The Writing Instruction Paradox

Here is the problem in a nutshell.

If we offer a writing class in the first term or two of graduate education, it is almost too early. Students may not yet have the need for the skills we offer (especially those related to research and thesis production). Likewise, they may not absorb, retain, or transfer the skills from the class.

If we wait to offer instruction until students need the skills, it is almost too late. The students needed to have learned, practiced, and internalized these skills yesterday.

So what’s a program to do?

Here are a few principles:

1.     The most important thing is to begin to see writing instruction and support as an iterative and ongoing process. The skills related to writing and research are built over time and benefit from repeated exposure and reinforcement.

2.     Writing classes are most successful when they are supported by a curriculum that constantly draws student attention back to the questions “What does this discipline do?” and “How does it express that work rhetorically?”

3.     In addition to giving information about writing in the field, ask students to become what Christine Sundstrom (2014) calls “ethnographers of the graduate and professional writing in their fields.” Have students analyze texts for information about the common traits and written “moves” in the field. Train faculty to raise these issues in every graduate class so that students accumulate awareness that they can then bring to their own writing.

4.     Offer specific thesis-writing classes or boot camps on a frequent basis.

5.     Student contact with peers and faculty drops off precipitously when coursework ends, often leaving students with little structure, sense of direction, or momentum for beginning their thesis process. Offer weekly in-person or online thesis-writing groups for thesis students at all stages. Public declaration of goals and the use of group accountability have been shown to have a positive impact on writing productivity (Boice, 1990).

6.     Offer workshops that assist faculty in giving efficient and effective feedback to thesis writers.

The bad news is that there is no perfect time to teach writing.

The good news is that there is no bad time to teach writing.

For great strategies on helping students identify and use the rhetorical features of their discipline, click here.

The Graduate Writing Program at the University of Kansas: An Inter-Disciplinary, Rhetorical Genre-Based Approach to Developing Professional Identities. Composition Forum, Vol. 29. Retrieved from

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