• Scholarly Leadership

Major overhaul transforms a staple of undergraduate education

 The venerable English “101” writing class—a staple of undergraduate education and a required course for nearly every first-year student—will look very different this semester at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Formerly called “Expository Writing," the course will now be "College Writing," to reflect a major overhaul by the Department of English that incorporates fresh teaching strategies and expands the range of writing styles and genres that students encounter and master.

Rebecca Walkowitz

Rebecca Walkowitz

“We’ve taken a course that has been important to generations of Rutgers undergraduates and reinvented it to make it more useful, engaging and effective for students in the 21st century,” said Rebecca L. Walkowitz, a Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of Humanities in the School of Arts and Sciences. 

For faculty, the mission of the one-semester course remains the same: Help undergraduates fresh out of high school become better writers and clearer thinkers. To reach that goal, the course will take adventurous leaps beyond the traditional expository essay that was the focus of the earlier class.

This year students will begin the semester with a first-person essay by Pulitzer-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri called, "Why Italian?" In it, the Bengali American author tells why she began writing in Italian after years of success writing novels and short stories in English.

“To open doors, to see differently, to graft myself onto another,” Lahiri says.

Students will then be asked to "open doors" themselves by composing a reflective essay using the rhetorical devices Lahiri employs in her piece.

Jonah Siegel

Jonah Siegel

“She uses metaphor and repetition, and we want students to understand why that’s effective,” said Jonah Siegel, a Distinguished Professor of English and faculty director of the Writing Program. “We’re introducing them to the challenge of developing a piece of writing that does the job it needs to do and that understands who the audience is and what the context should be.”

Lynda Dexheimer, executive director of the Writing Program, who along with Siegel oversaw the development of the new course, said the approach aims to demystify the writing process, teaching the tools and techniques that students from all academic backgrounds can bring to any writing task in their undergraduate years and beyond.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students to recognize that writers are real people who make real choices, have real motives, and write for a real audience,” she said. “These are the skills we are trying to inculcate.”

Sophomore Bhuvan Bugude, who took the pilot course last year, completed the first assignment based on “Why Italian” with an essay asking: Why study medicine?

Lynda Dexheimer

Lynda Dexheimer

His metaphor was the running of a race where winning isn’t the point.

“What matters to me in my [pre-med] studies is not the final result of: ‘Oh, I am a doctor now,’’’ Bugude said. “I choose to go through this long, involved process to see what I can learn and who I can become.”

Some 6,600 students from across the New Brunswick campus will take either “College Writing,” or “College Writing Extended,” which covers the same material for students needing extra support. That, too, is a significant change. Previously, based on placement test scores, some students had to take a separate class, “Basic Composition,” in addition to “Expository Writing.”

“It was a very conscious decision on our part to create one course for everyone,” Walkowitz said. “We wanted students to have a common experience and also to move people a little more fluidly through the course requirements.”

Walkowitz noted that the change will allow as many as 1,200 students to complete the English 101 requirement in one semester rather than two.

Bhuvan Bugude

Bhuvan Bugude

“They will be able to use that extra time to take electives or advance in their majors or minors,” she said. “We’re really proud of that change.”

The curriculum was designed by Ann Jurecic, a professor of English, and Nicole Houser, assistant dean for curriculum internationalization at Rutgers Global.

A centerpiece of the course is what faculty describe as a “scaffolded” approach to teaching writing, in which students learn step by step, often in class, how to build an effective composition, from initial brainstorming to first drafts, revisions, peer review, and studying the work of other writers.

“Rather than say, ‘Here is a text to read; now write a paper on it,’ each class is helping students build toward the conclusion of a project,” Dexheimer said.

Those techniques were covered in the previous class but are now formally built into the course.

Daria Mitri

Daria Mitri

“Our faculty were doing this all the time; but now it is recognized in the curriculum and brought to the center rather than the sidelines.” Siegel said. “The message is, ‘These are the ways good writers write.’”

The approach resonated with students like Daria Mitri, who plans to major in cell biology and neuroscience and become a surgeon.

“As a science major I really appreciated the logic in the way this course was structured,” said Mitri, a sophomore who took the pilot last year. “Everyone was able to get the support they need, even though our specific needs were different.”

The final project requires students to research and write a detailed essay and incorporate images, video, and other digital media.

Mitri chose an ambitious topic—monopolization in the music industry—in which she showed how the practices of the major entertainment conglomerates hurt consumers and shortchange many artists.

“There’s no question that the course gave me the confidence and the room to do something that big,” she said. “And I definitely got the support for it.”