CLA’s First Year Writing Program Wins National Certificate of Excellence
By: Nick Santangelo
How often do you write something? Between school papers, work correspondences, emails, texts or social media, you probably write dozens if not hundreds of times a day. It’s easy, then, to fall into the trap of thinking everyone writes well.
“There’s a difference between average writing and really good writing,” says First Year Writing Program Director and English Professor Rachael Groner. “We know that employers want to hire people who write well. They don’t want just passable writing. They don't want emails that are average. They want emails that are really strong when they're hiring.”
At a time when information and content is abundant in every aspect of our lives, it has never been more important for all students to learn how to analyze texts and write critically. That’s why Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts’ First Year Writing Program has made teaching students those skills its mission. This foundational skillset empowers Temple students to write their own compelling, clearly communicated evidence-based papers.
Temple and CLA aren’t the only ones confident in the program’s ability to prepare students for their college and professional careers, either. On March 15, CLA’s First year Writing Program will proudly accept the National Council of Teachers of English’s 2018-2019 Certificate of Excellence.
Employers want to hire people who write well
The council is the nation’s largest professional organization for college-level composition and communication programs. It receives dozens of applications for the Certificate of Excellence annually. Dr. Groner believes the award is proof that CLA’s program is “genuinely doing something that’s working.”
A number of factors are considered in selecting a winner: small class sizes, a diverse student body, support for faculty and, of course, the curriculum. The selection committee praised CLA’s First Year Writing Program’s curriculum for focusing on issues of diversity, public spaces and systemic oppression. Dr. Groner says the program covers these issues by making a conscious effort to keep the faculty and readings as diverse as the student body they serve.
“We try very hard to select a diverse set of readings so that we are representing as many people as possible,” she explains. “We want our incredibly diverse students to see themselves in the readings and to see themselves in the discussions that we're having.
“We have a reading, for example, about Black Lives Matter. It's incredibly timely right now, of course, but it's also of great interest to students. They really want to talk about Black Lives Matter and understand it better and have a sense of where the group is coming from and how it's operating in public discourse.”
Other readings focus on issues such as disability, surveillance, privacy and the media. These and other readings in the program give students new lenses through which systemic oppression can be seriously viewed. They explore why diversity is important. They look at what forces hold back diversity. And finally, they examine what happens when diversity doesn’t exist.
We want our incredibly diverse students to see themselves in the readings
While this might seem a novel approach to some institutions, it’s one CLA’s First Year Writing Program has been taking for many years. But the Certificate of Excellence also requires winning programs to stay as current as possible. For this, Dr. Groner again points to the readings, about one-third of which changes every year. Meanwhile, faculty members keep themselves well-read on studies, articles and blogs about emerging best practices.
“We make small adjustments to innovate along the way,” explains Dr. Groner, “but our general approach has been the same for a long time because we know what works.”
Delivering an education that works for students (whom Dr. Groner calls “the heart of the program”) is what matters most to CLA. Part of creating an ideal learning environment for students, however, includes supporting faculty members. The Certificate of Excellence’s selection committee seems to agree, as they issue the award in part on the basis of how schools treat their faculty members.
“We have to make sure that our faculty is connected to each other so they feel as though their work is being valued and rewarded on the administrative side,” says Dr. Groner. “It’s a balance, but we really start with the students. We try to create syllabi or curricula that students are interested and engaged in, and then it usually feeds up from there.
“Our faculty feels rewarded because students are doing well, and then we support our faculty and make them feel valued as colleagues.”
Temple and CLA believe that when faculty members get the support they need, they’re best-suited to provide each student with the personalized attention they need to get the most out of college. The First Year Writing Program keeps its class size intimate, capping most at 18-23 students, so professors are able to provide the type of feedback that each individual student needs and students are able to engage with one another in a more meaningful way.
“We're trying to engage directly with individual students and help improve their writing by finding a style that's going to work for them,” says Dr. Groner.
She adds that the key to making those student-professor relationships effective is trust. Professors foster learning environments in which students can safely speak their minds and correct themselves when something doesn’t come out right the first time around.
After all, it takes iterations to produce truly excellent writing. Without that, any piece would just be, well, passable.