Notes Toward a Culture of Writing

by Alan Filreis

No one who is an effective writing teacher lectures about writing more than occasionally. Our main method of gathering students in rooms for discrete events of instruction does not succeed in the teaching of writing. The writing seminar, which has worked spectacularly well at Penn, is obviously the right setting--typified not just by small size but also by a format encouraging frequent critical response to students' new work. This pedagogy is by its nature open to extra-curricular--a better term is co-curricular--advising and support. Learning to write is finally a matter of doing it, and students in writing seminars do far more writing out of class than in. A worthy university writing program meets the obligation to arrange for the teaching of writing beyond the courses--to locate, in a sense, where and when students do their work and to provide, wherever and whenever possible, the option of more instruction. Given the scope of a research university, it is not feasible to have faculty teach more than a few writing seminars. Obviously we need doctoral students from English and across the disciplines to lead the seminars. But then we need a comprehensive system of pedagogical training in which faculty serve as the mentors of apprentices. And we need to take advantage of the experience and skills offered by the best undergraduate peer advisors.

The New Writing Program

The newly reorganized Writing Program consists of the Writing Across the University program, the Freshman English program (being renamed "the English Writing Program"), the Writing Center, and Writing Advisors. Guided by a dedicated faculty Writing Committee, the Writing Program creates standards and helps design seminars that undergraduates use to fulfill their writing requirements. Through its ambitious co-curricular projects, such as the Writing Center and Writing Advising, it sustains the faculties' judgment that students should learn early to write lucid, focused, intellectually efficient prose. Among the goals of reorganization are:

Teacher Training in Apprenticeship Seminars

Through the Chimicles Writing Fellowship Program, the Writing Program funds "Writing about" seminars. Some 36 writing seminars are offered annually, beyond the many English writing seminars, in departments including Art History, History & Sociology of Science, Folklore, Music, History, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology. Since the Chimicles Program was endowed, 21 new courses have been offered, 9 of them designed and taught by standing faculty in their departments. (Notably successful writing seminars have been taught by Linda Chance on perceptions of East Asia; Jim O'Donnell on "What Is a Classic?"; Ann Matter on women and religion; Tom Ricketts on moral issues.) But by and large the "Writing about" seminars are taught by advanced doctoral students on teaching fellowships--funded, competitively, by Chimicles awards. Those instructors not in English or philosophy are trained by the Writing Across the University program "outside" the home department. In English and philosophy, graduate instructors leading these seminars are themselves taught by senior faculty who direct a semester-long workshop at the graduate level designed to teach the teaching of writing as part of instruction in the discipline. The faculty, in turn, teach a section of the freshman seminar; mentor and apprentices share a more or less common reading list, working both independently and together on the teaching of freshmen. The apprenticeship teacher-training model has the merit of localizing discussion about pedagogy in the departments, and creating a sense of faculty ownership of the course itself and of the very idea that teaching writing is central to the discipline. Proposals to run new apprenticeship seminars in Classical Studies and Folklore have been approved for September 1997. Several other departments are expressing interest for 1998.

Writing Advisors

Founded by Peshe Kuriloff, Director of Writing Across the University, this program meticulously trains peer (undergraduate) writing advisors who are available for certain kinds of assistance evenings and weekends. (They do not, for instance, "edit," "proofread," or simply rewrite papers, but rather engage student writers in the critical process of asking hard questions about problems of logic, argument, and rhetoric in a piece of unfinished writing.) The significant feature of Writing Advising is that it is an academic service--educationally sound and cost effective--offered through the undergraduate residences, during evening and weekend hours when academic offices are closed. Penn's new Writers House, open until midnight, is serving as a hub facility. We hope to expand the program so that every residential community has in-house writing advising--for the late-night academic "house calls" that typify the informal after-hours learning already well established by Penn's faculty-led College Houses and First-Year Houses.

Electronic Writing Advising

Even Writing Advisors, however, cannot keep the hours on site that can be kept by those available for the same advice electronically. For better or worse, undergraduates at Penn tend to reach the point of needing an answer to a specific question literally in the middle of the night. The Writing Program is already piloting an Electronic Writing Advising project with several hundred students enrolled in writing seminars. Students post questions to writeme@english and receive at least an initial reply within two hours--often within minutes. (Replies are archived for review by Writing Program staff to assure quality.)

Universal Writing Requirement

The 1991 vote for the establishment of a College Writing Requirement by the SAS faculty was joined by similar approvals by the Nursing and Wharton faculties. The Engineering faculty will soon be considering a proposal from its Undergraduate Affairs Committee to augment the SEAS "Social Sciences and Humanities" distributional requirement by including within it a writing requirement similar to that of the College. A Penn Writing Requirement means the opportunity to enable something of a common first-year experience for all undergraduates and gives further incentive for inter-school collaboration.

A Culture of Writing

Such a "culture" is characterized by an active concern across the institution for clear thinking realized through the written word. A successful university writing program calls attention to this ideal in all educational settings at Penn, not only in classrooms where the writing requirement is being fulfilled, but in every office, lab, and residence.

The Talk About Teaching series is a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society. Dr. Filreis, Professor of English, is also Faculty Director of the SAS Writing Program. For information about the Writing Program, see, or write to


Volume 43 Number 18
January 21, 1997

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