Introductory-level courses have been reworked to fulfill Composition I and II requirements By Melissa Mitchell * "The writing in this course did much to enhance my understanding of the history of the United States and to improve my writing skills." * "I have found this class to be extremely beneficial in allowing me to become a more critical, thoughtful and competent writer." * "I learned that writing a history paper does not always have to be a chore, and it is possible to actually enjoy writing it." * "Overall, my writing was helped by the submitting of several drafts." Nothing spells success for a new academic program more than ringing endorsements from students. And those student testimonials are "write on" for a number of instructors in the UI's history department. The comments were gleaned from student evaluations of the writing-intensive sections of Mark Leff's History 152 course, which covers American history since the Civil War. Leff's course, along with a handful of other introductory-level history courses in American history, Western civilization and British history, offer sections that fulfill the university's recently implemented Composition I and II general education requirements. While a number of other disciplines have begun to offer courses that meet these requirements and qualify as "writing intensive," the history department is regarded as a model of what can be done with existing courses. Like other departments that have revamped existing courses or created ones to meet the UI's general education requirements for writing-intensive courses, the history department benefited from the expertise, advice and research assistance of personnel at the university's Writing Center. The center offers workshops for faculty members and teaching assistants who teach writing-intensive course sections. "Not only have we taken advantage of their training program, but we have created our own orientation for teaching assistants in these sections," Leff said. In addition, the department's nine teaching assistants who currently lead writing-intensive sections share their enthusiasm, compassion and ideas about incorporating writing into the classroom with other TAs - through day-to-day interactions with each other in the TA office or at the water fountain, and sometimes through more structured workshop situations. In making the transition from traditional teaching methods to the incorporation of a writing emphasis in larger classes, "it's possible to do certain things more efficiently," Leff said. "However, our concern is not how to ideally teach writing, but - within the constraints we have - how do we better use writing assignments to enhance understanding of history?" At a recent meeting for all history teaching assistants, those who met with success in the writing-intensive sections shared their ideas about effective teaching styles and techniques. Since TAs in the writing-intensive sections teach smaller sections that meet more frequently than the regular sections, many of the methods don't translate well to the larger classes, they readily admit. However, according to some of the TAs, manageable means do exist for increasing the amount of writing that takes place in the larger sections. One effective way to get students writing more - without significantly increasing the instructor's workload - is through the process known as peer review. It works by having students share copies of writing assignments with one or two others, who are required to evaluate them based on guidelines provided by the teaching assistants. "If taken seriously, this works really well," said TA Tonio Andrade, who, with TA Joe Perry, developed a set of peer-review guidelines for History 112. To ensure that they take the assignment seriously, Andrade requires students to hand their peer reviews in with their final papers. "One of the gratifying things I've found is that they do talk about the assignments" among themselves more when peer reviewing of writing is used, Andrade said. And the more they think about and talk about the material outside of the course, the more involved they become with the subject. "They're also very good about catching each other's mistakes," he said. Sometimes they're overly cautious about being too critical, however, and will couch their comments by writing, "I may be mistaken, but ... ." Leff added that the peer-review process can be instructive for students because "when you look at problems in some other person's writing, you are practically forced to think about your own writing." Another technique most of the TAs employ in the writing-intensive courses is the use of micro-themes. A micro-theme can be any topic on which students are asked to write a paragraph or two. Some TAs require students to record their responses in journals - in or outside of class; some apply the micro-theme technique in class only; and others use a combination of tactics. Regardless of the specific method, the intent is the same: to get students to think and to write. According to Leff, research indicates that "the more people write, the better they write; and the more they write, the more they can focus their understanding and study in a course. "Writing - especially the ability to put together a cohesive argument - is one of the most important skills we can have as historians," he added. "If you can't write well, you can't think well." TA Eric Burin gets students in his writing-intensive classes to think, write and engage in more intelligent, lively class discussions by incorporating micro-themes that prompt students to connect the sometimes dusty past with more familiar, contemporary or hypothetical situations. For instance, he'll tell them to imagine that the university has passed a by-law that prohibits blacks and other minorities from attending the university. Next, he asks his students to explain - in writing - what they would do if such a policy were instituted. Burin then uses the exercise as a launching pad for initiating discussions of what the Puritans and Pilgrims did when they disagreed with the orders handed down by the Church of England. In another assignment, Burin asks students: "All things considered, how do you measure the quality of your life?" Then he uses their responses about their own life experiences to draw analogies to various historical themes, such as how historians have measured the quality of slave life in Latin or North America. "Micro-themes allow for all kinds of creativity," Burin said. "And I encourage independent thinking, because how can you expect students to do that if we - as educators - don't do that ourselves?" Burin said he also likes to incorporate micro-themes because when students have to think about a topic before coming to class, or at the beginning of a class, "they've already had to think on thematic levels." "You won't have these muttering, stuttering discussions, because people have already thought about the subject," he said. TA Toby Higbie, who also teaches writing-intensive courses and has worked with TA Henry Kamerling to develop effective strategies for teaching History 152, added that micro-themes also can be a good way to encourage class participation from all students. "Even the quiet students come to class with something prepared to read," he said. And that eliminates their tendency to feel intimidated by having to think and respond on the spot. In terms of more formal writing assignments like mid-term or final papers, Higbie and the other TAs who've been teaching writing-intensive sections for the past couple of years continue to experiment with the best methods for helping students get the most out of those assignments. Some TAs require students to first write a short paper incorporating information from a primary source - such as a newspaper, magazine, song or poem. A subsequent paper may build on the same topic, but a TA may require students to present new material in the form of an argumentative essay. Then, a final paper may require students to develop their original theme into a more advanced presentation. Other TAs leading writing-intensive courses stress the importance of revisions. In those cases, students' first papers are considered to be drafts. After receiving peer reviews - as well as comments and a grade from the instructor - they are required to re-write the paper for another grade. In addition to gaining feedback about their writing from their instructors and their peers, students in the writing-intensive sections also benefit from the use of self-evaluations. At the beginning of the class, Leff said, they are surveyed and asked to identify their strengths and weaknesses as writers. The same exercise is repeated at the end of the semester, and students are required to create portfolios that incorporate all their papers, along with a self-critique. "One of the most rewarding things about teaching the writing-intensive courses is that a lot of students come in feeling very uncomfortable about their writing skills. They think they're stupid," Higbie said. "But after sitting down with them, taking the time to help them develop techniques, they realize it's not as hard as they thought it was. And that's a major revelation, a great triumph for them. "And for me, as a teacher, this has also been a very good experience because the department has allowed us to experiment a lot. They realize that the people in the trenches are the ones who figure out a lot about what works and what doesn't."