The primary goal of the Writing Program at Northeastern University is to be an intellectual home for the discipline of rhetoric and composition, including conducting research on writing, preparing graduate students to enter the field, and educating writers at all levels. In terms of instruction, our aim is to engage students as writers. We want students to participate in academic, professional, and public conversations that matter to them—right from the start. While of course we hope students will take with them what they learn in sites where writing instruction occurs, whether in courses or the Writing Center, we view these experiences as more than preparatory or adjunct. We aim to provide engaging, challenging educational experiences for writers of all abilities and perspectives.
As we pursue these aims, we keep in mind the philosophical tenets that inform all of our work:
Writing and reading are interrelated.
Writing, for us, is more than a way to show the results of our reading; it is—like reading—a primary way that we make meaning. Writing and reading are processes through which we learn about and engage the world. Through them, we work out our ideas, and we take critical positions on issues and problems that matter to us. Moreover, they are mutually informing processes: how we read shapes how we write, and vice versa.
This is why we ask writers to engage closely and critically with texts of various kinds. Because we believe intellectual work both in the academy and beyond it requires an understanding of “intertextuality”—the ways in which texts respond to, appropriate, or mix with other texts—we often ask students to put two or more texts into conversation—by, for example, using one as a lens for another or showing how the two texts complicate each other or extend each other’s arguments. Similarly, when we engage students in research, we are interested not only in what the sources say, but also in how they extend or complicate each other and what interests they represent. No matter the specific intellectual task, we want students to work with texts and ideas deliberately, reflectively, and confidently—as writers do. And we want them to do that throughout the semester, through a sequence of increasingly challenging projects.
No doubt, this approach to writing and reading is more challenging than those in which students are asked to write discrete “papers” in which they respond to or analyze readings. But our courses and our Writing Center provide ample support for writers. Writing projects take shape over weeks, as writers read, complete various in-class exercises and short assignments, draft and revise their texts with plenty of response from instructor and class members, and finally format and edit the final draft. In this way, we not only teach our students sophisticated processes of reading and writing and how to manage complex tasks in both, but we also engage them in writing and writing as re-vision: a process in which we look again at our ideas and perspectives based on the feedback from peers and instructors and perhaps rethink them.
Writing serves multiple purposes.
In our courses and in the Writing Center, we help students put their writing to a range of uses: to learn, to express, to communicate, to educate, to entertain, to persuade, to create art—and more. Our goal is to help students develop a large repertoire of writing strategies and processes that will serve them in their academic, professional, and civic lives. We introduce students to the study of genres, media, modalities, technologies, disciplines, and rhetorical situations to help them understand how writers and writing work—and the work they do. We ask students to read as writers and to write as readers, developing an understanding of how texts and discourses operate. When they read, we want them to ask, “How am I being prompted to read by this text?”, “What strategies does the writer use to accomplish her goal?”, and “What available discourses does this text draw on or resist?” When they write, we want them to ask, “How does my text ask its audience to read?”, “What strategies am I using to accomplish my goal?”, and “What available discourses does my text draw on or resist?”
Because we understand writing serves multiple purposes, we introduce students to a wide range of texts in a variety of media and modalities. These include academic essays and articles; course discussion boards, blogs, and wikis; professional texts such as medical reports, memos, and business plans; and public texts such as films, novels, websites, and political speeches. Whether students are studying or writing an essay in First-Year Writing, a research article in Advanced Writing in the Sciences, a healthcare website in Advanced Writing in the Health Professions, or a History paper in the Writing Center, we are interested both in what the texts say and in how they say it. We want to slow down our writing processes long enough to understand the options available to writers and the choices they make.
Writing is knowledge making.
In any field, knowledge is produced and communicated as a means to advance understanding. That production takes many forms—research on texts or people or materials—as does the communication—written, oral, visual, both in print and digital formats. In our courses at all levels, students are learning to understand their roles in these production and communication processes: What are the goals of college writing? Why are they valued and by whom? What are the goals of writing, speaking, and visualizing in particular fields or academic disciplines, and how are those goals shaped and asserted? Our aim is to help students to be knowledge makers in their work at Northeastern and beyond. Understanding the processes by which knowledge is created and asserted allows students to move from passive recipients to active strategic thinkers and communicators.
College writers are capable of a high level of critical thinking.
The term “critical thinking” is thrown around a lot in education. For us, it means confronting demanding and perhaps unfamiliar texts and ideas with a tolerance for ambiguity, an appreciation of complexity, an understanding of multiple perspectives (and what is at stake in those perspectives), and an ability to generate, defend, contextualize, and assess the implications of one’s own perspective. It involves both inquiry—active exploration of new or unfamiliar ideas—and argument: taking a stance on those ideas.
Our goals for teaching critical thinking, then, place strong demands on students’ writing. We discourage mere summarization and other reductive approaches to readings, such as the comparison/contrast essay, the thesis-driven five-paragraph essay, or the “poem as puzzle to be solved” approach to interpretation. We challenge students to put themselves in conversation with the authors they read. And we challenge them to compose texts of their own that will stand up to the kind of critical scrutiny they bring to bear on others’ texts. But again, we provide a lot of support for this work. In our program, teachers and students work together, over time, individually, in Writing Center consultations, and in groups, to come to grips with readings and to develop our own writing projects.
Student writing deserves critical engagement.
In our courses and in the Writing Center, all texts—including and especially those produced by students—are engaged critically. This means we read these texts actively, alertly, generously, not just as specimens of writing in need of improvement but as ongoing writing projects worthy of careful attention. Our goal is to help students produce writing that they wish to be read, not just writing that must be evaluated. We do this by taking them and their ideas and their writing seriously. We engage them in the important issues and problems of our culture and their chosen disciplines. From the first day of First-Year Writing, when we ask them to “talk back” to demanding published texts, to the last day of Advanced Writing in the Disciplines, when we ask them to publish their ideas to an identifiable public audience—and all the days in between that they spend in our Writing Center—we hope they experience themselves not just as students, not even only as student-writers, but as writers.
Effective writing takes many forms.
Our overarching goal in our courses and in the Writing Center is to help students write effectively. We acknowledge that “effective writing” must be defined in the context of writers’ goals, audiences’ expectations, and situational factors such as available technologies. There is no all-purpose prose that serves writers equally well in all situations. Different academic, professional, and public discourse communities practice different conventions, and these—like the English language itself—evolve over time. In some contexts, in fact, writers are expected to move across dialects within English or even across languages. Thus, instead of teaching students a single “standard” dialect or set of conventions, we help them develop knowledge of and facility with the conventions that characterize (but never fully define or stabilize) the academic, professional, and public discourses and communities they wish to enter.