How do you reimagine writing instruction at one of the country’s top universities?
A few years ago, Rice faculty began asking how they could improve an outmoded and scattered approach to teaching writing. The result? A growing, evolving and innovative communications program that reaches students at every stage of their scholarly growth — and helps prepare them for what comes after they graduate.
These are some of the questions taken up by Rice faculty in 2010, when several faculty “working groups” began to reevaluate the role of writing instruction across campus. Consultants were hired to evaluate how we taught writing and how we gauged what students were learning. Eventually, a vision emerged to create an ambitious, wide-reaching and highly accessible writing and communication center. This meant moving writing instruction out of a remedial mindset. Didn’t pass the composition test? Off you go to writing class. Passed? You’re good to go. Instead, writing was reimagined as a core practice, one that students would encounter in some format on every step of their academic journey.
What the working groups and consultants all agreed on was that “there was just not enough attention to writing at Rice,” said Helena Michie, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor in Humanities and chair of the faculty advisory board for the Program in Writing and Communication.
Tracy Volz, a professor in the practice, was hired to direct the center. With years of experience teaching Rice’s engineering students to be better communicators, Volz is passionate in her advocacy for stronger writing pedagogy. “Not only do students need to have superior communication skills for academic performance,” said Volz, “but they need to be prepared to communicate with the various audiences they will encounter, when they leave Rice for internships, jobs or graduate school.”
In 2012, Rice launched the Program in Writing and Communication (PWC), a resource for students and faculty.
The program is set up to help students communicate more effectively, whether the task is for a class, a research competition or a job interview. Brian Spector ’88, an English and economics alum who recruits new graduates for jobs at BP, worries when he sees Rice students come to a job interview less than prepared.
“From my perspective, everything is about communication,” said Spector. “It’s about speaking clearly, being engaging, writing concisely and writing in a way that gets people interested.” Even “good writers,” said Spector, should want to get better, a lesson he learned as an English major in Dennis Huston’s classes. “He told me I was a good writer, but I could get better.”
Currently, the PWC comprises four programs whose missions often overlap: the Center for Written, Oral and Visual Communication; an English as a Second Language instruction program; the First-year Writing-Intensive Seminars; and a pilot program called Communication-in-the-Disciplines.
Campus communication centers are key allies in the mission of higher education, said Chris M. Anson, University Distinguished Professor and director of the Campus Writing and Speaking Program at North Carolina State University. Anson worked as an external reviewer and consultant for Rice’s communications programs in the past.
“I like to think that writing and communication stand at the very center of all learning in all disciplines,” Anson said. “Everything else radiates out from that center, like spokes of knowledge. Writing and speaking are not one of those spokes — they’re the hub.”
In a not-so-hushed corner of Fondren Library, senior Alex Kumar sat head-to-head with his 9:45 a.m. appointment, an engineering student who sought advice on a report. “Do you have specific questions or concerns?” Kumar asked, quickly scanning the homework. “Should I add a topic sentence here?” the student asked. “Yes, tell them what you’re thinking. There are a couple ways to go about it,” Kumar answered. By the time the student returned the paper to his backpack, he had solid feedback — and more work to do.
Kumar works at the comprehensively named Center for Written, Oral and Visual Communication, Rice’s home to one-on-one writing consultations as well as a growing resource for communication expertise and outreach. Occupying a spacious, light-filled suite of rooms on the library’s second-floor mezzanine, the center is the linchpin of Rice’s wide-ranging effort to integrate writing and communication skills into the heart of academic inquiry and practice. A founding principle of this movement is that all students — even ones who arrive on campus as so-called “good writers” with high test scores — have room to improve.
“It’s not a writing center; it’s a communications center,” said Matt Taylor ’92, associate vice provost for academic affairs and associate dean of undergraduates. Taylor was instrumental in turning the Rice faculty’s working blueprint for a writing and communications program into reality. As the program’s interim director from 2012 to mid-2013, he led the design and renovation team that created the warm and inviting Fondren Library space and hired the directors who got the center, in his words, “up and writing” in short order.
Rice alumna Jennifer Shade Wilson ’93 directs the center’s staff of two associate directors, Kyung-Hee Bae and Elizabeth Festa, and program coordinator Shar’-Lin Venier Anderson. This small team brings a broad range of experience and expertise in writing pedagogy, English as a Second Language (ESL) theory, visual rhetoric and design to Rice. They train more than two dozen paid student peer consultants, both undergraduates and graduates, who, like Kumar, staff the center every weekday during the academic year.
Along with giving feedback on specific assignments, the consultants aim to “improve the writer,” Wilson said. “It’s not just about the text or those slides or this presentation; it’s about showing them within the context of that piece how they can improve in the future.”
During the 2013–2014 academic year, the center logged more than 2,500 individual appointments with undergraduate and graduate students and a handful of postdocs, faculty and staff. Since opening in 2012, the center’s student and professional staff have become a trusted source for feedback on any number of writing and communications activities as evidenced by its growing profile across campus.
“I rushed to the center with my first essay,” junior Jan Dudek said, referring to a First-year Writing-Intensive Seminar (FWIS) assignment. “I’ve had a great relationship with a few of the tutors, and I would often come back multiple times for the same essay, which would usually improve significantly by the end.” A mathematics major, Dudek spent this spring semester in Oxford as a School of Social Sciences Gateway ambassador.
Although freshmen make up a large number of individual appointments, the center’s appeal is designed to be broad based. “We’ve had sophomores, juniors, seniors, grad students and postdocs who have made appointments to come in and sit down with our peer consultants,” Wilson added. Rice students have sought advice on assignments related to every major discipline, from English and education to architecture, business and biochemistry.
Jing Wang, an international graduate student in anthropology, is one of the center’s regular customers. “I think it’s really useful and necessary to have this kind of center, and the instructors are kind and patient,” she said. Wang has gotten help with personal statements for fellowships, funding proposals and the like.
In addition to this kind of individualized attention, the center sponsors workshops on academic fundamentals like note taking, critical reading and email etiquette as well as more advanced topics like oral presentations, writing style and paper revision. For non-native English speakers, there are sessions to help students improve their listening, speaking and grammar skills.
Students come in for help with cover letters, journal articles, dissertation chapters, technical reports and even museum catalog entries — all manner of assignments. They can record, practice and evaluate their oral presentations and research posters in a specially equipped “smart room.”
Faculty request advice on designing syllabi, especially for the freshmen seminars, said Wilson. She and Volz lead a faculty writing retreat each year for the Office of Faculty Development.
Rice’s service-oriented and curricular approach to communication sets it apart from other university-based writing centers. “I think Rice is unique, but not alone, in taking a multimodal approach to communication … but the vast majority of institutions focus on writing support,” said Volz.
To this end, a lot of the center’s work takes place outside its Fondren Library hub, as staff take on a number of specialized projects across campus. For example, Festa serves as kind of a go-to resource for faculty, who come to her with requests for workshops that are tailored to specific course assignments, projects, requirements and more. Among her many specialized projects, she has worked with Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership on capstone presentations; with Kurt Stallmann, associate professor of composition and theory at the Shepherd School of Music, to help students craft personal artists’ statements; and with the Program in Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities to create digital stories about students’ international service work.
It’s one of the most dramatic scenes of the beloved 1939 classic “TheWizard of Oz.” As a giant tornado snakes across the darkening Kansas plains, Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and the farmhands seek shelter in a storm cellar. Arriving too late to take shelter underground and struggling against a fierce wind, Dorothy (clutching her dog, Toto) finds her way to a bedroom. She’s knocked unconscious by a window, and in the next scene, the house spirals up into the twister.
Awakening, Dorothy sees familiar and frightening characters parading by. When the house finally plummets from the sky and lands with a thud, a strange and literally colorful new world beckons.
When Heather Elliott Neill ’12, a fellow in the PWC, played this scene for a class of freshmen last fall, all eyes were glued to the screen. No doubt most of the students had seen this movie countless times. And yet, as Neill pointed out, none of this scene’s delightful details were included in L. Frank Baum’s original stories about Oz. In fact, Neill said, “There’s no indication that Oz is a dream.” She asked, what was the same and what was different — and why?
What can Rice freshmen learn from reading Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and other classic children’s novels like “Treasure Island,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Anne of Green Gables”?
FWIS 181: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature, or How Alice (in Wonderland) Became Harry Potter’s Great-Great-Great Grandmother, is one of 75 First-Year Writing-Intensive Seminars. Required for new undergraduate students, each three-credit-hour seminar is capped at 15 students, allowing for a “no hiding in the back row” experience for new students and facilitating lots of discussion. Gone is the stand-alone, essay-focused composition course of yore. In its place is a fascinating variety of topical courses — graphic novels, medical humanities, contemporary American poetry, immigrant experience, race and culture, global health perspectives or Houston’s bayous, for example — in which communication is embedded in the syllabus.
“From the beginning, there was this desire to have a first-year seminar program that would introduce students to foundational communication skills that they would need throughout their careers,” said Volz. “In that course, they focus on how to formulate questions, how to define problems, how to gather and select evidence, and how to build a thesis-driven argument.”
Some classes even manage to do more, such as making the city of Houston itself part of the syllabus. In FWIS 187: Exploring the Science and History of Houston’s Bayous, students spent the semester exploring Houston’s watersheds, especially the bayous that form such a visible part of our urbanized environmental heritage.
Carrie Masiello, associate professor of earth science, built in a number of communication assignments, including interviews, summaries and class presentations. Field trips and guest lecturers were a prominent part of her course design.
And Masiello used an ongoing local, political and environmental issue — the proposed Memorial Park Demonstration Project — to hold students’ interest. “I strongly believe that students solve problems best when they’re interested in them,” said Masiello. After taking field trips to see and assess the health of Buffalo Bayou, students put their questions to two Rice experts visiting the class, Jeff Nittrouer, assistant professor of earth science, and Evan Siemann, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of BioSciences.
“This topic was a rich vein for us,” Masiello said. “The scientific literature on the topic is approachable, and there has been so much public communication about the project. A large body of Web pages, YouTube videos, government documents and, of course, the scientific literature created opportunities for them to naturally reflect on what it means to communicate publicly, accurately and persuasively.”
With the goal of introducing writing and other communication modes as a tool for learning and critical inquiry, Rice set out in 2011 to overhaul its introductory writing curriculum — a feat not unlike passing new legislation in the statehouse. The FWIS program was up and running by fall 2012 in concert with the Center for Written, Oral and Visual Communication. A great deal of pedagogical training supports FWIS courses, which are taught by faculty from many departments.
“While faculty have autonomy in designing their courses, we do try to support consistency across the range of courses, in terms of the learning objectives and the amount of writing, for example,” Volz said. “Our staff leads a weeklong pedagogical training program, consults with faculty on assignment design and reviews draft syllabi with an eye on the sequence of assignments and the balance of content and communication goals.
“Many faculty think that content has to be sacrificed to make room for communication,” Volz said. “We work with faculty to use communication assignments as a tool to help learn the material — not just show what they already know.”
When Yu Liu, a Rice doctoral student in mechanical engineering, stepped up to the podium at the 2014 Screech Competition, he faced a number of hurdles. First, like all of the two dozen contestants, he had just 90 seconds to deliver his pitch to a packed McMurtry Auditorium. Second, his topic, “stability monitoring of drill-string,” sounded pretty dry. Finally, his first language was Mandarin Chinese, yet the rapid-fire delivery would be in English. The clock began to tick.
Before revealing how Liu did in the competition, let’s find out how he got to the podium. Some context: Under President David Leebron’s leadership, Rice’s international student body has grown 99 percent in the past decade. In fall 2014, international students made up 22.8 percent of the student body as a whole. For graduate students, the percentage is much higher — almost 40 percent.
To better serve these students, the Program in Writing and Communication now includes a significant English as a Second Language component. In addition to for-credit seminars, there are short-term workshops and, of course, individual consultations through the writing center. The seminars, UNIV 601 and 602, focus respectively on oral communication and academic writing skills.
Liu had enrolled in UNIV 601, the seminar designed to “introduce students to expectations and assumptions of North American audiences, strategies for expressing ideas in individual and group conversations, and oral and visual skills needed for academic presentations.” Lecturer Katerina Belik, a linguist and experienced ESL teacher from Russia, regularly teaches the course and helped Liu practice his presentation.
“I think my English is adequate for daily life and work communication, but my public speaking skills are not sufficiently trained. The class helped me to improve,” said Liu, who’s now graduated and works at Shell Oil Company.
In her seminars, Belik advocates using a lot of visual aids to explain research — slides, posters, blackboards, objects or videos — but not to overwhelm this information with unnecessary text. “Show your slides to someone who can’t read your language,” she recently advised a class of about 10 graduate students whose first languages included Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Chinese. “Your audience should be able to understand your message by just looking at the slide.”
When discussing the range of visual aids a presenter can use, she made sure the students understood that they themselves were part of the presentation.
“The most important concept UNIV 601 embedded into my mind is good communication is focused on delivering the key message effectively,” Liu said. “Different techniques like body language, stress and pause, tailoring speech for specific audiences, and a well-designed opener and ending can be employed.” Practice doesn’t hurt either. Liu said he spent about eight hours on his 90-second Screech entry.
Back to the competition. A confident Liu grabbed the mic with one hand and held up an index finger with the other. “Question: What’s the gasoline price today? Three dollars, I just checked. The energy revolution — hydraulic fracturing — is giving the United States true energy independence. But why are you paying a high price for gas?”
Liu’s attention-grabbing hook about gas prices worked like magic to focus the audience’s attention. They soon learned how his research can make drilling operations more cost
effective and efficient — potentially leading to cheaper gas for consumers — us! By the time Liu expertly navigated the short time frame without going over a second, he had become a contender. In fact, he came in third overall, a solid showing in a competitive field.
The ESL seminars are “in high demand,” said Volz. She has heard students express that these are “safe places” to build fluency and to learn from one another as well as to become part of a community where they can test out their ideas and improve vocabulary. The stakes may not be as high in these settings as in research group meetings, she noted, where advisers and more senior students are present. They’re also not as high as in a whole auditorium full of strangers, all focused on you, while the clock is ticking.
When it comes to communicating research, posters are the “lingua franca”of students, especially in the sciences. Whether participating in a competition, conference or class project, the research poster takes center stage. So, Kenneth Cox and Rick Strait, longtime teachers in Rice’s chemical and biomolecular engineering (CHBE) department, have some key advice for students: Rethink the poster.
“It’s about a team of people selling ideas,” said Cox, professor in the practice and the department’s director of undergraduate studies. “The poster is supporting information.” In their senior design courses, they push the primacy of communication as a skill that will make a difference in their students’ careers. Cox is blunt in his advocacy: “I don’t care how sharp you are, how creative you are, what results you get. Out in the real world, if you’re not able to communicate, it goes nowhere.”
Cox and Strait are enthusiastic participants in a pilot program at Rice that helps faculty members integrate writing, speaking and visual design assignments into upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses. The Communication-in-the-Disciplines (CID) pilot is another part of Rice’s PWC. This pilot program emphasizes discipline-specific modes of inquiry, genres and conventions, said Volz.
The CID idea grew out of composition studies, where “writing across the curriculum” encouraged students to learn to write in a way that crossed disciplinary boundaries and yet be respectful of those differences, said Helena Michie, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and chair of the faculty advisory board for the Program in Writing and Communication. “The idea is that for students who have declared their major, it is very important to learn certain discipline-specific techniques of communication,” Michie said. “The structures will be different but every academic paper requires a structure. English papers are not history papers are not sociology papers are not bioengineering papers.”
In the CHBE department, faculty identified required courses for the major at the sophomore, junior and senior level and requested help integrating communication into the curriculum.
Volz and Bae worked with students and faculty to implement curricular changes, starting with fundamentals at the sophomore level and building step-by-step from there. “We’re teaching students at every level of their program how to write a report and how to present professionally,” Bae said, “and also how to add visual elements.”
Strait, an adjunct professor who joined Rice after retiring from a career in the oil and gas industry, co-teaches the senior capstone design course with Cox. This capstone course synthesizes years of study by the student and culminates in a team project. Strait encourages students to expand their idea of what a presentation format can be — change up the shape of the poster, add multimedia to the presentation or incorporate audience-pleasing graphics, such as cartoons.
“I want to add a little sizzle to their steak,” Strait said. “You have to be a salesman — even if you’ve got a great idea.”
Senior Luis Villa, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major, said, “Learning and practicing communication skills have really helped me succeed in my internships outside the university.” Villa has interned at BP and will join ExxonMobil after graduation. “Almost all our professors in classes where presentations or posters were required have dedicated time to helping us prepare for them,” said Villa, who is part of a capstone team that’s designing a plant to sustainably produce both water and fuel for a site
Last fall, a second pilot gained momentum. The Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality houses an interdisciplinary academic program with a strong research and public service component. Undergraduates can major in the study of women, gender and sexuality, while graduate students may earn a certificate to complement their field of study. The center also houses a two-year postdoctoral fellowship program.
Rosemary Hennessy, the L.H. Favrot Professor of Humanities and professor of English literature, directs the center, which was invited to be a part of the CID pilot by Volz and Michie. Hennessy quickly came to realize that the pilot offered a natural fit for their curriculum — many courses integrated all kinds of written, oral and visual communications in their assignments and projects already.
For example, the undergraduate honors’ theses included a public presentation. At the freshman and sophomore level, two significant oral history projects are ongoing, one aimed at preserving Houston’s LGBT history and another at documenting women who have worked at Rice. Students enrolled in the department’s Seminar and Practicum in Engaged Research present their research and service findings in posters and other formats.
By launching a CID pilot, Hennessy and her fellow faculty members would build upon what they’d already accomplished, adding a layer of intention to the center’s engaged research curricula.
“We were able to recognize something that we had done as a faculty over time — that is, incorporating written, oral and visual communication throughout the curriculum — and make it better,” Hennessy said. One specific area that the faculty chose to address through the CID pilot was presentations to interdisciplinary and nonacademic audiences.
In some cases, this involves summarizing research via a poster, a mode of communication that Hennessy, being from the humanities side of academia, was unfamiliar with. In the English department, she said,“We don’t do posters. I didn’t know where to begin, so thank goodness the communications center was there.”
Bae helped students evaluate their research posters and create short (90 second) and longer (three minute) poster talks. “She was great in helping students see what worked and what didn’t in older posters,” Hennessy said, adding that Bae’s suggestions were as specific as what kind of graphs or charts are most appropriate for certain kinds of data and how to choose the colors for a poster. Sharing research in this way can be very effective, making complex ideas easier to grasp in a short amount of time.
Hennessy sees an opportunity for faculty to get in on this training as well, improving the same communications skills their students are working on, thus becoming more effective models. “As we’re trying to teach students to be better communicators, we need to ask how do we become better communicators ourselves?”