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Becoming a College Writer

posted: 9.12.11 by Nancy Sommers

It is September and I’m thinking about the millions of students in the United States who will start college this term. I’m also imagining the towering pile of drafts that these students will write and their teachers will read. How will our students figure out the expectations of academic writing and become college writers?  For most first-year students there is a sense that something has changed—those strategies that worked in high school might not work anymore—and that something more is being asked of them, even if they are unsure what is expected.

We know that college writing—or academic writing, as we call it— is never a student’s mother tongue; it takes plenty of experimentation and repetition—practice and rehearsal—before students become comfortable with its expectations. And we know that “becoming” is a long apprenticeship; it certainly doesn’t happen in the first semester. Yet I’m wondering if we might ease students’ transition to academic writing if we listen to their questions and assumptions as they enter composition courses. To my mind, what is missing from so many discussions about college writing is students’ experiences and perceptions.

To this end, my colleagues at Bedford/St. Martin’s and I have developed a brief survey to help us see the transition to college writing through students’ eyes. We’re eager to learn whether and how first-year students think college reading and writing will be different from high school reading and writing, how they interpret their college writing assignments and read their teachers’ comments, how they define revision and research, and how they plan to become good academic writers.  I hope you’ll invite your students to participate in this national survey, open until October 1, by sending them the following link: http://www.createsurvey.com/c/79949-O6C83V/.

I’m looking forward to learning from your students and discussing  this national survey in a future blog post.  And I’m looking forward to using this survey with my own students as a way to introduce reflection into the composition course. One of the most important gifts we give students, as they seek toeholds as academic writers, is the opportunity to reflect—to step back and examine their decisions and choices, challenges and successes—to build an awareness of themselves as writers, between and across drafts.

What have you learned from talking with your students about their assumptions and questions about college writing? And how do you help your students make the transition to college writing? Please share your thoughts and teaching stories.

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3 Responses to “Becoming a College Writer”

  1. Terry Phelps, Oklahoma City University Says:

    Nancy,

    The questions on your survey are interesting, and I look forward to seeing the responses.

    cComposition classes should enable students to see the relevance and importance of learning to communicate. In the first week of classes I have each student conduct a survey of six people in various occupations, asking three questions: What kind of writing do you do? What do you think is most important in writing? What is the biggest problems you see in other people’s writing? The survey and ensuing discussion are very enlightening for students and demonstrate relevance. You can see my attached article, “What Will They Really Write,” published in Vol. 75 of The English Journal in 1986. I’ve been having students do the survey for many years, and it still works. They see people outside education not only have to write but also value clarity, concision, standard English, etc.

    Another factor in successful transition to college writing is the assignments. For example, one of my assignments is a “Three-search Paper” (see my article in the February 1992 issue of The English Journal), in which they synthesize interviews and printed research with personal experience. This assignment begins with their own experience and lets them see how others’ experience/knowledge/expertise compares – expanding self-understanding as well as understanding others.

    Other assignments engage them so their papers are not simply obligatory.

  2. Bob Cummings Says:

    Dear Nancy (and Readers):

    Thanks so much for creating this survey. We’ll share it here at the University of Mississippi. These are some great questions, and I really enjoy the ethos of the questionnaire: lots of writing for questions about writing!

    Please do let us know what they say.

    Yours,
    Bob Cummings

  3. Elisabeth McKetta Says:

    Nancy, I love the points you make in this post. When I taught sophomore rhetoric at the University of Texas, the final assignment I gave was always to write a personal essay of their OWN, then analyze it — using the literary & rhetorical analysis techniques I had taught them to use on other people’s writing. It was a hugely empowering experience, I have heard from students since. Their voices were worthy of analysis; their ideas were worthy of being not just “English paper-ese” but actual, voiced writing.