URI professors explore new ways to teach writing

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KINGSTON, R.I., — Feb. 7, 2018—The term paper has been a staple in colleges for the last century, typically a five- to seven-page academic essay that argues a point, backed by research and sources.

But that model could be changing.

Writing professors at the University of Rhode Island are rethinking how they teach some first-year composition classes to give students an opportunity to write in new ways that incorporate technology, personal experience and public awareness.

Spearheading the initiative is Stephanie West-Puckett, assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric in the Harrington School of Communication and Media. A renowned rhetoric and composition scholar who joined URI last fall, West-Puckett and other faculty launched a new introductory writing course this semester that helps students broaden their understanding of what it means to write in the 21st century.

“The course underscores the idea that writing does things in the world,” says West-Puckett. “Writing isn’t meant to be read by a teacher and stuffed in a desk or left in a heaping pile of papers in a faculty member’s office. It should circulate, resonate and create change, no matter how large or small.”

URI is among hundreds of universities nationwide experimenting with this new way of teaching writing, says Jeremiah Dyehouse, chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric.

“Professor West-Puckett’s design is big thinking especially because it gives students more choice about what and how they write,” he says. “URI is special in the wide range of writing courses it offers, including traditional research-writing classes. Alongside those offerings, there’s room for innovation to stay fresh and cutting-edge.”

How to teach writing has intrigued West-Puckett throughout her academic career, and recently she was honored for her work by the Conference on College Composition—her field’s national professional organization. West-Puckett’s dissertation for her alma mater, East Carolina University, was the 2018 winner for excellence in “queer scholarship,” a rapidly expanding academic field that questions what’s taken for granted in the world—from practices of gender and sexuality to those of education and literacy.

While queer scholarship emerged from gay and lesbian studies, it has expanded into an academic field that challenges traditional thoughts and behaviors across disciplines and includes more diverse voices in creating knowledge. West-Puckett is particularly interested in how to change first-year writing by creating a curriculum that is more accessible and engaging for all URI students.

West-Puckett’s dissertation, “Materializing Makerspaces: Queerly Composing Space, Time and What Matters,” focuses on makerspaces—like the one at URI’s Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons—that are nontraditional innovation spaces where writers and makers use tools, objects and media to compose texts and create things.

“In these spaces, students are actively and passionately engaged in composition in ways we don’t typically witness in our writing classrooms,” says West-Puckett. “My dissertation outlines how to bring these innovative practices to our academic classrooms.”

As director of the First Year Writing program at URI, West-Puckett is working with other faculty on the new course. A pilot class began last fall with two sections and is scaling up quickly because students responded so enthusiastically.

In this semester’s classes, students are offered a variety of projects, including opportunities to join citizen science projects and write about them for the public; to consider their out-of-school writing practices—such as on social media—inside the classroom; to identify fake news, fact-check those items and then write accurate accounts; and to raise awareness and create change on social justice issues they are passionate about.

Each project emphasizes common academic writing strategies—summary, paraphrase, citation—but also exposes students to new media, digital writing and current events significant in their daily lives.

For example, students can choose to work on a social justice project that requires research about social inequities. But instead of writing a term paper, students might design and coordinate an in-class discussion and also write materials for the talk. Students can guide classmates as they, say, write a letter to their congressional leaders.

The maker project uses the same methods. Students study the history of a craft, learning about its social, political and cultural importance. They conduct library and field research, find sources and interview craftspeople. The students can even make their own object—from websites to recycled furniture—and create instructional booklets and video guides.

In the writing lives project, students ask critical questions about writing practices outside URI, considering, for example, how the number of likes or shares they receive on a social media post influences their on- and off-line behavior. Students often work in teams, analyzing data about their writing patterns to determine individual and group tendencies. They then create research posters with charts and graphs of their data that are appropriate for an undergraduate research symposium.

“With these projects, we’re trying to give students the opportunity to compose using different methods, including the use of visuals, sounds and text,” says West-Puckett. “We’re also underscoring the importance of rhetoric. We want students to deeply consider their audiences and rhetorical strategies when composing.”

Students are enthusiastic about the course. In a sampling of anonymous comments submitted after the fall class, students raved about the new methods:

“I felt like this class was very straightforward and helped me see multiple types of real-life styles of writing.”

“I felt more interested in what I was doing as opposed to just writing a paper. These projects allowed me to express myself and write through different mediums.”

“I liked how this course was more about ourselves and our own learning. I loved how we could work in groups and pick the projects we wanted to complete.”

This summer, West-Puckett and Genoa Shepley, assistant director of First Year Writing, will develop course material for faculty eager to participate in the ongoing project. “We’re excited about the opportunities to re-imagine first-year writing,” says West-Puckett. “Rhode Island’s spirit of innovation is alive in our department.”