In late March 2009, the WAC Steering Committee invited undergraduates to respond to a broadly imagined survey about their writing experiences at SUNY Oswego. We wanted to know about their attitudes about writing, how much and what sorts of writing they were doing in their classes, what sorts of responses they received from faculty on their written work, how they valued the writing they did in their coursework, and what their impressions of the Writing Center were. Overall, we found the results encouraging in some ways, but uneven: while some students seem to have had very strong experiences with writing on campus and to consider it a vital part of a larger intellectual life, others respondents clearly did not. While it seems likely, moreover, that the Writing Across the Curriculum requirement has made some difference in the overall amount of writing done in coursework, many of the same issues that WAC was created to address still seem to be in place.
We received what we take to have been a fairly strong response to our survey, reasonably distributed in most demographic terms. 382 valid responses came from students in thirty-seven majors representing each class level in generally healthy numbers. Roughly 17% of respondents were first-year students, 16% were sophomores, 30% were juniors, and 37% were seniors. More than two-thirds of respondents reported having finished at least three semesters at SUNY Oswego, so we felt as if they’d had reasonably substantial experiences with writing on campus. A few majors were represented more heavily than others, particularly Psychology and Technology Education, and female respondents outnumbered males almost two to one, but we didn’t imagine that these asymmetries likely compromised the results significantly.
Our only real worry about the sample had to do with grade-point average: the vast majority of respondents reported grade-point averages of A or B. Indeed, only 31 of 372 respondents who answered the question reported gpa’s of 2.5 or lower. 92 respondents reported gpa’s between 2.6 and 3, and 191 reported gpa’s above 3.0. Of course, these numbers were self-reported, but we believe that the survey responses likely reflected the thoughts and experiences of successful students much more fully than the thoughts and experiences of those who struggle.
Though it was difficult to determine with certainty, it appeared that at least 40% of the respondents had not taken ENG 102 at SUNY Oswego, either transferring in credit for the course from another college or, presumably, qualifying for exemption on the basis of AP or CLEP scores. (In total, 154 of the 383 respondents said they hadn’t taken ENG 102 – 35 first year students and 119 transfers – though 40% is likely a conservative figure here since we neglected to ask if upper-division students who’d done their first year at Oswego had taken 102 or exempted on the basis of advanced placement.)
Only 15% reported participating in extra-curricular activities that require writing. Most of these involved journalism of some sort, though some reported writing recreationally or as part of a writer’s group.
While courses involving students’ “most significant writing experiences” seemed broadly distributed across the curriculum, the responses also suggested that courses involving what students deemed “significant writing assignments” were still generally in the minority. Exams incorporating essays or written responses were somewhat more common than papers, but only about 43% reported taking five or more courses in the past two semesters that involved “significant writing assignments,” and 23% reported having taken two or fewer such courses.
Research papers, various professional forms related to majors, informal reflections in journals, and in-class assignments were the most commonly assigned genres. Persuasive writing and creative writing were much less commonly reported. We were struck that while 80% of students said they often or sometimes write research papers, 55% said they rarely or never write “persuasive papers.” (Though it’s difficult to know for sure what they connect with these genres, we wondered if they wrote with less agency, less as the makers of claims, than we might hope.) Most papers were reported to be between 1 and 10 pages, especially in the 2-3 page range, with very few assignments of greater than 10 pages.
Reported faculty feedback on student writing was very encouraging: overwhelmingly, students reported that faculty had provided “timely,” “substantial,” and “helpful” responses to their written work either often or sometimes. Very few students reported that they rarely or never received this kind of feedback – though of the three qualifiers, the response was least emphatic about the substance of faculty comments. This reservation seemed to us confirmed in the ways students characterized the sorts of feedback faculty gave them: 35% identified “spelling and grammar” as the primary focus of faculty response, far more than “content” (24%) and almost twice as many as “organization and coherence” (18%).
Similarly encouraging was the reported frequency of opportunities for instructor-led revision: more than 70% of respondents said they “could…submit drafts and revise [their] writing based on faculty feedback” often (24.7%) or sometimes (45.8%).
Students also seemed generally quite cognizant of the importance granted to writing in college and professional life: 83% said they found it very important for college, and 72% said they expected it to be very important in their careers.
44% of respondents said they knew where the Writing Center was located, and 25% of those who knew where it was reported having been there – 37 out of 383 respondents. Encouragingly, those who’ve been there seem overwhelmingly to value the service: 87% said they were either satisfied or very satisfied. Only one said he/she was “dissatisfied” without qualification.
Their descriptions of the work done there, though, sounded somewhat limited. In response to the question “Can you describe your experience there [in the Writing Center]? What aspect of your work did they help you with?,” some students mentioned work on conceptual and rhetorical issues (“they helped reorganize my structure and advise on how to expand elements that I didn’t at first see as important”), but most focused on grammar, spelling, and organization, which they often generalized as “proofreading:”
“I’ve just had people proofread my papers before I turn them in to make sure that there are no grammatical errors and that everything flows well.”
“They helped and revised my spelling, grammar, and organization…”
Interestingly, this seemed connected to the reasons respondents gave for not having visited the Writing Center. In response to a question about why they hadn’t visited, these students responded overwhelmingly that they didn’t need help and seemed to imagine the work done in the Center as fundamentally remedial:
“I’m an English Major! I don’t need help with the writing process, and I’m fine with grammar.”
“Because I have friends that will edit for me.”
“My writing has never been so awful, that I though I should.”
Penfield Library and the Campus Center were easily the winners when students were asked about alternative or additional locations for the Writing Center: 80% said they were very likely or somewhat likely to visit the Center if it were relocated in Penfield, 69% in the Campus Center. 5-9 pm was overwhelmingly the most popular alternate time slot for expanded Writing Center hours.
We concluded the survey with two questions that spoke to the larger goals of writing across the curriculum: (1) asking students to write thoughtfully, as a mode of learning rather than simply recording or communicating content, and (2) cultivating students’ awareness and mastery of the conventions of discourse in their given fields.
Response to the first question was deeply divided, with about half the responses being very positive and half very negative about the intellectual substance of the written work they were asked to do. Negative responses included:
“I don’t think teachers want us to think when we write. They just want papers in which we spit the facts we have learned back at them.”
“In most of my classes (throughout college – including Oswego) the writing assignments seem to be more busy work than productive learning exercises. Writing is a crucial part of communication that is necessary regardless of major – and I think it is also one of the main weaknesses of college graduates. Professors should incorporate better writing assignments into their curriculum for the benefit of their students…”
“I am hardly ever expected to write thoughtfully in my classes. I am always asked to summarize information presented in class and hardly ever asked to develop my own ideas.”
“Robots are more thoughtful in their response.”
Other responses were strongly affirmative:
“The information I am generally asked to present is anything BUT a summary of what we learn. Most courses ask [me] to develop my own ideas and use supporting material to back it up.”
“VERY thoughtfully – and this has been AWESOME since coming to school at oswego. In high school, we were always told to write so structured, 'reign in!' and this year, my teachers have told me ‘write what you want! write what you think! draw on your papers if you want. use your voice.’ and it is awesome, I feel like i FINALLY can write about what i want and not be criticized for being too creative.”
“I think I am expected to write thoughtfully in every class.”
“I would say most of the writing I have done so far has been making my own claims. Most of it is very thoughtful, and I am asked to support what I claim with other information.”
Responses to the second question, about developing “a sense of what it means to write in your major, as a member of your discipline,” were much less divided. Overwhelmingly, students said they felt prepared to write in the languages and forms of their disciplines. The following were typical comments:
“yes. Being a pr major I’m required to do a lot of writing for press releases , etc. and I understand how to write them and what they should contain.”
“Oh yes, anyone who has taken a linguistics course…knows how to write like a linguist!”
“Yes, as a Journalist I feel like JLM 209 really prepared me for interviewing and reporting, and being able to write a thorough report and interview.”
“I do feel I have a sense of what it means to write in my major, both in Education and in English, as well as identifying the differences and difficulties in each.”
It should be understood that our Spring 2009 survey was preliminary in at least two senses: it was motivated by a broad curiosity about students’ writing experiences but designed without a clear sense of what we hoped to learn, and it followed no previous survey with which to establish benchmarks for interpreting our results. Still, we believe that the results raise some important questions and suggest a few significant themes and potential priorities for the Writing Across the Curriculum Program in the future. These include:
Writing and Critical Thinking – Though writing is clearly not a universal experience in undergraduate coursework, with nearly one-fourth of students writing “significantly” in two or fewer courses an academic year (roughly the number of courses included in their writing plans), most students responding to the survey seem to write with a reasonable degree of frequency in their courses. Less apparent, however, is how often this writing is done with a sense of intellectual purpose or agency. Four out of every five students reported writing research papers or writing in professional genres related to their majors regularly, but significantly fewer reported work in “persuasive” forms (a category we believe respondents likely connected with claims-making generally). Students’ own comments on the purposefulness of assigned writing seemed even clearer and less ambiguous: a large number were adamant about the routinized and even anti-intellectual nature of the written work they were asked to do (a number which we believe would almost certainly be even higher if less successful and engaged students were represented in more proportionate numbers in our sample). In short: most of our students seem to write regularly and to recognize generic and disciplinary difference, but it’s not at all clear that they are all challenged very frequently to write in thoughtful or exploratory ways.
A Full and Nuanced Concept of Writing – While we by no means discount the significance of technical control or sentence-level fluency, we also believe that “writing” is wrongly imagined a phenomenon wholly of the sentence by many on campus and that this too often leads to understanding instruction in writing as a form of sentence-level remediation. Students responding to the survey connected work in the Writing Center almost wholly to grammar and mechanics, whether they’d visited it or not, and most reported the same issues as primary in instructor feedback – a mode of response with which they generally seemed satisfied. We believe that what counts as “writing” can be usefully complicated on all sides, for students, for faculty, and for the Writing Center.
Developing the Writing Center – We were struck by how universally and how strongly students who’d used the Writing Center testified to its value: the survey showed almost no dissatisfied tutees. This strongly reaffirmed our longstanding sense of the importance of tutorial support in writing to both the success of WAC and in the larger project of building a culture of writing on campus, a sense which seems to be shared by faculty across campus generally.
ENG 102 Exemption Policy – ENG 102 is always imagined the starting point of the Writing Across the Curriculum program, providing a foundation on which for WAC courses to build. But the course seems to be a much less universal experience for our students than most on campus assume, since students frequently arrive with advanced placement or transfer credit that satisfies the 102 requirement. We believe that it might be useful to more closely examine the experiences that qualify students for exemption as well as the general policy on exemption from first-year writing.
Staffing in WAC Courses – Though none of the data spoke to the issue of staffing directly, our conversations on the survey results led us back to a familiar discussion of the material pressures on the teaching of writing in higher education, particularly in terms of the reliance on temporary faculty to teach many WAC courses. As such, we worry among other things that some faculty teaching WAC courses – especially those hired on a temporary basis near the beginning of a new semester – may not be aware of what WAC courses involve or, in some cases, whether or not given courses are even included in writing plans.