In the fall of 2016, the Serie Center convened a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on the topic of teaching writing in the First Year Course (FYC). Facilitated by former Mellon postdoctoral fellow in writing instruction, Heidi Zimmerman, this FLC brought together faculty from Political Science, Art and Art History, Philosophy, Asian Languages and Cultures, and the Macalester Academic Excellence Center.

Over the course of the semester, the FLC read selections from a range of writing pedagogy books, had guests from English, Classics, German Studies, Political Science, and shared our own writing instruction triumphs and challenges. We had a number of goals that were aligned with Macalester’s learning objectives for first year courses. In particular, it aimed to support faculty in developing tools and strategies in the following areas:

  • Using writing to introduce students to critical inquiry across disciplines
  • Using writing to introduce student to critical inquiry in a specific field
  • Scaffolding assignments toward specific learning goals
  • Using writing to introduce students to library research skills
  • Using writing to develop students’ reading comprehension and synthesis abilities
  • Providing feedback and supporting the revision process
  • Supporting peer review
  • Using writing to help students adjust to Macalester’s academic expectations

Out of this work, the FLC members have created a portfolio of sample writing prompts to share with the Macalester community.

Sam Asarnow’s (Philosophy) “Five Minute Feedback” assignment uses in-class writing to develop students’ reading comprehension and synthesis abilities. It asks students to briefly reflect on the assigned reading for the day, letting the instructor know how well they felt they understood the reading, and then identifying and responding to the thesis.  His “Lazy, Stupid, and Mean” prompt combines free-writing and peer review, in a take-home quiz format, to give students practice in composing all the elements of a philosophy paper. The title refers to three types of audiences students must satisfy in their responses. Though this assignment uses writing to introduce student to critical inquiry in the specific field of philosophy, the questions can be adapted to accommodate the writing conventions of other disciplines.

Adrienne Christiansen’s (Serie Center and Political Science) “Cover Letter” assignment (adapted from Thomas Jehn of Harvard University) asks students to critically reflect on a writing assignment they have just turned in. It requires students to identify their own piece’s argumentative strengths and weaknesses, and to think about their writing from the perspective of a reader than a writer. In this way, the assignment helps students move from “writer” prose” to “readerly” prose.  Her “Campaign Crisis Simulation Press Release” assignment requires students to respond to a hypothetical campaign catastrophe by writing a one page press release in an hour’s time. The assignment pushes students to draw on their knowledge of rhetorical strategies of self-defense (aka “apologia”) as well as demonstrating their familiarity with ritualized forms of writing such as the press release. Notwithstanding the time pressure involved, students repeatedly report this as their favorite writing assignment in the class.

Lesley Lavery’s (Political Science) “Cover Letter” assignment is designed to support the revision process by adding reflective writing to a scaffolded, semester-long project between the first draft and the final draft of a major writing project. This prompt asks students to reflect on the writing process, note any particular areas in which they would like instructor feedback, and attach this memo to the first draft before handing it in.  Her “Preparing for Annotated Bibliography or Lit Review” is a take-home assignment that combines annotating research articles, free writing, and class discussion to give students practice in library research, note taking, and reading comprehension and synthesis. It is part of a larger scaffolded research paper assignment.  And her “Reflecting on Annotated Bibliography” prompt is a brief, in-class assignment. It is similar to the cover letter assignment in form, but here students reflect on their experience creating an annotated bibliography, including any questions or areas in which they would like feedback.

Jake Mohan’s (Max Center) “Mini-prompts 1” is an in-class writing assignment designed to support the revision process by encouraging students to concretize the language of their writing. This prompt asks students to closely study a photograph of their choosing to practice composing precise, rather than abstract, prose.  His “Mini-prompt 2” is a short, peer-review guide that asks student reviewers to compose a 300- to 500-word email to students authors, reflecting on the strengths of the essay, offering constructive feedback, and gaining proficiency with the language of “thesis, purpose, audience, tone, and style.”

Kari Shepherdson-Scott’s (Art and Art History) “Encoding Citizens Mini Write” offers students a hypothetical audience, purpose, and genre and, within these constraints, asks them to reflect on the course theme for the day. It uses a “real world application”—a 750-word entry on an Art Center website situating two propaganda posters in historical context—to demonstrate how formal, academic writing skills can transfer across contexts.