Expository Writing @ Hopkins

Progress in Progress

A new KSAS program trains graduate students to teach undergraduates the craft of writing.

"Effective and elegant writing is the hallmark of the educated person and...the creation of text will always be the most essential of all skills....We believe that writing can be taught." So states the brochure for the Expository Writing Program (EWP). But a great many students begin college, at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, needing help in producing prose that is effective and elegant. Hence W.T. Pfefferle and the new Expository Writing Program.

In an Expository Writing (nicknamed E-Dub) class in Gilman Hall, a freshman sits patiently as a dozen of her classmates read aloud and critique an essay she has written. The subject is the comments made by Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Taking one sentence at a time, the other students point out where she could have used more direct verbs, made better word choices, and written in the present tense. She seems a little uncomfortable, but a good sport, as she jots notes in the margin of her paper.

Then a classmate reads this sentence: He is proud that his knowledge of what's going on is superior to that of Daisy. Hearing her writing, the author speaks up: "Okay, I know I can write that a better way."

In another writing class, students sitting in a circle debate the effectiveness of a review of the Spice Girls. Then they offer ideas for their own "evaluation essays," which will be their assignment for the coming week: the merits of AstroTurf versus grass, a review of the movie Braveheart, and an assessment of the Homewood bookstore.

The approaches are different, but the objective is the same: To help undergraduates become better writers. The classes just mentioned--led, respectively, by graduate students John Rockefeller in the Department of English, and Jennifer Ericson in the Writing Seminars--were two of 18 sections of E-Dub designed mainly for freshmen and offered last fall. They are one component of the comprehensive Expository Writing Program initiated in 2000 by W.T. Pfefferle and housed in the English Department (see www.jhu.edu/ewp).

This year, the program is flourishing. The 21 sections of E-Dub planned for this fall filled up almost immediately, so Pfefferle scrambled to find six more suitable instructors to add more sections, now 27. Also new this year is a basic version of E-Dub, designed to help non-native writers prepare for college-level writing.

Programs to help writers improve, especially as they make the transition from high school, are receiving renewed or increased emphasis at campuses across the country. Both Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania recently "toughened up their writing courses," says Pfefferle, who conducted research on writing programs at Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities before designing the Krieger School's EWP. Former English Department chair Walter Benn Michaels, who led the effort that concluded with Pfefferle's appointment, noted that, until Pfefferle, "What Hopkins had done for writing, basically, was the 'W' courses [those writing-intensive classes found throughout the course catalog] ."

Pfefferle was brought in to create a writing program for all undergraduates--in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences alike--and to revisit the subject of the W courses (a faculty committee conducted a kind of fact-finding mission over the last year into these writing-intensive courses and faculty members' understanding and use of them; Pfefferle says the next step is to examine the issue of compliance with the policy for W courses).

Training the Trainers
The teaching of writing is a noble and valuable profession. (EWP mission statement)

The success of the program, which has been ambitious from the start, hinges on the training of advanced students as instructors--graduate students in English and the Writing Seminars, as well as some in other areas for specialized Writing in the Major courses for sophomores. The latter started last fall in Political Science and last spring in Sociology. This year, Pfefferle is adding Writing in the Major courses in three other areas: humanities, sciences, and literature/English.

"This was a class that just simply was missing in the majors," Pfefferle says. The 200-level courses are limited to about 15 students so that the practicing writers receive plenty of attention from their instructors. He plans to expand the Writing in the Major offerings each year. "If we had the kind of successes we had in the last year, those five [offered this year] will probably spawn 10 more."

In May 2001, graduate students--most from English, plus one each from the Writing Seminars, Political Science, and Sociology-- took part in the first EWP training program, a six-day session. Teachers of writing from Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina shared their experience and expertise on all things instructional: planning lessons, designing assignments, using the workshop format, grading, and more. The newly trained instructors soon developed their own syllabi, including such diverse readings as Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

Since then, other training sessions have followed: another six-day session; compact, two-day versions of the training for new Writing Seminars graduate students who teach a standard version of E-Dub (i.e., designed mainly by Pfefferle, with the same goals and overall methodology as the other courses); and most recently, a separate training for instructors of the Writing in the Major classes.

During the seminars, the writing-teachers-to-be learn the value of free-writing exercises in class, private and small-group conferences, "holistic grading" (which evaluates a piece of writing in its entirety rather than homing in just on details), and much more. They may receive mentors--from among experienced EWP instructors--and they are given EWP handbooks, empty grade books, and red pens with which to mark up their first batches of student essays.

Through it all, Pfefferle helps to ease the minds of the instructors. "You're going to be better than the worst I've seen, and even the worst I've seen made his students better writers," he tells them. Giving students the opportunity to write--in class and out--and to revise, with some coaching about the process, he says, makes better writers.

Catching the Energy
EWP instructor Rockefeller has taught various English classes for six years in the Krieger School. So what's new now? "The training," he says. Little ideas he's gleaned from Pfefferle--having students sit in a circle, for instance--have proven valuable, and the flexibility the program allows is one of its greatest strengths, says Rockefeller. This teacher-graduate student has incorporated his dissertation topic, which he defines roughly as ethical dilemmas in early twentieth-century American literature, into his E-Dub class. "Interest is contagious," he explains, adding that if a teacher is not passionate about his or her subject, students can tell.

As for the program's students, Rockefeller says, "They all come in thinking they're better than they are. Then they get their first C-plus, and they think, 'I'm an A writer, what the heck am I doing getting a C?'" Some of them are very good, Rockefeller says. His job is to help them grow from good high school writers to great college-level writers. In one of his classes last fall, he read to his students "the best comp essay I've ever had submitted to me"--the work of someone in the room--and then pointed out what made it great: its conversational tone. "You can convey complicated ideas, but in simple prose," he told them.

In Mario Feit's Writing in Political Science course, having less reading than in other political sciences classes means more time for writing. This fall, like last, the class is small--about 15 students--and is structured so that students practice writing in two sub-fields: political theory and international relations. Readings lead to short summaries, then thesis statements, then first and second drafts of research papers. As in the E-Dub classes, students spend considerable time, in class workshops and in individual meetings with Feit, discussing their writing.

Feit realized soon into the semester last year that even juniors and seniors--the bulk of his class--had much to gain from the class. He found early on that they needed help with organizational, stylistic, and grammatical issues, and he saw definite improvement over the course of the semester. "I wanted to get them to turn writing into a process," he says, so they would understand that writing is continuous work, not an essay begun at midnight the night before it's due.

Pfefferle is, of course, pleased with the success of the program so far, and eager to expand its offerings with each semester. His plate is full: He will also continue to train EWP instructors, oversee the evaluation of the W courses, and advise the student-run Writing Center. But with Pfefferle's enthusiasm and direction, Steven R. David, the Krieger School's associate dean for academic affairs, is confident. "Teaching our students to write well is a top priority at JHU, and W.T. is the person to do it," David says.

Pfefferle's enthusiasm matches David's confidence. The graduate student trainers, Pfefferle says, bring "amazing potential to be terrific writing instructors." Pfefferle, who teaches a section of E-Dub, sets his own high standards and is unbounded in his optimism. Of EWP, he says, "I really don't know what the limit is."

-- Angela Paik Schafer
(Photos by Jay VanRensselaer)