Critical Writing seminars

Overview and Goals of the Critical Writing Program

The Critical Writing Seminars are innovative, discipline- and genre-based courses organized around a specific scholarly inquiry or debate. Our curriculum reflects current research in writing studies, including our own research on knowledge transfer and on writing in the STEM fields. Seminars are taught by full-time faculty, chosen for their distinguished teaching and the breadth of disciplines they represent. While a few hold terminal degrees in writing (MFA in Creative Writing, MA in Journalism), the great majority are PhDs from nearly 25 disciplines, from anthropology, art history, classical studies, and rhetoric, to cognitive neuroscience, global medicine, poetry, and political science. All new faculty are given considerable mentorship and substantial training in rhetoric and writing in the disciplines and writing pedagogy. Faculty regularly participate in professional development opportunities and maintain, along with their primary commitment to teaching excellence, active research and writing agendas.

Our curriculum is constantly evolving in response to new findings, new writing demands, and new students. Predicated on deep engagement with disciplinary approaches to knowing, each seminar is organized around a specific scholarly debate or line of inquiry. Students are thus immediately introduced to academic writing and deeply immersed in how scholarly communities work. Guided by scholars, they learn how to read and integrate scholarly texts into their own thinking and writing, a skill widely appreciated by the students as preparation for their other courses but also, by semester’s end, preparation for lifelong research and learning. In the second half of the semester, the curriculum turns to how to write for a public audience, so that students are given practice in writing in more than one voice, genre, and style.

Our seminars are kept to 12-16 students, giving them an opportunity to get to know each other. Many students go on to enjoy enduring friendships they first forged in their writing seminars. While each seminar explores a particular topic and disciplinary field, all seminars share the same schedule of writing assignments, providing all of our students common ground in terms of shared concepts and vocabulary, as well as guaranteeing that many of their fellow residents can provide feedback and support, which amplifies intellectual connections as well as creates additional opportunities to meet others. With this strong base of shared knowledge and practice, our students grow comfortable exchanging their work with each other and seeking feedback on their writing, even after they have left Penn.

Our curriculum provides extensive practice and fosters the kinds of knowledge needed by writers to adapt to new writing situations through such techniques as collaborative problem-solving, prompted self-explanation, peer review, and dialogue. Instructors teach a common writing curriculum that they integrate with their individual topics, readings, and scholarly conventions (types of evidence, genres, etc.), making each seminar a unique experience but one with elements common across the program. The first part of the seminar focuses on an introduction to academic/scholarly writing and introduces a network of active concepts: the course topic and discourse community; strategies of reasoning; fundamentals of rhetoric (genre, audience, purpose); reading and writing like a rhetor; collaborative learning and decision-making; peer review; and the writing process. The second part shifts to writing for non-academic audiences, including the use of digital media, as well as writing for the public versus the private sector. It builds upon the concepts and practices taught in the first half while teaching them how to be flexible and adaptive to new audiences, genres, and styles. Throughout, students continue to immerse themselves in an advanced research project based on the topic. Guided by the instructor and a librarian assigned to the course, students learn the fundamentals of scholarly research (e.g., Boolean searches, subject-specific databases, keyword and known-item searching) as they develop their own knowledge through analysis and complex synthesis of sources. They end the course with strong preparation for the writing demands they will encounter at Penn and thereafter.

Creative thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving are at the heart of the curriculum. Research is also emphasized, and, along with source- and library-based work, includes learning about the positions, beliefs, values, situations and knowledge of others. This rigorous rhetorical demand gives them substantial skill-building in empathy and judicious interpretation, and promotes inter- and intra-personal development. Students are also taught how to identify and evaluate the soundness of their own and others’ reasoning, with the goal not only of engaging in higher order reasoning but also cultivating the ability to share it with others as citizens, colleagues, and members of diverse communities. Our aim is for students to transfer easily the skills and knowledge they acquire in the seminars to the many new writing situations they will encounter at Penn and beyond.

All undergraduates are required to earn a C- or better in the course as well as in a final portfolio assessment performed by the student’s writing instructor and one or more outside readers drawn from the writing faculty and administration. The coursework grade is based on students’ demonstrated knowledge of the fundamentals of writing and participation in a discourse community: knowledge of topic, rhetoric, genres, and writing process, as briefly outlined above. The portfolio grade, in turn, is contingent on students’ demonstrated competence in the following areas: subject knowledge; reasoning; genre; invention; rhetoric; and presentation, this latter including such secondary features of writing as grammar, mechanics, concision, formatting, and citation practices.

The Critical Writing Program engages in a range of formative assessment strategies that inform students about their progress and aid them as they develop as writers, readers, and critical thinkers. In turn, all assessment strategies are also tools for assessing what students already know and still must learn, as well as the effectiveness of our individual and programmatic pedagogical approaches.

Assessment strategies include periodic timed essays designed to improve students’ ability to write quickly, well, and thoughtfully in time-sensitive situations, whether college essay tests or professional emails or texts. Other strategies include self-directed placement and ongoing “self-scripts” that help students and their instructors identify the level of metacognition—what the students already understand about elements of reading and writing at advanced levels—that research suggests is fundamental to transferring what they learn in the writing seminar to new writing situations. We provide detailed rubrics and extensive training of instructors and students alike in how to assess writing so that evaluation is as transparent as possible but also so that students, like their professors, have internalized how to assess writing, which leads to greater independence and autonomous judgment. Along with self-assessment scripts and strategies, a central element of our curriculum is peer review. Throughout the semester, using the same criteria of assessment as their instructors, students regularly review their peers’ work, further contributing to their comfort with sharing their work, advancing their own understanding of what constitutes effective writing, and providing each other with an expanded and challenging audience that reaches beyond always writing to their teacher. Another major form of assessment are the midterm and final portfolios that students compile, to be scored by the student’s instructor as well as by an outside reader drawn from the writing faculty. This form of portfolio assessment ensures consistency and fairness, and provides students with another opportunity to write for audiences other than their own teacher.

Our writing assignments promote the habits of mind outlined in the framework for success recommended by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. We introduce a range of concepts, and provide practice and reflection, allowing students to build skills and knowledge of writing, rhetoric, and research strategies. Our learning outcomes encompass and exceed those recommended by the CWPA and our assessment criteria are aligned with best practices in the field of writing studies.