Southwestern University faculty to train for writing instruction

Yvonne Marquez

The Department of Rhetoric and Writing at UT will help revamp Southwestern University’s writing program, thanks to a $720,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The grant will allow Southwestern, a liberal arts college in Georgetown with 1,300 students, to hire two postdoctoral fellows from UT each year, starting in fall 2011, for four years to focus on disciplinary writing with the faculty. All faculty will learn how to teach writing instead of just English faculty, said John McCann, Southwestern assistant dean for faculty development.

“For years, the model for teaching students how to write has been housed in college composition classes in English departments, and increasingly, people have been pushing for a ‘writing-in-the-disciplines’ approach, which means focusing on writing in all departments,” McCann said.

College faculty learn how to teach by doing it in their first job, McCann said. He said Southwestern faculty really wanted some kind of help on how to approach writing in their disciplines.

“When we switched to [writing in the disciplines], a lot of anxiety emerged from faculty, that they felt uncomfortable teaching writing, as it was not in what they were trained in,” McCann said.

Southwestern sociology professor Edward Kain said students have to take a research methods class leading up to their senior year “capstone project” courses in which they write a graduate-like research paper. He said these courses help students develop skills for the corporate world.

“This grant will hopefully help us think about it more across the curriculum, more than just those two courses that will help us fine-tune what we do in those courses but help us think about building it in systematically in all of our courses,” Kain said.

Rhetoric and writing associate professor Mark Longaker, who will mentor the fellows, said one aspect that challenges students when writing is mastering the content and being able to communicate it in a particular genre.

“Students have to learn about the culture in that discipline by understanding how people in that discipline communicate with one another,” Longaker said. “They also have to learn whatever writing style is peculiar to that discipline.”

Longaker said UT has a unique opportunity to help another university — the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at UT is rare, since there are not many colleges with a whole department dedicated to writing instruction.

“They have a dedicated faculty and do a good job, but since we have the faculty that is particularly interested in writing instruction, I think this partnership gives us a chance to help them in an area where they might not be as strong as they would like to be,” Longaker said.