The Role of Writing in Our Courses

The Role of Writing in Our Courses

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.


“[Writing] assignments are for riding herd. They’re for making sure students are doing the reading and paying attention to lectures and for distinguishing students from one another by ranking them. Which is of course why so many college teachers speak of “correcting” or “grading” student papers rather than of “reading” them.

-- Gordon Harvey, Associate Director of Expository Writing at Harvard, “Asking for It: Imagining the Role of Student Writing,” 2003 Conference on College Composition and Communication.

I like this passage from Gordon Harvey because it causes us to pause and think about what it might mean if we were first to read our students’ writing rather than to immediately evaluate it. What difference could this make? Could it help us re-think how and why we use writing in our courses?

What Harvey does next, however, is not what you might expect. Since we can accomplish the same goals with pop quizzes, he bluntly asks: “Why not simply abolish writing assignments?” It is not a rhetorical question. He genuinely wants to explore the purpose of writing assignments, especially given the widespread negative attitude they so often engender:

Most students hate doing them, do them only at the last minute, and care more about the grade than about our painstaking responses, which sometimes take longer to write than the papers themselves. And teachers hate grading them. Judged by any honest measure, most student essays to which we give Bs are vacuous, bored, and (read in quantity) soul-killing. Even as we jot our pert, fair-minded notations in the margin – “could be clearer; develop”—we are really thinking “What are you talking about? Why are doing this to me?” When we come across a hint of a suggestion of an idea, we fall over ourselves to congratulate “a fine insight,” which insight we hungrily fill out and clarify even as we congratulate the student for having it.

I won’t summarize or quote his entire article here—it’s too entertaining a read!—but I do want to pull out a few key points that I thought were especially fruitful springboards for thinking about the use of writing in our classes. (If you would like to read it in full, please email me and I will send you the pdf file.)

Harvey skillfully pulls in his readers only to challenge them with three additional questions. The most important effect of his strategy is to get us thinking about our teaching from the perspective of our students and their learning. What do we actually want our students to know and be able to do when they leave our course? By thinking about our intended outcomes, we have to think about our methods for accomplishing them. This, in a nutshell, is what Harvey calls our “instructional imagination,” and his article is a rigorous workout for our minds.

Rather than emphasizing the importance of clear and appropriate assignments (although he does do this in an insightful way), he also discusses how we have to think about the role of writing in the course as a whole, and how we need to integrate our lectures and presentations with our assignments in a sequential, skill-building way. The main problem, he feels, is that we too often expect our students already to know how to do the intellectual moves we expect in papers, even though we haven’t really made them explicit in our course. This excerpt captures how Harvey envisions one way of addressing this problem:

[Professor X] has thought a lot about his lectures but never about how they might work with the writing assignments. He has thought a lot about his work for the course, that is, but little about his students’ work. . . . To be helpful to students in their work, X might sometimes pause in his lectures to explicitly model some operation that students will need to do in their writing. “Notice,” he might say, “that this is how, for texts of the particular sort we are studying, one locates key passages or hot spots” or “sets up an overarching problem to grapple with” or “reads a passage through the lens of a theoretical idea” or “brings to bear a piece of historical information” or “works with a conflict in the commentary” or “constructs an argument that acknowledges complexity or gray areas.”

This gives you the flavor of Harvey’s approach, and there are many other suggestions in his article. Although he doesn’t use this term, Harvey is talking about seeing students as “apprentice writers” and re-seeing our role as teacher-coach or teacher-mentor. It does put a different spin on our relationship with students, and might encourage new ways of thinking about those dreaded papers.

Here are two especially good resources for flexing your instructional imagination:

· A list of write-to-learn activities from the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse at Colorado State University:

· An online faculty binder from the University of Richmond; sections III, IV, and V contain detailed examples of assignments: