SCALING UNDERGRADUATE WRITING AT PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES: Problems and Prospects by Douglas Hesse CSHE 2.19 (January 2019)


Although writing is well established as a high-impact educational practice, scaling that practice is challenging.  Writing is a mode of engaged learning, and teaching it requires providing careful attention informed by expertise. These conditions are labor-intensive and expensive, even as public universities are hardly awash in funds. Writing skills develop over time as a function of encountering challenges and being coached on addressing them. What counts as “good” writing varies according to context, target readership, and purpose. Students need to build a repertory of strategies and experiences, along with the executive functions to know when to access what. They acquire this repertory by writing: doing it, not simply being told about it, and receiving feedback and advice. Technologies cannot currently or foreseeably provide feedback of sufficient quality to solve problems of scale. Writing Across the Curriculum programs can supplement first year writing courses, even replace some of them—but only if accompanied by sustained professional development that includes thorough knowledge of effective writing pedagogies, knowledge bolstered by existing research, theory, and best practices.  New faculty models that feature full-time, benefited continuing lecturers or teaching professors exist at many universities, private and public; these models are more cost-effective than tenure-line faculty owing to enrollments. Even when they’re more expensive than adjuncts, these models’ return in quality is profound.  The bottom line is that, even with cost ceilings, it’s possible to scale quality writing instruction, however incrementally.  At least minimally, this requires faculty writing specialists who can work directly with disciplinary faculty and who can ensure that anyone teaching writing is doing so in well-designed courses, using effective and efficient pedagogies. Writing centers are vital in supporting these efforts. Permanent, professional writing faculties, in new kinds of faculty roles, offer the greatest promise, albeit at greater costs.

Douglas Hesse
Publication date: 
February 1, 2019
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)