Core Values of the University Writing Program

Core Value 1: Student-Centered Classrooms

Student writing constitutes the principal activity of our courses.
A student-centered classroom calls us to listen to our students, learn from their readings of texts, and pay attention to misunderstandings that often come up. Often these misunderstandings (wait you thought the author was a man–it was really a woman!) lead the entire classroom to a learning experience. In general, taking the time to slow things down, and ask students to articulate the reasons behind their positions, including their errors in their writing, can produce exciting learning moments in a classroom, for both the student and the teacher.

It is important to note that this is very different than the view of education that sees students as repositories into which knowledge is dumped by teachers and institutions, or as Paulo Freire puts it, “the banking concept of education.’ Our students come to the classroom not as empty receptacles to be filled, but as individuals with their own knowledge and background that can be drawn on to foster better writing practices.

Our writing classrooms provide a space for writers to approach their writing and their own and peers’ choices in writing as intellectual projects. We encourage students to experience how their own written work happens in a material, historical context that not only shapes that work, but limits it. This is the reason why the most important course texts are those authored and peer-reviewed by the students.

 “From the outset, [the teacher’s] efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students. In their relations to with them.’

For more on this, see Paulo Freire’s “The Banking Concept‘ from  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Core Value 2: Rhetorically-Based Inquiry

Our classrooms pose rhetorical problems for writers to solve or complicate.

Rhetoric as a concept, at times, is used pejoratively. People may say “empty rhetoric’ or “just rhetoric.’ IA Richards’, a 20th Century American Rhetorician, in  Philosophy of Rhetoric  defines it as the study of misunderstandings and its remedies. Rhetoric is language and how language shifts and changes in different contexts because of how people  use  language. The study of rhetoric is more than persuasive techniques or strategies–rhetoric is how people enact identity and meaning. In our classrooms, we aim to study rhetorical problems and the ways that rhetorical choices come to bear on the lives of real people.

In one teacher’s classroom, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail’ was discussed. Before the activity, the teacher asked her students to translate a previous journal entrythey wrote to a text message to someone particular. In another classroom, a teacher had cut up paragraphs from an essay, assigned students to groups, and asked each group to rearrange the paragraphs. When the time came for groups to share what they found, his students were engaged in discussing the decisions they made about the arrangement, why there were differences, and how it got them thinking about their own paragraph order differently. In yet another classroom, a teacher brought in a wide sample of texts, ranging from an NBA history told by former players, the  Culinary Institute’s Book of Soups, the 9/11  Commission Report, and David Macaulay’s  The Way Things Work. He then asked students to determine in groups what makes each of these texts successful and effective.

Core Value 3: Critical Awareness

We foster with our students awareness of risk taking in their daily writing lives.
In  How We Think, education scholar John Dewey presents educators with a forked road situation as a metaphor for critical thinking. For Dewey, being critical is an active position, a choice that comes out of a process of observation and analysis. He calls us to recognize that to be critical, one has to consider more than one route and understand the important differences between routes, as well as have a reason for choosing one over another. Additionally, we must be able to recognize that on another day, with different circumstances, another route may have been chosen.

As a writing center tutor, I was working with a student studying to become an engineer. He was also an ESL writer who wanted help with precise language, as he was very excited about an equation he had discovered for “projectile accuracy.’ I asked him what that meant–was he talking about bombs? His face fell, and I could tell the application of his formula upset him. Our session changed from correcting language to using it as a resource. Together, we located an appropriate place in his professional paper where he could address the application of his formula in a manner that affirmed his values about war. This interaction was very different than what was expected. Instead of discussing formulas, accuracy, and the organization of his paper, we looked at another problem, a more macro problem, which was the application of the ideas presented. As a writing program, we aim to challenge students to think critically not only about the grammar and organization of their writing, but the relevance and consequences of what they are writing in a larger context.

In the “Banking Concept of Education,’ scholar and activist Paulo Freire presents this distinction in terms of the difference it makes between memorizing “the capital of Pará is Belim’ versus perceiving “what Belim means for Pará and what Pará means for Brazil.’ This is the difference between a student memorizing a rule and a student engaging deeply with their learning to make and perceive meaning. It is this latter sort of critical thinking and meaning making that our program values.

“Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry.’

For more on John Dewey’s educational philosophies, see  How We Think