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The Writing Program

May 22, 2012

As a first-year student, Sam K. Rumbach ’15 was part of a pilot program that helped him make the significant and often challenging transition from academic writing in high school to college writing. The pilot program is part of a new three-tiered writing program that will be implemented this fall.

The first tier is a writing-intensive first-year seminar, a requirement for all incoming students. A dozen faculty members piloted the program last fall with revised syllabi to incorporate a more intentional approach to teaching intensive writing.

Dave A. Berque, professor of computer science and chair of the department, and Terri L. Bonebright, professor of psychology, spent last summer revising a first-year seminar titled The Science of Design, an interdisciplinary course they co-developed 10 years ago. Both participated in the pilot program this year – each teaching a class of 14 students.

The course looks at design from many perspectives – examining everything from doorknobs to software interfaces. Rumbach took the class from Berque. “Not only was it a really interesting course, but also I could definitely see a difference in my writing from first to second semester,” he says.

Berque explains, “We’re giving every incoming student exposure to writing in the first semester because as a faculty we believe that writing is extremely important. The more we can prepare students in the first semester, the better prepared they can be for all of their courses.”

The class is novel in part because it was designed by a computer scientist and a psychologist. It examines issues related to the design of technology as well as issues related to how humans process objects that are around them and the psychological principles that can impact design. They also looked at environmental, aesthetic and ethical issues.

Rumbach, a Management Fellow and member of the men’s tennis team, says that discussion was the part of the class that he liked the most. “Professor Berque came into every class expecting everyone to talk about the readings. You would never think why a simple object is designed so poorly, for example, but when you talk about it and discuss it, you really start to think about these things.”

“Terri and I always had writing assignments in this class, but we adapted it in terms of looking at the writing as a process, and we use class time to talk about writing and conduct peer reviews,” Berque says. “One of the biggest lessons I learned in teaching the course is to integrate the writing with the material from the course, and use the writing to reinforce the content. Students produced better papers by the end of the semester, and I know it’s changed the way I think about writing in some of my other courses.”

Berque says it’s fair to say that he was a little nervous about being a part of the pilot program. “I became more comfortable with the idea when I went to some of the workshops and realized that we weren’t talking about the first-year seminar becoming a grammar course,” he says. “Of course, if grammar issues come up, we can address them, but our focus is really more on helping students to write clearly and logically so their arguments and ideas are presented well.”

Faculty members teaching the first-year seminars also serve as academic advisers to their students. “The fact that we met with our students a couple of times during the semester for writing conferences provided a few more opportunities for them to be in our offices. Often, I’d start a writing conference or end one by asking, ‘How are your other classes going, or how are things going in general?’ The more you get students in for one-on-one contact, the more you can support advising, as well.”

The writing program’s second tier is a sophomore W writing course. Until now, students could take this course anytime, but beginning in the fall, it’s required during the sophomore year. Berque explains, “Students will take it after the first-year seminar, so there will be some common ground to build on, and we think it will give a more unifying experience to the sophomore year.”

The Writing in the Major program is the third and final tier. Academic departments and programs will integrate discipline-specific writing components into their majors. Faculty members will consider how writing works in the context of their particular discipline and will design the most appropriate writing experiences for their majors.

Visit The First-Year Seminar website to learn more.