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Writing Program Continues Tradition of Innovation

By James Devitt

When Logic and Rhetoric became the writing component of Columbia College's core curriculum in 1986, it was both an innovative method of writing instruction and a foundation for future undergraduate study.

"Logic and Rhetoric was the 'core of the core,' " said Sandra Pierson Prior, who headed the writing program from 1987 to 2002. "Writing was taught as a way of thinking, and assignments were a series of intellectual puzzles for students to solve."

After five years of evaluation and planning, this semester Columbia will again revitalize its undergraduate writing program.

"It's time to revise our approach to teaching writing, to meet the needs of the current student population," said Joseph Bizup, a former Yale University English professor who was selected by a five-member search committee this spring to develop and implement the changes in the writing program. "Ultimately we want to have something to offer students for all four years, but our initial emphasis will be on first-year writing courses."

"Undergraduate writing requires a more centrally defined place in our curriculum than it had been given," said Jonathan Arac, chair of the English and Comparative Literature Department and a member of the search committee. "These changes will help restore the place of student writing in undergraduate education."

The new program, to be put into place over the next three to five years, is called the Undergraduate Writing Program, which replaces its predecessor, the Composition Program.

"We want to signal that we have a broader vision of what writing instruction should be at Columbia," said Bizup. "The new name signals a shift in emphasis from the first year only to all four years of instruction."

Bizup notes that other Ivy League universities, including Princeton and Yale, are planning or implementing changes to their undergraduate writing programs.

Changes will affect students at Columbia College, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of General Studies.

Bizup will begin implementing the new program in the fall 2002 semester with a piloted first-year writing course. It will be taught in 16 of the 86 first-year writing sections. In the fall of 2003, a version of the course, refined in light of this year's experience and faculty suggestions, will likely become the required first-year writing course. Logic and Rhetoric has been in place since 1987.

"We want to use this year to see how the new course works, so that we can have a fair degree of confidence going forward in the fall of 2003," said Bizup.

Bizup added that the first-year students enrolled in the new course were randomly selected in order to have the most accurate gauge of the new course's efficacy.

Bizup said the aims of changes to the writing program are consistent with the spirit of Logic and Rhetoric.

"When Logic and Rhetoric was designed, it was a very innovative course," Bizup said. "Its innovative elements have to do with writing and thinking. This approach taught that writing is not something that occurs after thought, but that writing and thinking occur concurrently. The program we're putting in place also emphasizes this connection between writing and thinking, so it is in some ways in the tradition of Logic and Rhetoric."

Logic and Rhetoric was conceptualized and implemented at Columbia by Edward "Ted" Tayler, the Lionel Trilling Emeritus Professor in the Humanities. For his work, Tayler received a Distinguished Service to the Core Curriculum Award in 1998.

"In creating Logic and Rhetoric, Ted Tayler was trying to get away from the cookie-cutter and formulaic writing, which ultimately shuts down thinking," said Pierson Prior. "Logic and Rhetoric was designed to develop analytical thinking, so students could learn to approach any intellectual problem and deal with it logically."

The contents of the new first-year writing course, which has yet to be named, will operate from three premises: 1) reading and writing are concurrently developed skills; 2) writing is a practice, which can be learned by most even if it cannot be reduced to a set of firm rules and procedures, and 3) writing does not happen in a vacuum, but is always motivated by some purpose.

Other plans include the creation of a writing center, which would offer undergraduates one-on-one assistance with their writing to complement the work they are doing in their courses.

"We don't want this center to be a one-stop fix-it shop, so students come one time for help on a single paper," Bizup said. "We want to build longer-term relationships between tutors and students so they will have someone they know and trust to comment on their writing over the whole course of their undergraduate education."

Two other components, additional advanced writing courses and an enhanced on-line presence, are part of the Undergraduate Writing Program's future plans. Bizup says advanced writing courses should have particular appeal to second-year students.

"The sophomore year is an ideal time for students to take elective writing courses, because they have yet to become immersed in the coursework of their majors," said Bizup. "But we expect these courses to generate interest among all undergraduates, because students at all levels have an interest in improving their writing."

Published: Sep 20, 2002
Last modified: Sep 19, 2002

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