As the only universal requirement for Davidson students, Writing 101: Writing in the Liberal Arts carries a certain curricular weight. Our colleagues at the College expect that students who successfully complete the course will have been exposed to strategies for designing, drafting, and revising written arguments that resemble the kinds of analytic and persuasive writing produced by academic writers. That is to say, they expect that the course has involved students in some measure of critical thinking about texts and ideas and has asked students to respond thoughtfully and fairly to the work of others. Fundamentally, learning to write intelligent prose rests on one’s ability to make inventive and prudent judgments in weighing avenues of approach, point of view, phrasing, and structure.
Writing could be described as the art of making smart choices in the face of at times limited but at other times quite limitless possibilities. As Aristotle would urge every writer to ask him or herself: “What are the available means of persuasion in this particular case?” Successful writers bring those available means to mind as a necessary step in the process of composing. Most high schools steep student writers in formulae that constrain the available means to the narrowest range of stolid techniques, giving students little or no choice in designing texts that please themselves and move others to new thinking. Our job is to recuperate the imagination, to open pathways to robust analysis, and to let students own their prose as discourses of significant potential.
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Purposes for First-Year Writing
Training in rhetoric was required of all citizens of Athens starting in the fifth century, BCE. Because any Athenian citizen might be called upon to defend himself in a law court (citizenship was extended only to white, property-holding men), skill in producing persuasive arguments was essential in maintaining the civic life of the polis, which depended upon deliberative discussion, collective reasoning, and democratic participation. Taught in the progymnasmata alongside athletics and music, rhetoric was understood as one among many “bodily” arts designed to enhance a readiness for purposive action. When called to speak, a citizen was expected to come forth, alert to the discursive circumstances at hand, poised to make an effective verbal intervention on an issue under consideration. Rhetorical literacy was figured as one among many kairotic behaviors whereby the body sprung into its expected role, seizing opportunities as they appeared on the discursive horizon.
Practice in written argument has been a more or less permanent feature of American colleges and universities since Harvard implemented its required writing course in 1873, a response to the poor quality of essays its prospective students composed for admission. Soon thereafter, as concerns about the dubious quality of student’s written work spread to Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth, United States high schools attuned their curricula to the teaching of writing, facilitated by the invention of the five-paragraph essay, a ready formula for producing text that has been preferred by U.S. middle schools and high schools ever since, much to the chagrin of college professors who find its reductive formulae routinized and performative rather than agentic and responsive to contexts, reductive, and characteristically unlike the academic prose students are expected to produce across the discipline
Key Essays in Writing Studies Research
The field of Writing Studies is a capacious discipline, embracing rhetorical, historical, linguistic, cultural, psychological, socio-political, and cognitive realms of inquiry, its growth and evolution spurred on by the widening of access to higher education for diverse students first catalyzed by open admissions in the late 1960s. It is then that the field took on the ambitious and vital project to demystify intellectual work and to codify academic writing practices as discernable, teachable, and attuned to the needs and expectations of diverse populations of students eager to succeed as writers.
Driven by political and ethical mandates to democratize admissions, document linguistic variety, and situate writing as a culture- and context-specific action, Writing Studies’ research agenda solicited ancient materials (principally those of Plato and Aristotle), the humanistic tradition, epistemically-oriented philosophy, Developmental Psychology and the rising field of Cultural Studies in order to describe students’ composing processes, fashion new pedagogies, and design academic departments distinct from English and the study of literature. At the moment, more than half of U.S. colleges and universities maintain independent departments staffed with faculty trained in either Rhetoric or Composition/Writing Studies.
The following four essays afford a glimpse into field-specific inquiry of the past thirty years. The two largest national scholarly organizations devoted to the study of writing include the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Rhetoric Society of America.