Margaret Marshal, director of the University Writing Program, said Auburn's writing initiative is the first of its kind.
A writing task force, which included faculty from every college as well as student representatives, spent two years investigating writing at Auburn, studying what actually happens in the classrooms, Marshall said. The task force brought in experts to advise them, attended conferences and observed other universities.
Marshall said at the end of the two year period, the task force recommended four things: a director should be hired to lead the writing initiative, the English center should be transformed into a Universitywide writing center to aid all majors, enrollment should be lower in English classes and writing classes should be geared to each student’s major. Marshall said Auburn has begun to fulfill all of these recommendations, except the lower enrollment in English courses because of the high cost of hiring more professors.
Marshall was recruited at the end of the summer and began her role as director of the writing initiative in January.
The first goal of the writing program is to formalize the writing in the majors component of the writing initiative, Marshall said.
Marshall envisions the writing in the majors component as a formalized way of teaching students how to master the writing needed specifically for their career.
“All those students are writing in bits and pieces already, but they may not recognize it as writing because it doesn't look like English composition,” Marshall said. “The shift, then, is to make those assignments more consciously writing and for faculty to actually teach you what you need to know in order to do that writing well.”
Each major will have to come up with a writing plan.
“The plan calls for majors to come up with a way that students get multiple writing experiences across their upper level courses and they get feedback and opportunities to revise,” Marshall said.
Depending on how quickly departments can get plans together, Marshall said the major-centric writing will be in place in fall 2011 or 2012.
Other universities have used some kind of writing in the majors component for more than 30 years, Marshall said.
“It's going to take some time to create this model, because no place has ever done this before,” Marshall said. “We're pioneering this. Other places are 30 years ahead of us, and we know what they did that didn't work, so we're doing something that theoretically could work much better.”
The test that initiated the change, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), is a national project that collected information about the extent to which students engaged in behaviors that are associated with strong learning, said Drew Clark, director of institutional research and assessment.
NSSE included an assessment of reading and writing, including how often students were assigned papers, how many books students were assigned to read and books students read on their own.
“On the three questions about the amount of writing, every year, Auburn students reported writing fewer papers,” Clark said. “We had good evidence that compared to what they would be writing had they enrolled at a similar institution, Auburn students weren't being asked to do that much writing.”
Clark said these assessments brought attention to the lack of practice Auburn students were getting, not that their writing skills were inferior.
“That doesn't tell us whether or not they write well or write better, but it does tell us that they're on average not getting as much practice as they would be getting at some other place,” Clark said.
Kevin Roozen, assistant professor of English, said he has looked at the CLA data and sees remarkable gains.
“Over the past couple of years, the curriculum of freshman composition has been more focused on analytic writing,” Roozen said. “One of the things I think Auburn University is starting to see is that Auburn students do an awful lot of writing outside of classes. It's one thing to ask students, 'How many five page papers have you written?' It's another thing to ask them 'How many other kinds of writing have you been involved in?'”
Roozen said examples of this other type of writing were writing jokes for stand-up comedy and writing press releases for Greek events.
“We need to ask better questions to get a bigger sense of what kind of reading and writing students are doing, and then you might see very different data,” Roozen said.