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Creating a culture of writing



The 2008-2009 TRAC Fellows and their instructors

Janice Bially Mattern, an associate professor of international relations (IR), calls herself “TRAC’s biggest cheerleader.” Bially Mattern teaches the department’s theory course, which exposes students to theories and systems that attempt to explain world politics.

Ideally, students in Bially Mattern’s course would develop and write their own theories, but whenever Bially Mattern assigned essays, she found that students needed more help organizing and structuring their ideas than she could offer. Thus, instead of papers, Bially Mattern assigned in-class exams.

After meeting with Greg Skutches, coordinator of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Program, Bially Mattern applied for the assistance of three TRAC Fellows for last fall’s theory course.

Skutches oversees the TRAC Fellows program, which hires and trains students to tutor their peers in writing. The TRAC Fellows program was introduced this year and is still in its pilot phase. Skutches will review the program at the end of the school year to seek ways of improving the program.

In Bially Mattern’s estimation, the TRAC Fellows program has been wildly successful. “The program changed what was possible for me to teach in this course,” she says.

In lieu of exams, Bially Mattern assigned three essays, two of which were reviewed by TRAC Fellows. After reading the first drafts, TRAC Fellows scheduled meetings to coach students through the writing process. Bially Mattern received the second drafts.

Bially Mattern was astounded by the resulting essays. Rather than spending her time deciphering unclear writing, she could easily understand their meaning and was could concentrate on constructively engaging her students’ arguments. To her delight, even the essays that were not reviewed by TRAC Fellows, for the most part maintained a high quality of writing.

“The students not only learned the material, they could use writing to manipulate it intellectually,” she says.

Writing for all disciplines

Skutches and other proponents of the TRAC Fellows program hope it will create a “culture of writing” where students recognize that people in all disciplines need to write to succeed.

Engineers, for instance, compose lab reports, research papers and proposals, and they must simplify technical information in memos and executive summaries. In their personal lives, they may maintain blogs, write Twitter messages and send emails.

“Any engineer knows that you’re not doing any engineering if you’re not doing any writing,” Skutches says.

However, the language and style of an engineer’s memo will not mirror those used in a psychologist’s research paper and neither of them will resemble an email’s casual style.

“Each discipline has its own set of communication and discourse conventions students must learn,” Skutches says, drawing from his professional experience. Skutches worked in both science and business before he earned his doctorate in English at Lehigh. He then taught first-year composition at De Sales University until returning in 2006 as coordinator of WAC.

The TRAC Fellows program and WAC are part of the faculty development program in the Library and Technology Service (LTS). Greg Reihman directs faculty development and is the co-director of the Lehigh Lab and an adjunct professor of philosophy.

Skutches believes that faculty members who are immersed in their disciplines’ discourses are the best writing instructors. But teaching writing is time consuming, and professors are inundated with other tasks—research, service to the university and teaching course content—that take precedence.

Skutches and Reihman hope to help faculty incorporate writing into their courses through the TRAC Fellows Program. Peer tutors can solve common problems, such as writer’s block, and help students develop their own writing process. The faculty member may then concentrate on teaching the intricacies of his discipline’s discourse.

Reihman says the program may improve teaching as much as student writing, because a TRAC Fellow can offer a student's perspective on the writing assignments before the assignment is distributed to students in the class.

For example, some fellows have helped faculty members see how students might misinterpret an assignment and others have suggested small modifications to the assignment that helped prompt students to engage in the kinds of thinking and learning the professor was hoping to elicit. According to Reihman, participating faculty have already reported that talking about their course goals and their assignment with a trained fellow has helped them design better assignments and think about student learning in new ways.

Each TRAC Fellow is assigned to one course a semester. At the beginning of the year, TRAC fellows meet with their assigned professor to discuss his goals. Bially Mattern, for example, was less concerned about comma splices than she was about her students being able to construct a paragraph.
Later, TRAC Fellows may lead recitations, hold conferences or offer office hours to coach students through the writing process. In nearly all cases, they critique students’ first drafts.

TRAC Fellows are not equivalent to teaching assistants. They do not grade papers, nor can they provide the “right answers.” But they do help the students express their thoughts in type, which was particularly helpful to Sonia Lurie ’09.

Last semester, Lurie studied economic development in a course taught by Stephen Snyder, assistant professor of economics. Stephen Wentz ’09, a finance major, was a TRAC Fellow for the course.

Lurie says Wentz helped her write a focused thesis statement and identify supporting arguments.

“He was well trained to point out the necessary components of a paper,” she says.

TRAC Fellows are taught the basics of a good paper and different writing methods in a four-credit course, which they took last fall while serving as fellows. “It was a very-learn-as-you-go process,” says Wentz.

Faculty from several of the colleges and LTS staff taught the course. Unlike many peer writing programs, they taught TRAC (Technology, Research and Communication) Fellows to use technological aids and the library’s databases.

“Initially, people thought we were throwing too much together (by combining writing with technology and research), but our feeling was we were simply healing something that shouldn’t have been separated in the first place,” says Skutches.

Traditionally trained writing tutors know when an argument needs to be buttressed with further information, but they cannot help the student find the data they need. TRAC Fellows can direct students to appropriate databases and resources.

TRAC Fellows may be nominated by faculty, staff and students or they may apply independent of a nomination. Afterwards, they complete a rigorous application process. Last fall, 155 students were nominated, 34 interviewed and 15 selected. This spring, new fellows have been added to expand the program and replace those studying abroad.

The TRAC application process for the 2009-2010 school year has begun.

Ana Alexandrescu ’10, an information systems engineering major, learned English as a second language in Romania. When Alexandrescu was nominated to be a TRAC Fellow, she completed an application to test her own writing ability and to help others.

“My objective was twofold. One was for me to develop as a writer, because I believe that by teaching, you learn the information better. Also, I wanted to use all I know from my struggles with learning to write to help others,” says Alexandrescu, who is currently a fellow for a materials science course.

Story by Becky Straw

Posted on Monday, February 16, 2009

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