Intersections of Student Writing: A Conversation with Tim Jensen, Director of Writing
By Tim Jensen, Director of Writing and Assistant Professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film
What is your background and training in rhetoric and composition?
I received my PhD in Rhetoric, Composition and Literacy from the Ohio State University. I was incredibly fortunate to have worked with some phenomenal scholars there, including Wendy Hesford, Cindy Selfe, Kay Halasek, and Scott DeWitt. That said, formal study in rhetoric and composition can only account for so much of one’s development. It’s really in our daily interactions—with email, random people at bus-stops, car commercials, etc.—that we train in rhetoric and composition.
How would you describe your research interests in a couple of sentences?
I’m interested in how a culture’s emotional norms are built through various rhetorics. So I look at how we’re entrained to experience certain emotions in particular ways, how we’re implicitly instructed to express them in rhetorically sanctioned ways, and how dominant discourses shape what one is even allowed to feel towards. Take a common phrase like “tree-hugger,” for instance—with just a little analytical pressure, you can see how we are routinely exhorted to take on certain emotional orientations, which, considered collectively, have big consequences.
What should instructors expect students to know once they complete WR 121?
A central goal of WR 121 is to strengthen the student’s rhetorical awareness, so that they can recognize and respond to a range of situations and audiences, especially academic audiences. To that end, by the end of 121, students will have analyzed and written in multiple genres.
Another key objective of 121 is to get students thinking about the writing process itself. We believe that in order for one to continually develop as a writer, it’s critical to reflect on and build strategies for all stages of the writing process, from free-writing to proofreading. The ultimate aim, of course, is for students to craft strategies that truly work for them.
WR 121 also places great emphasis on information literacy. We work in close collaboration with the Valley Library to teach students how to locate, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize relevant sources. I think it’s vital that students receive this instruction in information literacy early in their time at Oregon State, as research will be an integral part of their studies, regardless of major.
We have additional learning outcomes that are listed on every 121 syllabus, but they are largely framed by these three key objectives: strengthening one’s rhetorical awareness, reflecting on writing as a process, and developing skills in information literacy.
How does Writing 121 prepare students for upper division, discipline-specific writing?
In three ways: with rhetoric, research, and practicing the moves that matter in academic writing. As students progress through their majors, they need to become familiar with the genres that circulate most in those fields, whether it’s lab reports, press releases, or argumentative essays. WR 121 prepares students for these genres by helping them develop a rhetorical perspective, which can be effectively applied across genres, and across disciplines. Our focus on research and information literacy gives students familiarity with library databases, and we practice the skills needed to evaluate the sources they discover. Upper division courses frequently have substantial research components; WR 121 helps shape a foundation for success in these areas by teaching effective research practices. Finally, it’s important to note that 121 plays close attention to the sentence-level specifics of academic writing. We use a book, They Say/I Say, which helps demystify academic argument, and assists students in critical maneuvers indicative of quality writing, like transitions, introducing quotation, and answering the ever-important “So What?” question.
What are a few key concepts begun in WR 121 that WIC faculty can use to scaffold writing in their courses?
Our curriculum emphasizes writing as a process. One way WIC faculty can set students up for success is by also emphasizing this notion, and even better, providing opportunities that recognize and reward key steps of the writing process. For example, if you have a substantial writing assignment, consider setting a date when drafts are due and arrange a peer-review process. Instructors can encourage students to use concept-mapping or free-writing to generate ideas early on in the term. They can remind students to write in smaller, more frequent sessions, rather than rely on the binge-writing that so often happen with big projects. Emphasizing writing as a process not only provides students with a positive message, one consistent with what they learned in WR 121, it will also, quite simply, often lead to much better writing.
What do students struggle with in WR 121? How does WR 121 address those struggles?
It’s often the case—despite the rich array of cultural backgrounds in our students—that they’ve mostly known writing as a means of examination. Writing has largely been framed for them as an assessment technique—as something one does for school. We encourage students to see writing more broadly—to see it as a tool for thinking, as a means of and opportunity for inquiry, expression, and connecting with others. In this transition, a sense of certainty is definitely lost. An examination-based approach to writing frequently means seeing things in terms of “right” and “wrong.” There’s a fair amount of comfort in that, actually. Approach writing within a framework of rhetoric, however, and you switch to metrics of “more persuasive” and “less persuasive,” contingent upon one’s purpose, context, and analysis of audience. You can easily see how the latter is more complex and offers less assurances. Students often struggle in this transition to a view of writing based in rhetoric, rather than testing. Instructors of WR 121 will often acknowledge this situation directly with their students and assure them that growth in learning can be difficult. The WR 121 assignment sequence, moreover, encourages students to take ownership of their writing and ideas from the beginning, and increasingly challenges them to do so as the term progresses.
What are characteristics of Oregon State students and their impact on WR 121?
It’s difficult to generalize about OSU’s student body. We have an incredibly talented and diverse group here. Last year’s incoming class had a 3.56 average GPA, for example, with more than 40% achieving a 3.75 or higher in high school. OSU enrolls more salutatorians and valedictorians than any other university in the state. Nearly 23% of our student body are members of a U.S. minority. That’s quite impressive. At the same time, many of our students are coming from classrooms that were overcrowded and underfunded. Here in Oregon, for example, our high school student-teacher ratio is higher than all but two states in the nation, and state funding per student is substantially below the national average. These are real challenges, especially for writing instruction, since it’s so labor intensive. My fear is that because of these conditions, students arrive feeling as if they’re somehow intrinsically “just not good at writing,” while feeling competent elsewhere in their studies. This is not unique to OSU, of course; lots of students everywhere feel as if they are simply “not writers,” in a way similar to when someone says “I’m just not a tech-person.” One of our charges in WR 121 is to move students from this perspective of fixity to one of growth and expansion, so that they can improve their writing skills, regardless of where they’re starting from.
Where can students go if they would like more help with their writing?
I’ll give you 5 options, in no particular order of privilege.
- Go to their peers. I think it’s incredibly beneficial for students to seek out feedback from friends and colleagues. I think we could do a lot more in developing authentic contexts for peer-review in all our classrooms, but students should also be encouraged to pursue comments on their own. Doing so, I believe, would go a long way in creating a culture of writing here at OSU.
- Go to the writers they admire and study their works. Quality writing often involves a fair amount of quality reading. Instructors can ask students to seek out samples and encourage them analyze the moves being made.
- Go to the Writing Center. OSU is blessed to have a strong Writing Center with great leadership. Students can visit at any stage of the writing process and work with trained consultants to improve their writing. Students can also submit their writing to the Center’s Online Writing Lab (http://cwl.oregonstate.edu/owl.php).
- Go to your advisor and schedule more courses with substantial writing components. Improving one’s writing means sustained practice and one must seek out opportunities for doing so. Students should absolutely check out out the Writing Minor (http://oregonstate.edu/cla/wlf/writing-minor). They should look over course listings for the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. They should look for courses with WIC designations. Just because a student is only required to take one WIC course, there’s nothing stopping them from taking more.
- Go to 750words.com. This is a site that encourages you to write—you guessed it—750 words a day. As the site’s creator puts it, “if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day [...] it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day.” It doesn’t have to be good writing. Rather, it’s a space to write out rants, to scratch out the day’s half-formed thoughts, and to reflect-while-writing. Take the challenge to write 750 everyday for a month! Doing so will create the habits and rhythms of writing that are so critical to improving one’s abilities.
What is the role of grammar instruction in WR 121?
We encourage and train instructors of WR 121 to incorporate grammar rhetorically and integrally. Rhetorically, grammar is a matter of ethos, or credibility. With this, we can reframe grammar not as hard-and-fast rules with rights and wrongs that hold true across all contexts, but rather as an integral function of language, as inextricable from its system as words are to sentences. By communicating grammar as an issue of authority and credibility, we invite students to view it as another tool in their persuasive arsenal. For a lot of our students, grammar has mostly likely been taught as if it operates within a vacuum; by discussing it in terms of rhetoric—with an emphasis on context, audience, credibility and purpose—the hope is that it will be more approachable a topic, one that is integral to their development as persuasive communicators.
I’ve found that an effective way to further frame this issue is to argue Standard Written English (SWE) is just another subdialect of American English. Students encounter and interact with a variety of subdialects everyday; SWE is just another one. One can argue it’s an important one, since it’s the standard for most professional worlds (academic, legal, governmental, etc.). For better or for worse, it’s an integral component of the language of social authority. The be credible within those spheres, it’s critical to know the conventions.
More pragmatically, I might add as a final note that Mina Shaugnessy has two guiding functions I try to follow in dealing with grammar in student papers: 1) Look for a pattern of error; 2) Not all errors are created/received equal.
What else would you like WIC faculty to know?
That the work they do is incredibly important to the development of their student’s writing. I want to thank them for their efforts in fostering a culture of writing at the university and encourage them to support others doing the same.
What are some of your personal goals for the Writing Program at Oregon State?
I’m very motivated by the challenge of establishing authentic contexts for student writing, so that the writing process is infused with a sense of personal passion, which I find catalyzes learning in remarkable ways. For example, instead of asking students to “imagine you’re writing to a government representative about an issue you’re invested in,” I want students to actually write their state representative. Find out who she or he is, research their interests to inform the approach, analyze the rhetorical situation, draft, review, revise, and proofread the letter—and then find the actual address and send it! I want students to feel a sense of real exigency and experience authentic stakes in their writing.
I am also keen on making WR 121 a more shared academic experience. I want students talking about what they’re writing on to others who aren’t necessarily in their class. Anita Helle, Director of the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, has a phrase that I think is particularly apt here: “An academic culture really thrives when there’s as much horizontal mentorship as their is vertical mentorship.” I believe we can realize this vision with WR 121, creating a culture of writing at OSU where students are so genuinely motivated by their writing projects and so invested in the topics they’re thinking through, that they seek out feedback from multiple sources.
Although I have plenty of more goals for the program, I also know that others have ideas, too, so I encourage anyone interested in creating a culture of writing at OSU to get in touch!
Thank you so much for your time, Tim. One last question: What (or who) are you reading right now?
On my desk at campus is Cruel Optimism, by Lauren Berlant. She has enormous talent for viewing the political as primarily an affective sphere. On my desk at home is One Man's Wilderness, a collection of journal entries by Dick Proenneke, a man who in 1968, at the age of 51, ventures into Alaska's wilds to put "self-reliance on trial." Proenneke is a rugged as it gets, felling spruce trees alone and building a cabin by hand. His writing has a rugged simplicity that reflects the lifestyle: "At minus thirty degrees the moose meat saws like wood," he writes one December morning. "The wind is the villain when the thermometer is low. Nature's invisible knife." Beautiful stuff.