Lifeworld and System: Aiming Writing Reform at the Advanced Graduate Student

Elizabeth Losh, Writing Director, Humanities Core Course, University of California, Irvine


Advanced graduate students who are contemplating entry into the job market often wish to avoid teaching freshmen composition, because they see it as counterproductive to their efforts at specialization. Ph.D. candidates can perceive the teaching of writing as a drain on time better spent working on their dissertations or completing professional apprenticeship with faculty mentors. Graduate students asked to teach composition find themselves split between Habermas’s "lifeworld" and "system": they teach writing in a "lifeworld" of discursive interactions with undergraduates in individual atomized classrooms and become published scholars in a "system" in which professional multicampus discourse must be codified, structured, and homogenized for highly impersonal consumption. This paper looks at reform efforts in a large writing-intensive freshmen "core" course that simultaneously foster more teaching of writing in the classroom and better job placement for graduate T.A.’s by encouraging multiple connections between teaching writing and writing scholarship.

Before Reform Began:

The Humanities Core Course is a large introductory interdisciplinary course for freshmen with a thirty-year history of collaborative instruction that enrolls over a thousand students annually. As an eight-unit yearlong course with four units of credit devoted to writing, HCC garners more curricular time and attention from a typical student than a traditional composition course would. However, a 1998 External Review suggested that significantly more could be done to integrate communication skills into instruction. In the words of the reviewers, HCC was a course that "uses writing" not a course "in writing." Most sections did not use the assigned rhetoric and handbook, and many devoted only a small fraction of instructional time to writing issues. The advanced graduate students who taught the course generally preferred to replicate the lecture experience rather than engage students in writing-centered rhetorical experiences. Clearly radical reform was needed to meet institutional goals for basic academic literacy on a campus where most students come from second language backgrounds but are often taught by graduate students from the Critical Theory program so that almost all class time was spent in one-way close reading or theoretical overview.

Four Critical Reforms:

  1. Present Ladder-Ranked Faculty as Colleagues in the Teaching of Writing

  2. The "problem" of encouraging graduate students to teach writing may have more to do with the problem of engaging faculty to engage with writing pedagogy. Graduate students emulate behavior modeled by faculty mentors, and it was necessary to increase faculty involvement first. Lecturing faculty members in the Humanities Core Course draft essay prompts with the Writing Director, actively present writing pedagogy at staff meetings, and teach composition skills from the podium. In the current 2000-2001 year, there has been a "model" lecture each quarter that makes explicit the relationship between the current writing assignment for students and the faculty member’s own process of generating academic discourse. All nine lecturing faculty members also contribute samples of their own writing to serve as instructional models in the Writer’s Handbook that students use throughout the year of instruction. Ten to fifteen additional faculty members each year are engaged with writing issues, because they serve as instructors of Honor sections in the course. A total of 14 faculty members have contributed teaching suggestions or in-class exercises to the exemplary HCC instructors’ web site for the writing curriculum, and they actively participate in the on-line community of the instructors’ electronic discussion list.

  3. Build Authorship into Teaching Experiences

  4. Faculty should participate in the authorship of the pedagogical archive, but graduate students also should develop materials for writing instruction side by side with faculty colleagues. This collaborative effort is reflected in HCC curricular materials that are both published in the traditional medium of the course textbook and posted to the extensive pedagogical website for HCC. Nine section leaders authored chapters in Writer’s Handbook, and, as a result, half of the writing assignments were shaped by the work of graduate students and lecturers. More graduate students have offered to write sections of the writing text this year, as word spread about positive response to these materials by search committees seeking candidates with experience in Rhetoric and Composition. Over eighty percent of our graduate instructors currently contribute on-line pedagogical materials for use by their colleagues with an emphasis on innovation, adaptation, efficiency, and interdisciplinary collaboration. This electronic pedagogical library now includes over two hundred separate web pages on writing instruction. Graduate students are motivated to "publish" what was once merely informal discourse on the instructors’ listserv to a larger audience of peers, professors, and administrators. 

  5. Connect Writing Pedagogy to the Production of Scholarly Discourse

  6. Course directors and lecturing faculty also must make explicit the connections between a writing curriculum designed for freshmen and scholarly discourse in specialized fields. For example, in an HCC staff meeting or listserv discussion lecturing faculty will emphasize how a scholarly article or book may reflect specific pedagogical experiences and collegial interactions in the Core Course. Directors also encourage graduate students to discuss their own prospectuses and dissertations as exemplars of curricular principles. In the public discourse of the course, graduate students supply both examples of their own effective texts and of their problems in the writing process to foster this discussion. 

  7. Foster Public Discourse about Teaching Writing: The Importance of Sharing a Common Language

  8. The HCC writing curriculum is highly integrated in several ways to allow lecturing faculty members to have a common "language" as a tool to express both similarities and differences in humanistic inquiry. Each quarter there is a broad theme for the writing curriculum that runs parallel to the content of the lecture curriculum: Fall Quarter is "Discussion and Writing"; Winter Quarter is "Reading and Writing"; and Spring Quarter is "Research and Writing." There is also a weekly writing "topic" that is covered in 2-5 pages in the students’ Writer’s Handbook. To facilitate discourse about the teaching of writing with each topic, the Writing Director gives a presentation on its pedagogical issues at the weekly staff meeting, offers model in-class exercises and teaching suggestions on the World Wide Web, and moderates discussion on the "topic" on the instructors’ listserv.