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A Bridge to College Writing

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2012Perspectives Newsletter

For UW freshmen, the prospect of writing college-level papers can be daunting. For faculty, grading those early papers can be disheartening. To address the problem, English professor John Webster, along with Anis Bawarshi, professor and director of Expository Writing in the English Department, developed a writing course for entering freshmen. The month-long course, English 108, has been offered prior to autumn quarter for nine years.

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English 108 students work on a group project as John Webster (center back) looks on. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

“I started off with the most obvious question,” says Webster, director of writing for the College of Arts and Sciences. “These students got into UW. They’re bright. So why don’t they write well?”

What Webster learned is that many students have limited writing experience, resulting in a severe lack of confidence. His primary goal is to help them build fluency, confidence, and comfort. “To do those things, you have to write frequently, in user friendly ways, in a framework that is positive and supportive,” says Webster. “You also need to have students write about something they care about—something they feel is worth their time.”

Webster chose a topic of immediate concern to all entering freshmen: becoming a more effective learner. He built the curriculum around half a dozen key learning themes, including the inquiry process, learning styles, and self-assessment. Students first write from personal experience, then move toward more research-oriented writing.

Writing as an Insider

Webster believes that students write most effectively when they see themselves as insiders, knowledgeable about a topic, writing to outsiders who are less knowledgeable. “When writers feel like insiders, the writing tends to be more authentic and rewarding,” he explains.

The first assignment is a writing autobiography in which students share how they came to be the writer they are today and how they feel about writing. “It’s a perfect insider-to-outsider assignment,” says Webster. “Students write about something only they know, to a teacher who cares about the topic but doesn’t have knowledge about it. And as a teacher, the essays are enormously instructive. By the end of the week, we feel that we know the students.”

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English 108 students during a class sesson. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

Webster is aware that most college assignments involve the opposite scenario, with students writing for professors with far more expertise on the assigned topic. Acknowledging this, the course ends with a paper and oral presentation on a research topic related to writing and learning concepts. Students work in teams, presenting to their peers and other guests at a half-day research conference created for the course.

“Everybody has to speak at least two minutes,” says Webster. “The students have spent the last ten days preparing for those two minutes. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever given a presentation, certainly for people they don’t know.“

In its first few years, the conference was small. But as English 108 has grown in popularity—from 40 students its first year to 300 in 2012 (with sections averaging about 12 students)—the conference has grown proportionally. “Students tend to see the conference as a high risk venture,” says Webster. “It’s not, but it feels that way to them.”

An International Twist

The conference is particularly challenging for international students for whom English is a second or third language. As the number of international students at the UW has increased, their enrollment in English 108 has skyrocketed, representing the vast majority of participants.

“When the student demographics for English 108 changed, we questioned whether we should change our approach to the course,” says Webster. “We decided not to. The reasons international students lack confidence in their writing are different, but the outcome is the same. Their writing autobiographies—that first assignment— map almost exactly as native speakers’ stories. They have the same profile of discomfort with writing.”

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Former English 108 student Yunfei Zhao (left) now serves as a writing tutor, helping students like Sijia Bao (right). Media credit: Jacob Lambert

Mary Chen, a sophomore from China, signed up for English 108 as a freshman after receiving a low score on her English writing proficiency test. “I was very afraid of writing, especially college-level writing,” she recalls. “My writing lacked enrichment of words. I think that my writing could never reach my thoughts.”

Chen says she appreciated the small class size and the opportunity for peer review of classmates’ writing. “It was so interesting to read others’ essays, which were at the similar writing level with yourself,” she says. “It was easier to compare their essay with mine and to find out my relative advantages and disadvantages.”

Chinese student Yunfei Zhao, now a junior, was similarly impressed with the peer review process. “This learning strategy is something that we do not have in Chinese schools,” he says. Zhao also recalls an assignment that involved multiple drafts, which “built a strong sense in our minds that a good essay needs to be revised.”

Zhao now shares these and other writing strategies as a tutor at the Odegaard Writing and Research Center (OWRC). He began tutoring at OWRC as a sophomore—a role that he could not have imagined before taking English 108. By sharing what he has learned, he realizes how far he has come.

“English 108 provided us the right way to build an essay, from brainstorming all the way to revising, including some study strategies such as writing an outline or using resources such as visiting writing centers and doing research in libraries,” says Zhao. “As a writing tutor, I can share what I have learned with other writers who have not taken English 108.”

Watching students like Zhao and Chen flourish at the UW is gratifying for Webster and other English 108 instructors. “Most faculty don’t get to work with first-year students this way,” says Webster. “The class is very intensive and very personal. The students write a lot; for many, it’s the first time they’ve been able to work on this exclusively. By the end, there is a marked difference in the prose they write.

“They come in with a challenge, and we have a course that I truly believe helps them,” adds Webster. “It’s as energizing for me as it is for them. As I tell them on the first day, this class is the most exciting teaching I do.”