these fields.
For many respondents—whether or not their courses have a significant writing component—oral presentation/speech plays an important role. This suggests that our faculty see not only writing but communication in a broad sense as an important part of undergraduate education.
How do we teach writing?
While faculty describe various approaches to teaching writing, some central patterns do emerge. Most respondents report combining strategies to address a wide range of topics as they pertain to writing assignments for the course. Typically, faculty use both handouts and class discussion; these might be supplemented with written comments on papers, sample model papers, or office hours. Here are two approaches:
In other classes, writing instruction occurs one-on-one, through detailed comments on papers, meetings with faculty and GSIs in office hours, or both.
Large lecture courses pose particular challenges for teaching, and especially for writing instruction. With a few hundred students in one class, the intensive one-on-one approach is impossible. Some faculty have incorporated other ways to teach writing in large lecture courses, which include providing detailed guides to writing in the course reader, making sample student papers available on the course website, inviting a librarian to instruct the class on research strategies, and scheduling special "help sections" led by a GSI.
GSIs are mentioned frequently; clearly they play a critical role in teaching writing. They lead discussion sections where model papers and handouts are discussed in detail; they discuss ideas for papers and review drafts with students in office hours; and, of course, they respond to and grade papers.
And those who do not teach writing?
Some respondents state they do not teach writing at all. Their comments are terse: one respondent simply says, "They are on their own." Another explains," I do not cover any aspects of writing. I expect Berkeley juniors to write well." For some, course content takes precedence over writing: "emphasis is on scientific content, not writing style!" And a few suggest that time constraints prevent them from covering writing in class.
While such comments are few, they may represent the views of many—especially those who chose not to complete the survey because they did not perceive it as pertinent to them. Perhaps these respondents believe that content is the key and can be divorced from expression. Or, they simply may find it difficult to incorporate writing into their courses, suggesting another area to examine: the factors that deter faculty from offering some writing instruction.
Overall, the survey reveals that faculty across campus have developed a wide range of ways to assign and teach writing and that, in general, Berkeley faculty devote time and effort to doing so. But it also suggests that faculty wishing to improve student writing have a good deal of work to do in spreading the word about the value of writing in all the disciplines.
|Gail Offen-Brown is a Lecturer in the College Writing Programs and a Teacher-Consultant for the Bay Area Writing Project.|
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