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Better Writers (Not Just Better Papers)

August 1, 2004

Better Writers (Not Just Better Papers)

Students embrace college writing program

By Katherine Yungmee Kim
August 2004


Norah Ashe-Mc Nalley’s writing students are scientists. Some are premed, some are dental hygienists and others are majoring in such fields as sports medicine, occupational therapy and public health.  Her students are pursuing careers in health care and generally speaking, when they are asked to write for their classes, they are often turning in lab reports.

Ashe-Mc Nalley teaches Writing 340 — an upper-division writing requirement for all undergraduates at USC — and she leads the Health Sciences writing workshops. Her 340 students are not only assigned to read and write about their scientific fields, they are invited to deeply consider and interpret some of its implications.  

In her workshops, students read Dr. Atul Gawande’s essays from Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. They have been asked to analyze the Tuskegee study, in order to examine how such ethical transgressions in medicine could occur.

Dan Witcher, a senior majoring in biology, says that in high school he was taught to write essays that fell into a certain format. “Every paper turned out the same,” he laments.

But in 340, he found the emphasis was on “finding my own voice and style, and embracing that rather than trying to fit my paper into a preconceived mold.”

Ashe-Mc Nalley and her colleagues in the Writing Program are committed to making “better writers, not just better papers.” They offer reading material to broaden the young writers’ perspectives and interrogate the students to arrive at new ideas. Finally, they teach them proper grammar and form — tools for articulation and for learning how to be their own editors.

Over 25 Years

The Writing Program at USC College was established as an independent unit in 1978, in response to a renewed interest in rhetoric and linguistics and a widespread cultural perception that writing needed to be taught at an undergraduate level.

For nearly two decades, the Writing Program offered Composition 101 and 102 — a mandatory, two-term  freshman writing curriculum.  But in 1997, as an integral part of the university’s reorganization of its undergraduate general education curriculum, the Writing Program split the year-long requirement into one freshman semester and another upper-division semester: Writing 140 and 340.

This curricular structure represented, at the time and even now, an innovative approach in terms of university-level writing instruction.  

Writing 140 — “Writing and Critical Reasoning” — has three principal themes: process, critique and craft. Each class is capped at 17.

Each Writing140 section is affiliated with a general education lecture course addressing particular social issues such as “The Holocaust,” “Environmental Issues in Society,” and ‘Poverty and Welfare in America.” The lecture course, with its discussion section, provides students with the concepts, theories, and topical information that form the basis for the essay assignments in Writing 140.  

Dividing the classes in this manner allows Writing 140 to focus more intensely upon their writing and writing process.  

Writing Program Director John Holland notes that by the time students are juniors and seniors, they have matured as both writers and critical thinkers. They take their writing more seriously and they more deeply understand the importance of writing in terms of both their academic and professional careers.

Writing 340 — “Advanced Writing” — offers instruction in writing for various audiences on topics related to a student’s professional or disciplinary interests. The College offers five versions of Writing 340 — Arts and Humanities, Health Sciences, Natural Sciences, Pre-Law, and Social Sciences. There are 20 students in each class, taught by full-time faculty — all of whom have their doctorates.

Last year, student assessment of 340 ranked an outstanding 4.3 (on a five-point scale) and their evaluations of the faculty reached an unprecedented 4.7. “We’re gratified to see that students have not only accepted the upper-division course,” says Holland, “but they have embraced it.”

More than evaluations, student accomplishment is the true litmus test for the success of the Writing Program. Genuine improvement can be charted in the quality of writing between the freshman and junior years.

It is also due to the quality of the thinker.

“Our goal,” the program states, “is to make better writers. There is no better way to do this than by demonstrating that writing is a process through which we arrive at a greater knowledge of ourselves.”