Ten years ago, English professor Paul Sawyer became the fourth director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. On July 1, Sawyer stepped down, turning over the directorship of a vibrant and expanded program to fellow English professor George Hutchinson.
“When I was offered the job, my main charge was to ensure successful continuity and we’ve achieved it,” says Sawyer. “I saw my role as empowering the excellent senior lecturers. These have been the ten happiest years of my life at Cornell because I’ve been able to help others do work that no one of us could have achieved alone. The senior lecturers of the program have really put the Knight Institute on the map.”
Hutchinson echoes this sentiment. “I’m excited to be taking over and I’m grateful to the past directors who built the Knight Institute and developed its really powerful and extraordinary structure,” he says. “I think teaching writing is one of the most important things we can do at the university and it’s a privilege to work with the Knight Institute’s superb staff. Knight is a pretty special division of the university.”
Teaching Teachers to Teach Writing
According to Sawyer, one of the most important services Knight offers is the six-week teacher training course, which virtually every graduate student instructor for the First-Year Writing Seminar takes. The course, Teaching Writing 7100, includes all the basic principles of teaching writing as well as offering guidance in designing syllabi. There is a similar course for Writing in the Major instructors. “More than any other factor, this training impacts students,” says Sawyer.
“Since most academics learn writing by osmosis, many can’t tell students what they expect in papers,” explains Sawyer. “We help professors and graduate students make explicit what’s good writing in their discipline, whether it’s philosophy or nutrition – the expectations are not the same, so the professor needs to know how to make that explicit to students.”
The Knight Institute also offers a Faculty Seminar in Writing in June, an intense four-session training for which faculty must apply and for which they receive a stipend. Typically eight faculty members from different disciplines participate. According to Elliot Shapiro, who leads the seminar, during the last ten years 72 faculty members have been admitted—lecturers and senior lecturers; assistant, associate and full professors—from five colleges and 34 departments.
Sawyer says the professional development seminar gets “rave” reviews from faculty. “We’ve had great sessions with physics professors, poets, horticulturalists, professors from film, nutrition – from all across the board.” Many of the participants go on to teach First-Year Writing Seminars.
Writing Walk-in Service
Many of the recent changes at the Knight Institute have occurred in the Writing Walk-In Service in the last eight years under the directorship of Tracy Hamler Carrick. During that time, the tutoring staff has increased 52% and now includes tutors from all seven colleges. Last year, the Knight Institute held over 3,100 writing tutorials with undergraduates, a 116% increase from the 2007-2008 academic year. The tutoring sessions were held in five locations across campus for student convenience.
Writing Walk-In tutors Zachary Grobe, graduate student, and Emma Ianni '17 at the Mann Library. Photo credit: Lindsay France/Cornell Marketing Group
“Sometimes the grade students receive for their first essay is not good and they’re ready to write themselves off, but by the end of the tutoring they realize they have it in them to be a good writer,” says tutor Joseph Denby ‘17.
Carrick, who on July 1 became Director of the Writing Workshop, supervisor and administrator of all the Knight Institute’s support services, notes that many of the innovations involve more specialized programming, so that students can more easily find the resources that they most need.
One example is the new multi-lingual tutoring program, where English language learners can work with graduate students who have special training and language experience. Unlike the general tutors who focus on writing clearly and logically, these specialists can aid students in language development, including writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation.
“This program has become increasingly important as our international student population continues to grow,” says Carrick. “Approximately one-third of the students using the Writing Walk-In Services are not native speakers of English.”
Graduate Writing Service
“One of the myths people have about writing is that it is essentially correct grammar and you learn it in freshman year or don’t learn it at all,” says Sawyer. “The truth is that writing differs according to discipline. As students grow through their four years their challenges change so they never learn to write once and for all. The Knight Institute services are for first-year students all the way to postdocs.”
Because each discipline has its own conventions, there is a particular need to teach writing to graduate students across disciplines. Graduate students and postdocs can now find specialized help from peer tutors through the Graduate Writing Service (GWS), first piloted by the Knight Institute in 2013. It is now a joint project of the Graduate School, the English Language Support Office, and the Knight Institute. The GWS held 827 tutorials in both writing and speaking last academic year.
“It’s an appointment based writing service and what we address can range from an abstract or paper proposal to a chapter of their dissertation,” says tutor Danielle Wu ’09, MA ‘13. “In the GWS we have a more sustained relationship with a particular student.”
Over the last five years, the Knight Institute has transformed an informal mentoring system into a robust program. Students who need more than an occasional visit with a tutor can be placed with one of three kinds of mentors: a multilingual tutor for ongoing language support; a generalist tutor for native English speakers who need help at the sentence or word level, such as developing more vocabulary and complex syntax; and faculty writing consultants for students who need more intensive guidance.
“The demand for mentors for native English speakers in particular has skyrocketed,” says Carrick, noting that in a given semester they typically see 25-30 students who need that kind of support.
21st Century Tutoring
The latest Knight Institute innovation, still in the process of being rolled out, is an on-line scheduling system that also enables students to send papers electronically and get feedback from a tutor by a certain agreed-upon time. Tutoring can also be done via chat room or videoconferencing.
This electronic access is particularly important for students who are abroad. “This is a big deal for students taking a gap year before going to graduate school who need help with application essays and personal statements, as well as students doing field research or studying abroad,” says Carrick. “Thanks to this new system, we were able to help a student in the Middle East work through several dissertation chapters and a conference proposal.”
All tutors participate in a comprehensive, semester-long training program that includes an apprenticeship, developed by Carrick and her colleagues with ongoing input from the tutors themselves.
“We work collaboratively with the tutors to continue to develop and scrutinize and revise the training program that we are so incredibly proud of,” says Carrick. She is especially eager to see how the training program will continue to transform under the leadership of the new Writing Walk-In Service Director, Kate Navickas.
The program’s training curriculum includes learning about theories of writing and writing development, pedagogy on teaching writing, as well as exploration of the evolving features of writing within and across disciplines. Monthly meetings of the tutors include activities like workshopping a piece of writing. “But the focus of these tutoring meetings isn’t just on the writing itself, but how you engage with someone effectively,” says Wu. “Much of our discussion in the tutor meetings concerns ways to help writers assess and articulate their own writing.”
Carrick says she thinks of both the training and the practice of tutoring as an advanced writing course for the Walk-In staff. “It helps them continue their writing education as they see student writing from all different perspectives and in more disciplinary genres than they can even imagine. As they work to understand other writers and other writing projects, they’re constantly being challenged to think about their own writing in new ways.”
“I became a much better writer because I had to pay attention to elements of writing that are key to teaching it,” says Denby. “In high school, it’s easy to not take writing seriously, but it’s harder than you might intuitively think and there’s a science to it; it requires a lot of consideration to teach effectively and to learn effectively.”
Approximately two-thirds of the tutoring staff of about 55 are undergraduate students, a deliberate choice by Carrick. She believes in the importance of a writing center having a peer community of writers, which means undergraduates working with other undergraduates.
“Talking to an interested reader about your ideas and sharing them on paper to check their clarity and the ways they’ve been expressed, to see whether you’ve actually met your goals as a writer -- that is what I believe will help students continue their writing development,” says Carrick. “The Knight Institute cares about nurturing a culture of writing at Cornell that is not just about performance, but also about continual self-assessment and self-sponsored growth and development. The work is not necessarily about learning how to write the right way, but about learning how to learn to write in a variety of contexts. That process is, at its best, always a collaborative enterprise.”
Sawyer notes that the training has a positive impact on graduate student careers: “It helps graduate students on the job market to say they’ve been trained by Knight because it has such a great reputation and our training is terrific.”
First-Year Writing Seminars
Not everything at the Knight Institute has changed in the last ten years. The Institute continues to offer First-Year Writing Seminars (FWS) in one of the country's largest and most diverse programs in writing in the disciplines: each semester, more than 100 different courses are taught in more than 30 departments and programs located in the humanities, social sciences, expressive arts, and sciences. More than 3,000 students from across the university enroll each year in classes that are often the most diverse mix of students offered at the university, with small classes no larger than 17 or 18 students, from all seven colleges.
History Professor Margaret Washington teaching a First-Year Writing Seminar. Photo credit: Cornell Marketing Group
In addition to getting even more departments and faculty involved in teaching FWS, Hutchinson says that one of his goals as director is to lower the enrollment caps on the seminars. “In such a writing intensive course, where you need a lot of one-on-one interaction with the instructor, a small class size is important,” he says. This academic year, the cap will be 17 but Hutchinson would like to lower it still further.
“It’s worth noting that we use no adjunct instructors,” points out David Faulkner, First-Year Writing Seminar director. “Seventy percent of our classes are taught by graduate students and 30% by Cornell faculty, an unusually high level of participation by full-time faculty.”
Faulkner adds that although the “founding mothers and fathers” have retired from the Knight Institute, the basic structure of the FWS program has remained remarkably stable for over thirty years. The success of that structure was acknowledged in 2000, when the Time/Princeton Review designated Cornell the Private Research University "College of the Year" on the basis of its writing in the disciplines approach.
Writing in Majors
The success of the FWS led to the creation of the separate Writing in the Majors program, which offers writing-intensive courses in non-humanities disciplines. “The fundamental assumption of the course is that writing is essential to every discipline, including science,” explains Sawyer – and that students should be learning how to write for particular types of audiences.
“Sometimes professors in the sciences or other disciplines will complain about the bad writing of their students and it’s partly because the conventions of writing in their discipline are different from those in another discipline, like English, for example,” says Hutchinson.
Denby adds that Writing in Majors also allows students taking quantitatively oriented courses to experience writing in a milieu they’re familiar with, so that they can be more comfortable with the conventions. “But they’re still writing and that’s the important part,” he says.
The influence of the Knight Institute extends beyond its core services. For example, Elliot Shapiro, director of Writing in the Majors, also administers the University Courses. Writing tutors are shared with other programs, like the Warrior Scholar Project, and the Knight Institute has offered courses for volunteers in the Cornell Prison Education Program.
Since 2003, Darlene Evans, director of Writing Outreach, has been teaching Common Ground, an FWS that places Cornell students in collaborative and mentoring relationships with students at local high schools and middle schools. The course, presented in a variety of models, has been a great success, says Evans, and she’s working on ways to expand engagement with local schools.
In her Writing Outreach role, Evans also supports programs in the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI), particularly the OADI Research Scholars Program and the McNair Scholars Program, and serves as instructor and mentor for the Public Service Scholars Program for the Public Service Center and Engaged Cornell.