To learn whether the three writing-intensive courses most UVM first-year students currently take—ENGS 1, HCOL 85, and TAP—can work toward shared foundational writing and information literacy goals, the first-year writing group, headed by the interim director of first-year writing, conducted a Fall 2012 pilot of twelve sections.

  • Six of the ten instructors responsible for these sections (one teaching two sections of ENGS 1; one teaching one section of HCOL 85; and all four TAP instructors) met regularly to determine the shared goals, revise their courses to work toward these goals, and participate in a modest program of faculty development.
  • Four of the nine instructors (one teaching two sections of ENGS 1 and three teaching one section each of HCOL 85) had limited participation in pilot workshops and discussions, instead following the syllabus and assignment sequence developed by two instructors who were full participants.
  • Through the pilot semester, the Writing in the Disciplines program provided staff assistance in collecting and redacting randomly selected writing collections from all sections. John Ryan and the Office of Institutional Studies assisted in the design and dissemination of a beginning- and end-of-semester student survey. A total of 17 faculty from Bailey Howe, BSAD, CALS, CAS, CEMS, CESS, and HCOL met for a one-day assessment retreat in January, with three faculty meeting for an additional half day.

The report details the First-Year Writing Group’s findings that it is indeed possible for these three kinds of courses to work toward shared foundational goals with each course still retaining its unique characteristics. As the full report shows, students taking these pilot courses, faculty teaching them, and additional faculty assessing the resulting writing also all expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the work and the learning that resulted.

At the same time, the assessment of the pilot, also detailed in this report, finds four challenges that would need to be addressed should UVM move toward a foundational requirement for all UVM undergraduates via English 1, HCOL 85, and TAP:

  1. Writing collections from the ENGS 1 and HCOL 85 sections taught by faculty who did not participate in most course development activities received noticeably lower scores in both the post-semester assessment and student surveys than those taught by faculty who did participate. Shared syllabi and assignment handouts are not enough; active participation in course development and ongoing faculty support—both training and time—are needed for all faculty as they learn to teach first-year courses to meet shared writing and information literacy goals.
  2. The ENGS 1 pilot instructor who did not participate in course development activities was unable to do so because of her part-time, short-term appointment (in contrast with a second ENGS 1 pilot instructor who, as an English graduate teaching assistant, came to the pilot from a year of professional development and mentoring in teaching the course and was able to participate in most pilot activities and discussions). Foundational writing instructors need full-time appointments to allow them to participate in course development activities and so that UVM’s investment in developing faculty to teach these courses pays off in subsequent semesters.
  3. Writing collections from a TAP seminar that also aimed to meet a major requirement received the lowest scores in all categories among the four TAP seminars. Although it can’t be concluded from one section that TAP seminars cannot do “double duty” in meeting both major and general education requirements, a shift in emphasis will be necessary and will likely also take more than one iteration of a course to figure out how to achieve: from seminars that use writing assignments in service to introducing students to a body of disciplinary knowledge to using a disciplinary realm of inquiry in service to fostering students’ writing, critical reading, and research skills.
  4. The pilot instructor for another TAP section, which received high ratings for its writing collections and from students reflecting on their learning in the four foundational areas, reported that students also found the work very challenging, frequently complained that the course was not what they were expecting, and on the department course evaluation scored the course a point lower than is typical for her introductory courses. If UVM adopts a foundational writing and information literacy requirement via TAP, HCOL 85, and ENGS 1, it should be made visible to students that these three different kinds of courses are part of a common program devoted to students’ development as critical readers, writers, and researchers.

There is plenty of cause to be optimistic that these challenges can be met:

  • It is only over the past decade that UVM has seen a shift in English 1 teaching from full-time to part-time staffing—a shift that can be corrected.
  • The Honors College is already re-envisioning its first-year two-semester seminar sequence to make writing central to its long-standing goal of promoting critical thinking.
  • A recent survey of all TAP seminars by the CAS Dean’s office and the Writing in the Disciplines program found that (1) virtually all TAP seminars are already writing-intensive; and (2) TAP faculty are requesting direction about what aspects of writing they should focus on in their seminars. The articulation of foundational goals thus meets a need being voiced by TAP faculty.

Pilot faculty stress, however, the importance of—and need for more—administrative investment in faculty development as well as protection of non-tenured faculty teaching these time-intensive courses. In anticipation of a fuller set of recommendations that the interim director of first-year writing will bring to the Senate for consideration in April, this report concludes with specific examples of course-and faculty-development supports the pilot faculty recommend.