Writing program boosts interest in potentially tedious material

Students in Sherry Jordon’s theology class write out instant message conversations between themselves and famous Protestant reformers, create dialogues for a mock debate on Oprah and pretend to be bloggers in 16th-century Geneva.

“These kinds of writing assignments engage the students and make historical figures come alive,” said Jordon, who teaches theology of the Protestant and Catholic reformation. “And when students are engaged and enjoying something, that’s when they learn the most.”

Senior Joshua Bauder is in Jordon’s class, and he said the writing assignments help interest students in material that can seem tedious.

“Presenting these historical events in contemporary settings and language can make the assignments a real hoot, as well as an effective method of learning the material,” Bauder said.

The Writing Across the Curriculum program

Jordon’s class is part of the new Writing Across the Curriculum program at St. Thomas that began this semester. Faculty who teach WAC classes attended a seminar this past summer that taught them how to teach writing and incorporate it into every discipline.

Erika Scheurer (Katie Broadwell/TommieMedia)
Erika Scheurer (Katie Broadwell/TommieMedia)

Erika Scheurer, WAC director and English professor, said the program is designed to teach students that writing is a way of thinking and learning.

“When you write, you are employing the mind, the eye and the hand,” Scheurer said. “This combination leads you to engage with material in a deeper and more complex way than you would otherwise.”

Professors teaching WAC classes are encouraged to assign “low-stakes” and “high-stakes” writing assignments. Jordon’s assignments would be considered “low-stakes” assignments, which are meant to stimulate creativity and aren’t harshly graded. “High-stakes” assignments include more involved writing assignments such as research papers. Students complete “high-stakes” assignments step-by-step so professors can see where students need the most help in the writing process.

“We want to eventually make taking WAC classes a core requirement, like diversity or any other requirement,” Scheurer said. “But that’s still a few years down the road because we need more funding.”

Art history professor Craig Eliason is teaching a WAC course this fall and he said the experience has changed his teaching style.

“I went from being only a fount of knowledge to students to being a guide through the writing process,” he said. “And all these writing assignments haven’t translated into more work for me because we do peer revision and I’ve learned to use writing to teach concepts I used to teach in other ways.”

Eliason said he has also learned more about the process of writing.

“A lot of people, myself included, think the order you go through is you think of a bunch of ideas, then write them down,” he said. “But I’ve learned that writing itself is a process of thinking.”

Unique WAC assignments

Senior Erin Lyle enjoyed creating an instant message conversation between herself and Protestant reformer John Calvin for Jordon’s class.

“We had to write out a conversation with Calvin discussing his theory on predestination,” Lyle said. “I think the real benefit of the writing assignments is you have to really know the material to be able to make jokes and change the writing style. In a serious scholarly paper it is much easier to regurgitate information without understanding it, but this requires a different depth of understanding.”

Junior Louise Esjornson had a number of favorite assignments from Jordon’s class, including one in which students wrote transcripts for a mock debate on the opinions of two 15th-century authors that would be aired on the Oprah show.

“The debate was on the morality of women and whether they were as intelligent as men,” Esjornson said. “Then in class, we debated and Dr. Jordon was Oprah.”

Esjornson also liked writing an imaginary diary entry for a historical figure.

“We wrote a diary entry from the point of view of a daughter whose mother was a dead radical reformer,” she said. “We had to think about what it was like to be one of those people, not just read old texts.”

Eliason had students in his art history class look at works of art and divide their papers in half. On the left side, he told them to write descriptions of a piece of art, and on the right he told them to write down their reactions to the piece and any deeper meanings they saw in it. He said it made students look at the art in a new, deeper way.

Esjornson said short assignments like the ones Jordon assign force her to stay caught up on her reading and help her understand primary source documents better.

“The assignments are geared towards helping us understand where people are coming from,” Esjornson said. “They encourage us to see both sides of an issue. I really like them because they prevent history from being boring.”

Katie Broadwell can be reached at klbroadwell@stthomas.edu

4 Replies to “Writing program boosts interest in potentially tedious material”

  1. Although Dr. Jordan’s assignments seem like a refreshing change from the standard papers we have to write for most classes, I don’t think they are very beneficial at all. Sure we might learn more about the subject matter with a more relaxed assignment, but college is all about learning for the future and I highly doubt that the career fields most of us are looking to be in involve writing in the style of text messages and blogs. Assignments like these only worsen the problem that is plaguing our generation; that students can’t write academically.

  2. I do agree with Meghan in that students in our generation struggle writing academically. However, I think the problem is much larger than that: students struggle with writing in general. While the relaxed style of writing in these assignments may not be deemed by some people to be useful in the workplace, there is no doubt that strong written-communication skills are essential for success in today’s world. Like it or not, blogging has become an acceptable and relevant form of communication in the real world of the workplace, just look at http://www.thebusinessinsider.com or http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/. Any assignment that allows students to refine their writing skills, even if not through an “academic” outlet, is beneficial, so I don’t think “assignments like these only worsen the problem that is plaguing our generation.” Future employers do not want employees to “regurgitate” information; they want employees to be competent, creative, and effective communicators. I’m not saying that academic writing skills aren’t important, but there is an undeniable need for well-rounded communicators who are proficient in many areas of writing.

  3. Cool. I’ve been subtly doing things like this on my own for years, simply because, until you can articulate an author’s arguments in your own language (whatever style that might be), you don’t understand that author. So my desk is littered with Aristotle vs. Democritus wrestling matches and system design documents written in the style of film noir police reports. I approve of this initiative.

    I do NOT want to see it become a core requirement. The core, I firmly believe, exists for the purpose of giving each student a complete education in the LIBERAL ARTS, not just any blame pedagogical idea that comes along and seems like a good idea at the time. (Incidentally, this is also why the human diversity requirement should be struck from the core — it’s a good idea, and students should undertake some kind study of human diversity, but it is not a part of the liberal arts education and, because of that, it is very much open to abuse.) That said, it’d be great to see this program informing as many courses as there are professors enthusiastic about adopting it. So push it forward, Ms. Scheurer! (Just stay out of the core.)

  4. A brief clarification: Writing to Learn (or low stakes) assignments are not a substitute for traditional academic (or high stakes) assignments. Students are still required to write a 10-12 page research paper and several essay exams in The Theology of the Protestant and Catholic Reformation course. The Writing to Learn assignments are designed to help students learn the material and prepare for class discussions

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