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Writing Program Newsletter Winter 2017

Writing in DU Advanced Seminars: Study Published

NOTE: The following is excerpted/abstracted from the considerably longer article published in Across the Disciplines, Vol. 13, Winter 2016, which is available here



We explain how collaboratively assessing a writing-intensive general education capstone seminar constituted a high-impact practice for faculty development. Students at the University of Denver complete an Advanced Seminar taught by faculty across the curriculum. Topics and themes vary widely, as do types of assigned writing, making assessment an ill-defined problem. Eleven professors each collected complete writings from five students, then met with the authors in a workshop to code and analyze these 468 artifacts. Participants also interpreted student questionnaires (both multiple-choice and open-ended questions) and wrote analyses of their courses. We present findings about the length, types, genres, and purpose of writings. We also present themes emerging from the workshop and analyses, most notably concerning mixed writing purposes and the tension professors saw between "standard" and "creative" assignment making. The assessment process fostered rich insights about individuals' teaching as well as about the nature of writing across the seminars.

"As is often true in life, what we have in mind is often not what happens in reality.... When our small group of ASEM faculty...came together to create a systematic way of defining and assessing good writing, we quickly realized that the good writing we all have in our minds is hard to capture systematically."  —University of Denver Psychology Professor and Research Participant


All University of Denver undergraduates complete a senior-level "Advanced Seminar" as their final general education course, a capstone not of the major but of general education. Our Advanced Seminars (ASEMs) are small (15 to 20 students) writing-intensive courses on varied topics taught by faculty from across the university. ASEMs are by definition "multi-perspectival" and faculty propose topic-based ASEMs on a subject matter "of their passion," and students choose from among the 70-some offerings a course that interests them.

As one might imagine, topics vary considerably. In one quarter, for example, are courses on "Water and the West," "Philosophical Foundations of Mathematics," "Caring in a Capitalist Economy," and "Heavy Metal and the Re-enchantment of Modern Society." ASEM courses must be writing intensive, satisfying four requirements, including a minimum of 20 pages (about 6000 words), some of which may be informal, but some of which must be revised, polished, and intended for an educated readership.

What this also means is that faculty cannot presume specific knowledge on the part of all students in a class of senior chemists, accountants, social workers, political scientists, cellists, and so on.

With quite diversified student knowledges and backgrounds, and absent a shared disciplinary discourse and set of practices, what kinds of writing do faculty assign? How do students perform them? Rather than devising and conducting assessment research, then bringing findings to faculty who are teaching ASEM, we took a messier route, enlisting them in the effort bottom-up; asking them what they wanted to assess and involving them in the decision-making process from the beginning; having them gather, describe, and analyze student writings—both their own and, more vitally, others'.

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We developed a multiple measures study whose artifacts included student surveys, syllabi and assignment analyses, student writings, and written faculty reflections. We generated these artifacts by inviting all faculty scheduled to teach ASEM courses one spring to apply as co-investigators.

Recruited faculty participants were to provide syllabi and writing assignments, select five students and gather all their writings, take part in a two-day workshop, and write an analysis of their own courses, receiving $1000 for these efforts. Funding allowed us to choose eleven professors from diverse disciplines. In exchange for permission for their work to be collected and for completing a brief questionnaire, student participants each received $20.

Sixty students completed the questionnaire, and 63 agreed to provide writings, a total of 468 documents. (With two participating faculty each teaching two sections, the goal had been 65 students.) Faculty uploaded clean copies of student writings to a secure online site. We assigned each course a letter (A-M) and each student a course-specific identifier (A1, C2, J3). We then assigned a unique identifier to connect each document to a specific student and a specific class (A1.1, C2.5, J3.2).

One week after the term ended, the eleven professors and the three of us met for two days. We had participants code several features of the student documents: length, genre, primary and secondary source material, and purpose. Our goal in this step was to characterize, not to evaluate, these features. We were not surprised—though our colleagues were—that it proved difficult to agree on several writing features, most tellingly about the purpose of the writings and the nature of their source materials. Conversations were energetic and sometimes exasperated.

Interpreting Student Experiences and Beliefs

At the beginning of the workshop, we presented results from the student questionnaires, consisting of tabulated responses to nine multiple choice questions and raw responses to the three open-ended ones. Our question was simple: What did our colleagues make of these?

Figure 1. Student responses to the question "How would you characterize yourself as a writer at this point?"

ASEM graph

Faculty were struck, for example, by students' confidence in their abilities, with 78% considering themselves "strong" or "proficient," and only 5% reporting struggles. This self-perception, faculty thought, might account for some of the resistance students projected in response to comments for revision or to poor grades. [For further results and analysis and for the survey instrument itself, please see the whole article.]

How Much Writing? What Kinds?

The criteria for writing in ASEM courses allow any number of combinations of "formal" and "informal" assignments. For example, in "Thinking," Professor A assigned eighteen short exercises that posed critical thinking problems, while in "Sustainable Living," Professor D assigned a single long paper, in multiple sections and drafts.

On the whole, writings were short; only 22% of the documents we collected were more than four pages. As we speculate below, the preponderance of short writings, many of them informal, suggests that the message of "writing to learn" came across strongly in the faculty development workshops or that the nature of the ASEM lent itself to short writings—perhaps with some deleterious effects. In addition, faculty noted several times that our 10-week quarter complicates assigning long projects unless professors are able to scaffold them from the course outset.

The formal assignments showed a wide variety:

1. articles based on course content and research for online magazines and/or meant to explain course content by applying ideas to a hypothetical scenario for a popular readership;
2. essays that analyzed or applied a primary text from course reading
3. parodies of literary texts;
4. essays that used primary and secondary sources to generate arguments about historical events/phenomena;
5. reports that presented information to a specific (sometimes academic) audience
6. research essays for an academic audience
7. response papers summarizing, exploring, or evaluating course readings
8. personal narratives about experiences relevant to course material
9. essays that synthesized course material and research into an argument
10. short and long essays that asked students to argue or defend a position
11. creative writing, like a slam poem accompanied by a reflection

If this list suggests the range of forms that formal writing assignments took, it also hints at a variety of rhetorical situations and audiences. C, for example, asked her students to write as if they were speaking to school staff on behalf a child with a developmental problem, while D asked his to write to academics at a conference. In K's course, both major writing assignments asked students to expand their intended readership beyond the instructor; they wrote a researched feature article for an online magazine and posted weekly entries to a public blog.

To What Purposes Did Students Write?

When students were asked to write a page, they wrote a page. When students were asked to draft a formal essay, they drafted a formal essay. However, students often seemed not to write to an assigned purpose, mirroring the confusion that faculty participants also had when asked to assign each document one of the following purposes as primary:

1. Report, describe, summarize, or synthesize information, artifact(s), or reading(s)
2. Interpret, analyze, or apply information, artifact(s), or reading(s) [make and support observations about significance, meaning, assumptions, implications, constituent elements, etc.]
3. Respond to information, experience, artifacts, readings; share opinion, or evaluate based on experience [state agreement or disagreement, interest or disinterest, connection to existing/other ideas or events, etc.]
4. Argue or defend a position or action
5. Reflect on quality or features of one's own work [as in an introduction to a writing portfolio or as in a cover letter to or commentary on a project]
6. Other
7. Cannot be determined

The most commonly coded purpose (48%) was to respond to information, experience, artifacts, or readings. About 20% of the documents were found to report, describe, summarize, or synthesize; 16% were found to interpret, analyze, or apply; and 11% were found to argue or defend a position. Fewer than 1% reflected on features of one's own work, and about 5% had a purpose that the coder could not determine.

When we compared the apparent main purpose of the assignments as written with what the artifacts showed students doing, there was often a disconnect. Consider an example. Assignments in B's course consistently stipulated that "each essay will take a stance on the question" of what a range of documents revealed about a particular issue. Students were told to "argue for what you see as the primary" issue. But of the twelve student essays submitted, only one was coded as demonstrating this purpose. Eight were coded as reporting, describing, summarizing, synthesizing, and two were coded as interpreting or analyzing.

This ostensible provoked lots of discussion. The discrepancy might result from many things—students' struggle with difficult course material, students' deliberate choice to do something other than assigned, even miscoding by faculty raters. Setting aside the flaws in the categories themselves, we noted a wide variation among faculty in how they understood "analysis" or "analyze" or "argument." Faculty mean different things, depending on their disciplines, their familiarity with and preference for certain kinds of writing and research, their goals for their ASEM students. The discrepancies appeared often enough to concern faculty, many of whom returned to this theme in their written reflections.

Themes in Faculty Reflections

The reflections faculty wrote after the workshop pursued matters that had arisen while puzzling at writing from other classes and hearing colleagues puzzle about writing from their own. We have little doubt that the reflections would have taken a very different (and more limited) character had they not been preceded by the assessment activities. C put it well when she noted that "[w]hen our small group of ASEM faculty...came together to create a systematic way of defining and assessing good writing, we quickly realized that the good writing we all have in our minds is hard to capture systematically in actuality.... Through the experience of designing and teaching my first ASEM course, I realized that the picture I had in my mind of how to best teach writing to students was much harder to manifest in the classroom."

Faculty generally acknowledged important roles in teaching students to write. But, as L wrote, "[translating] these commitments to pedagogical practice and student implementation is far from obvious." Even professors who have been teaching writing-intensive courses for some time, as F noted, find it difficult "to balance teaching content with teaching writing." E, who had come into the workshop "feeling awkward" about having assigned a paper that he considered to be "lower order"—a paper that asked for synthesis of course material rather than a sustained original argument—commented that he noticed in our writing study "just how difficult even this is for some of our students, and how many of the writing assignments of others are of a similar synthetic nature, so I'm feeling a little less sheepish about the whole thing. I do believe that, in this instance, it is the right kind of paper to assign for the content I am trying to convey."

The experience of hearing colleagues talk about their assignments and their classroom practices gave faculty a wider range of pedagogical possibilities, and it reassured some of them to know that others were facing some of the same challenges that they were.

Purpose of Writing Assignments

Given the non-disciplinary focus and general education nature of these courses, we wanted to learn not just what purposes student writing addressed but also what purposes faculty saw for their students' work.

In the end, we found no real overwhelming consensus, either in the assignments as written or in faculty reflections about those assignments. Faculty noted a variety of goals: "to reflect on new and/or complex concepts"; "to "communicat[e] complex ideas, experiences, and critiques"; to "practice thinking"; to demonstrate "originality of...ideas and 'voice'". While many faculty mentioned as important accomplishing certain kinds of academic and/or analytical moves as writers or as a way to reflect mastery of course content, almost all emphasized "writing to learn" vs. "learning to write" as an important distinction in their pedagogical approaches to teaching writing in their ASEM courses.

At least five instructors talked about using assignment sequencing to move students through a series of steps, and most faculty explicitly linked assignments so that a student would need to revisit a previous assignment in constructing a new one. The goal of having students generate an argument based on evidence was reflected explicitly in nearly all the syllabi, assignments, or faculty reflections, but this work did not always take the form of academic essays. Some ASEM faculty, in fact, saw their goal not as teaching students to write better college papers but as helping students to begin transitioning from college writing to professional writing. As C noted, "the majority of students graduating from college will not continue on in academia after they graduate. They likely will not have the need (or the desire) to write a traditional research paper or literature review."

Assignment Making and the Question of Creativity

Following closely from the question of purpose was a wide interest in student engagement through new genres or forms, doing "original" work.

Some faculty expressed concern that although students improved in their critical thinking skills, the emphasis on formal analysis or conventional academic discourse might have dampened or foreclosed students' creativity or their cultivation of new ideas. For example, G observed that "one of my battles how to put more stress on creativity and originality in thought and work." She reflected that she found many of her students' writing and the writing she read in the workshop as "proficient or somewhat proficient in terms of synthesis and analysis," but that it "tend[ed] to be poor in terms of originality."

More creative formal assignments ranged from parodies of literary texts to speeches in which students assumed the role of an advocate to slam poems performed at a local open-mic event. What made assignments more "creative" had mostly to do with nonacademic genres, audiences, or purposes. We saw only three "multimodal projects," and even works that had significant digital elements (images, or links to videos, for example) were largely absent.

In the end, professors confirmed an obvious but important point: teaching writing should attend in some way to enjoyment: not just for the students but for faculty as well. J wrote that in reading about "Led Zeppelin's masculine and feminine sides..., why disco doesn't 'suck,' and how female hip hop artists can turn the tables on male rappers," he had good reading experiences and also learned something new, "a selfish, but...valid indicator of quality of student writing and learning." And L noted that in writing assignments she has "tried to live up to what I have learned over years of teaching. I enjoy reading papers that have more interesting, inviting, innovative prompts, and students often prefer writing them. Writing is better when we all enjoy ourselves along the way."

Assessment as Faculty Development

Most of the faculty reflections suggested particular ASEM teaching challenges and explored possible revisions.

Some expressed concern that their expectations might have been too high. For B, the level of difficulty of her course work remains a "nagging question." Despite her students' diligent work, "[a]bout one third of the class never quite reached the level of being able to back up their claims with evidence consistently. About another third ever could quite organize their argument around one main point, often saying the equivalent of the scatter-shot thesis."

For C, even though she worked hard to clarify her expectations for each assignment, as the course progressed, she realized that her assignment prompts and the work that they outlined was graduate-level work. She concluded that she may need to "think about how students learn to write and how to teach to the level of writing development at which they currently function."

K commented that the workshop had led her to make two important observations about her work: first that she "leans much more in the direction of 'writing to learn' than 'learning to write,'" and second that she would like to find ways to "use in-class writing to, at a minimum, teach a skill like mining evidence effectively to support an argument" or "synthesizing the insights of more than one author in a paragraph."

Several questions and issues went beyond individual classrooms: 

  • "It would be well worth a systematic assessment in the future of how writing both canalizes and crystallizes the separate 'common curriculum' goals that cluster around the relatively vague notion of critical thinking" in ASEM (H). 
  • "[I]n our June workshop it was clear that there are divergences between disciplines on what are the requirements for proficient reasoning and writing.... We may want to can we effectively engage students to go beyond disciplinary specificity and goals" (G). 
  • We should find more ways to assess writing, to "surface some interesting models that might inspire us to expand our approach or at least subject our assumptions and intentions to scrutiny" (K).


That faculty found valuable a WAC workshop focused on assessment is hardly surprising. WAC workshops have generally cultivated enthusiasm among participants, for reasons ranging from the practical ones of sharing new practices for assigning and teaching with writing to the collegial ones of catalyzing faculty conversations about teaching across campus divisions. We hope that this study contributes to the thinking about high-impact practices as a site of rich learning experiences for faculty as well as for students.

We began by noting the problem of defining what kinds of writing were most appropriate in an advanced general education course that could assume neither a common fund of disciplinary background knowledge nor a common set of experiences writing in a discipline. Faculty teaching introductory courses—whether in majors or in general education—always face this problem. However, they at least have the fallback position of preparing students for future writing: getting them ready for the next class. The Advanced Seminars at the University of Denver don't, because in a certain sense, there is none.

Perhaps the most important value underpinning the ASEM requirement is to rehearse one last time the practice of encountering new topics, issues, and problems in the way that educated people do in life outside majors, with people who don't share similar educations; we wanted to complement, very modestly, the disciplinary trajectory with a general education trajectory. If anything, ASEMs might be seen as "getting students ready" for the kinds of writing that college graduates might ideally do in their extra-disciplinary, extra-professional lives: writing as civic and social beings on matters of intellectual and social interest and import.

Hitler poster

"Democracy and the Rhetoric of Demagoguery" 

Patricia Roberts-Miller, Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, will present a talk about her research on "Democracy and the Rhetoric of Demagoguery" at 2:00 pm Friday, February 10, in the Renaissance Room of Mary Reed Hall. The lecture, which is open to the DU campus community and invited guests, will be followed by a reception. Roberts-Miller is author of four acclaimed books, including Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus and Voices in the Wilderness: The Paradox of the Puritan Public Sphere. To RSVP, please go to







chronicle of higher ed

When I came to the University of Denver to start a campus writing program in 2006, I heard many faculty members say, "A lot of my students can't even write a decent sentence." So when I read Joseph Teller making much the same assertion in an essay last fall, "Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?" I recognized hyperbole when I saw it.

My response to that sort of exaggeration 10 years ago — joined by my 20 new colleagues in the writing program — was to gather and analyze a corpus of 500,000 words of student writing from classes across the campus. We found that, in fact, well over 90 percent of the sentences coded clear and error free.

Faculty members wanted to see better student writing (and I surely acknowledged and valued that desire), but it was clear that merely fixing sentences wasn't going to achieve that end. There were larger issues: Students needed help developing and deploying their ideas and matching their writing with the expectations of various disciplines. Those things, we could work on.

Complaints about the state of student writing have a long lineage. In 1878, Adams Sherman Hill, a professor of rhetoric at Harvard, famously protested: "Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own commencements without making blunders which would disgrace a boy twelve years old." Hill and others devised pedagogies grounded in their own experiences and in common sense — though one man's common sense was another man's folly.

Teaching grounded in actual research took a scholarly turn in 1950, marked by the founding of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Its journal is now the leading one in the field. By 1963, research on what worked in teaching writing — and what didn't — had accumulated to a point that a synthesis was published, "Research in Written Composition."

Roughly 25 years later, George Hillocks conducted a new analysis (Research on Written Composition), using studies published in the intervening years. Since then, peer-reviewed research on the best ways to teach college writing has accumulated in dozens of books and well-established journals — including College Composition and Communication, Written Communication, College English, the Journal of Teaching Writing, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Composition Studies, Writing Program Administration, and the Journal of Writing Assessment, to name but a few.

A 2005 article, "The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing," analyzed why formalist approaches — like the back-to-basics kind that Professor Teller advocates — remained so popular in teaching composition, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other methods. The teaching of writing happens — or should — within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It's also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in a 1987 book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition, called teaching "lore." Lore consists of ideas and assumptions that are grounded in local experience ("what worked for me") and then passed along informally, for the most part, from one faculty member to the next. Lore is sometimes informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but more often it is not.

Teller's essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students' work, I can't judge his local experience, but I can judge how well his approach compares with the most effective national practices.

For example, his assertion, "Substantial revision doesn't happen in our courses," might speak for his own classroom, but it surely doesn't speak for mine or those of thousands of other professors. Consider his claim that students "do not use the basic argumentative structures they need." Again, while perhaps true of students in Teller's own classes, that broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, by research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field.

Where Teller departs most from actual scholarship in the discipline is his claim that "pedagogical orthodoxy" assumes that "composition courses must focus on product, not process." He could hardly be more wrong.

The two most dominant pedagogies today in college composition each focus on product as well as process. Genre approaches have students learn features that readers expect in specific kinds of writing (lab reports, op-eds, business proposals, magazine feature articles, movie reviews, and so on). Rhetorical approaches have students analyze the kinds of evidence, structure, and style that will be effective for particular purposes (for example, to persuade, inform, or entertain), for particular groups of readers (experts, novices, or people of particular viewpoints), and in particular situations. Both methods make significant use of model readings and examples.

One key to both approaches is sustained, guided practice. On that point, Teller and I surely agree. Students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, and then writing some more. What can be told to college students about writing can probably be encapsulated in a lecture of two or three hours. It parallels what meaningfully can be told about playing piano — the music notation, the relationship between notation and keyboard, the hand and finger placement, the posture, the pedal functions.

But without sustained practice on systematically more complex pieces ("Chopsticks" is not a Rachmaninoff concerto), the world's best lectures will not — cannot — make a pianist. So, too, with writing.

Here is what this looks like in the best writing courses, informed by decades of research:

  • Students have ample opportunities to write. Professors expect them to write frequently and extensively, and we demand and reward serious effort.
  • Professors carefully sequence writing tasks. The idea is progressively to expand on students' existing abilities and experiences.
  • Professors coach the process. We offer strategies and advice, encouragement and critique, formative and summative assessments.
  • Courses provide instruction and practice on all aspects of writing. Attend to the form and conventions of specific genres? Yes. Talk about creativity, invention (how to generate ideas), grammar, and style? Certainly, but also discuss things like logic and accuracy in writing, and how to fit a piece to various audience needs and expectations.
  • Courses use readings not only as context and source materials (which is vital in the academic and civic spheres) but also as models — and not only static models of form but also as maps to be decoded as to how their writers might have proceeded, why, and to what effect.
  • Professors teach key concepts about writing in order to help students consolidate and transfer skills from one writing occasion to the next. But we recognize that declarative knowledge is made significant only through practice and performance (see Bullet No. 1).
  • Student writing and student writers are the course's focus. Everything else serves those ends.

Lore is a form of knowledge in every field. In pointing to the best practices of teaching writing — indicated by extensive research in composition studies — I don't ignore the experience of individual teachers like Teller.

However, I can't let pass unchallenged general claims about the way "we" are "wrongly" teaching composition, especially when they so dramatically misrepresent, even ignore, the field they would aspire to correct.

The Writing Lunch Series  

The Writing Program offers occasional 55-minute informal workshops. Our format will be pizza and an apple at noon, followed by a 15-minute presentation of practical advice (accompanied by handouts or resources), then 25 minutes for questions or discussion.

RSVP to Lauren Salvador at 1-7448 or

Supporting Thesis, Dissertation, and Capstone Writers
Wednesday, February 15, Noon to 12:55 pm
284 Anderson Academic Commons (the Chan Room)
Led by Juli Parrish

Do you find that your graduate students--who are finished with coursework and writing their theses, dissertations, or capstone papers--still have a lot to learn about writing? How do you balance supporting their advanced research with providing the writing instruction they still need? We'll give some quick strategies for responding to dissertations and other long projects.

Getting Students Beyond Drive-by Quotation and Haphazard Summary
Thursday, March 2, Noon to 12:55 pm
284 Anderson Academic Commons (the Chan Room)
Led by Doug Hesse

So you've made an assignment that requires analyzing or synthesizing sources, but several students are unable to do anything substantial with the readings beyond stringing together summaries or quotations. What do you do? We'll provide some quick practical advice for helping students do more than haphazardly cite or share glib opinions.

 New Writing Program Faculty Bios

new faculty 201617

Three Assistant Teaching Professors joined the Writing Program Faculty in 2016-17: Libby Catchings (PhD, California-Irvine), Keith Rhodes (PhD, Nebraska), and David Riche (PhD, Louisiana State U).

After her PhD and before coming to DU, Libby Catchings was a Writing Specialist at the California Institute of Technology, where she supported undergrads and graduate students writing in STEM fields and the humanities. Her research and publications have focused the writing of imprisoned youth, genre and rhetoric, and research assemblages. She has expertise and continued interest in faculty development in writing across the curriculum and in writing centers.

Keith Rhodes has been both a Professor of English and an attorney in a law firm; as an aspect of the latter, he's taught several law courses. He has wide teaching experience, including at Grand Valley State, where he earned tenure and served as Director of Writing. He has extensive national leadership, having been on the CCC Executive Committee and having been Secretary of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. His 20 publications have appeared in a wide variety of books and top journals and have been complemented by over 40 conference talks.

David Riche taught writing at Appalachian State University after completing his PhD at LSU, where he won the Alumni Association award as Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant. His research interests, manifested in numerous presentations, include the rhetoric of hate speech and trolling, writing and game studies, multimodal writing, and writing pedagogies.