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Writing Program History

In the 1980s, the English Department offered three courses—developmental, first-year composition, and research writing—respectively numbered 15, 16, and 17. In 1990, in recognition of an increase in underprepared students and inadequate reading instruction both in the existing composition courses and elsewhere on campus, a 12-credit, thematically rich, basic reading and writing sequence was created, inspired by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky’s oft-cited book, Facts, Counterfacts, and Artifacts. Adapting their Pittsburgh-University model to the LIU Brooklyn campus, the first course took “other voices” as its theme, and used the then newly republished Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet Wilson, and In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Carol Gilligan’s pioneering study of women’s psychological and moral development, as a portal to and from our students’ diverse voices.

Approved by the LIU Brooklyn Faculty Senate in 1990, the new program replaced English 15 and nine credits of developmental reading instruction taught in another department with two six-credit reading and writing courses (English 13 and 14). The courses had broad themes of identity and environment, respectively, and elaborate standard syllabi that instructors had to teach for at least one semester, along with custom readers and four to five whole texts. External reviewers from the Council of Writing Program Administrators said in 1993 that our program, rather than merely reproduce Pittsburgh’s, had forged a new “LIU model.” We had consciously appropriated the theory and method outlined by Bartholomae and Petrosky to meet the needs of our more ethnically and racially diverse, working-class, first-generation college students.

To launch the program meant hiring literally dozens of new part-time faculty, many from nearby doctoral programs, to staff both course sections and a four-hour workshop attached to the course to immerse underprepared students in reading and writing. The workshop not only extended the hours that students spent in class from six to ten per week but also became a conduit for prospective teachers to gain experience and often go on to teach the course themselves. This influx of new teachers into the department helped build a sense of community and dialogue as we strove to implement the new courses, along with a new philosophy and a challenging set of methods. Faculty development workshops with thirty or forty instructors became forums for genuinely lively discussions about the theory and practice of teaching writing, and many workshop and course instructors went on to enroll in our Master’s program and/or become veteran teachers in the Writing Program, some on full-time, tenure-track or non-tenure track lines, others as committed part-time teachers.

Throughout that decade, the main focus of curriculum development was on English 13 and 14; English 16 remained more or less static with the exception of introducing the portfolio system of evaluation, which eventually became a requirement for all the courses except the research paper course, English 17. While there was some innovative work in course design in English 16 and 17 over the years, it was piecemeal, the result of individual instructors’ participation in campus-wide Pew and NEH grants for faculty development rather than systematic program revision.

In the spring of 2000, after years of discussion and planning, the LIU Brooklyn Faculty Senate approved a revised core curriculum that resulted in the elimination of English 17 and the creation of Core Seminar 50, an interdisciplinary course taught by faculty cohorts across the disciplines. This major restructuring of the core also specified the creation of a fully staffed Writing Across the Curriculum Program and writing-intensive requirements in the major. At the same time, unrelated changes in the Writing Program decreased the cohesiveness and integrity of the composition sequence. These changes included a campus-level administrative decision to allow students to register for 14 as well as 13*, the elimination of the workshop, a reduction of credits students received from six to three (although the six-hour class period and workload for faculty remain in effect), a decrease in the number of adjunct instructors, greater stability among both part- and full-time faculty, and a rapid turnover of directors from 1998 to 2006.

By then, when we met in portfolio groups at the end of the semester, it was clear that we weren’t all teaching the same course, meeting the same standards, or achieving the same goals. There was diminishing comparability across classes, a necessity for service courses, often with as many as twenty sections running concurrently. After several years of discussion in committee and in the department, which made clear that faculty saw any standardized themes or course content as an infringement of academic freedom, the Writing Program Committee proposed a set of curriculum guidelines that articulate the mission, philosophy and goals, and outcomes of each course. These are the statements of purpose and delineations of goals and methods that form the basis of the program today. They represent not only a clearer conception of the specific goals and outcomes of each level of instruction but also how each course feeds into the next one, and how the composition sequence as a whole prepares students for Core Seminar, core literature and writing-intensive courses, and the demands of academic writing in general.

Additionally, in response to a perception across campus that instruction in research skills had fallen through the cracks of the new core approved in 2000, we aim with our current guidelines to integrate research instruction into the composition sequence, culminating in the production of a research essay in English 16. Although this new requirement in English 16 is the most substantive change to the writing courses with respect to research, the new guidelines also provide for a gradual introduction in English 13 and 14 of associated skills of summary, paraphrase, quotation, and documentation of sources drawn on to support a thesis. With the support of library faculty, we have embarked on a new library partnership in which two library visits are mandatory for all English 16 classes to support the research essay. Eventually, we will also require one visit for English 14 classes to introduce library use and research skills in a meaningful way early on; and English 13 and 14 instructors are encouraged to arrange visits on their own.

If there is an overarching philosophy of the Writing Program, it is eclectic and utilitarian rather than fastened on any one method or theory of communication, language, or instruction. However, there are some agreed upon, underlying principles that guide us:

(1) language acquisition, production, and reception are socially and culturally rooted in primary and secondary discourses that account for wide variations of dialect and competence that may bear on academic performance and require us as teachers

  • to respect linguistic differences and the close relationship between language and identity; and
  • to foster students’ ability to gain competence in multiple secondary discourses;

(2) writing is a process that unfolds over

  • multiple drafts, best enabled by rich responses from teachers, peers, tutors, and other readers, and
  • over time in personal growth and educational, work, and life experience;

(3) reading and writing are interconnected;**

(4) reading and writing are tools for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating;

(5) knowledge and practice of grammar, syntax, and conventions are integral to writing instruction but not necessarily indicative of student’s capacity or talent; and

(6) learning to read and write texts in electronic environments is an essential aspect of literacy in the 21st century.

* Initially, students who placed into basic reading and writing were required to enroll in English 13. The program was conceived as a 12-credit sequence to give students maximum opportunities to develop college-level literacy skills. Students who did exceptionally well in 13 were invited to take a 14 exemption exam (for which they retook the placement test and were placed “blind” along with incoming students into 14 or 16; they could not be demoted even if they placed into 13). English 13 students may still take the exemption exam but the majority of first-year students now place into 14.

** In 2009, in recognition of the need among many LIU-Brooklyn students for intensive focus on reading skills and the crucial role of reading in academic success, we embarked on a multi-year study of reading proficiency to develop “best practices” in reading instruction.

--Professor Deborah Mutnick, English Department