Understanding Writing: Theories and Practices

Understanding Writing (ENGL 3005) is an introduction to composition studies, a subfield of English that examines not literature but the process of writing, including how we can best learn and teach academic writing. The course also prepares students to work in UMM's writing center.

Please note that the course requires a great deal of both reading and writing; consider carefully before taking the class in the same semester as, for example, a senior seminar. For more detailed information, see the course description.

Who should take Understanding Writing?

Juniors and seniors with a serious interest in writing, tutoring, or teaching. (First-year students are welcome to apply to take the class as sophomores but may be asked to wait a year before enrolling.) I encourage applications not only from English and Education majors but from students in any field who are committed to developing as writers and/or are considering graduate study. Our conversations are more interesting when class members have varied interests, experiences, backgrounds, and strengths.

Why is there an application for this class?

I require an application primarily for my own information, not because I'm looking for excuses to keep people out of the class. I use the applications for four purposes:

  1. to try to ensure that everyone registering for the class will be in a position to do well in it;
  2. to get a sense of the range of interests and experiences within the class as a whole so that I can better tailor the course for a particular group;
  3. to identify students who are ready to contribute to and benefit from this class even if they struggle with writing or have limited academic writing experience;
  4. to assess which applicants would be a good fit for writing center work.

Do students in Understanding Writing have to work in the Writing Center?

No; not all students choose (or are ready) to work in the Writing Center. For those who are ready, however, working in the Writing Center offers a chance to test some of the theories we read about. I especially recommend that education majors and students headed for graduate school consider working in the Writing Center; the experience is good preparation for student teaching, and it can also be useful for graduate students applying for teaching assistantships.

What do Writing Center consultants do?

Writing Center staff members meet individually with student writers to help them brainstorm and explain ideas, develop arguments, analyze evidence, and organize and revise drafts. When appropriate, we also offer input on style, grammar, punctuation, word choice, and other sentence-level issues; however, we do not simply proofread or copyedit papers. Our goal is not merely to give informed advice about specific papers but to help students become more confident, independent, and effective writers.

Students working in the Writing Center will co-enroll in a one-credit practicum (IS 3720), which covers a weekly two-hour Writing Center shift, regular staff meetings, and occasional outreach visits to classes. (In subsequent semesters, staff can either work for pay or continue to work for credit.)

What's the best way to prepare for working in the Writing Center?

In the past, the most successful Writing Center applicants have been those who:

  • demonstrate interest in other people's ideas;
  • listen carefully as well as speak thoughtfully;
  • are motivated, independent, articulate, and diplomatic;
  • take courses in a wide range of disciplines;
  • write outside as well as within their majors;
  • visit the Writing Center to discuss their writing projects;
  • seek feedback on drafts from their professors;
  • discuss papers with peers, either in class or informally outside of class.

There are many ways to approach writing and to be an effective peer writing tutor, and I keep that multiplicity in mind as I review applications.

Course Description

Understanding Writing serves four related but separate functions:

  1. provides an overview of composition studies, a subfield of English that focuses not on literature but on writing;
  2. introduces major theories of and debates about writing pedagogy (the principles and practices of teaching writing);
  3. offers advanced instruction in as well as practice of academic writing;
  4. prepares selected students to work in UMM's writing center.

We will start from the assumptions that writing is an ongoing and recursive process and that all writers, no matter how accomplished or successful, can benefit from thoughtful feedback on their writing. Over the course of the semester, we read and discuss theoretical and practical articles about writing and revising drafts, collaborating with and responding to other writers, transitioning from high school to college writing, understanding and producing academic writing, and working with fellow writers. Discussions, writing assignments, and writing center work (either as writers or as consultants) provide opportunities to further examine the ideas and test the theories about writing and teaching that we encounter in our readings.

Class sessions will usually take the form of conversations in which we examine groups of readings, consider the issues and debates suggested by those readings, and reflect on their significance for writers, tutors, and teachers.

We'll be asking some big questions:

  • How do people learn to write?
  • How do the habits and processes of experienced writers differ from those of inexperienced writers?
  • How is writing taught in school? Why is it taught that way?
  • How is knowledge created in the classroom?
  • How do social, cultural, and educational backgrounds inform writing and the teaching or tutoring of writing?
  • What expectations do academic readers bring to academic writing?
  • What patterns of argumentation and organization characterize successful academic writing?
  • How is academic writing shaped by disciplinary conventions? What are the areas of difference and overlap among those conventions?

Our investigation of these issues should help you not only to assist others with their writing but to become more aware of your own writing processes and to grow as a writer yourself.

Writing Assignments

You will keep a required weekly journal in which you reflect on and analyze the week's readings (and sometimes, if applicable, your experiences in the Writing Center). These journal entries can be informal in style, but should still be thoughtful and substantive; they will provide the jumping-off points for most of our discussions.

There will be two short papers (4-5 pages). The first is a literacy autobiography in which you explore your history as a writer and your relationship to writing. The second, written at the end of the semester, is a reflection paper in which you articulate your own philosophies of writing, learning, or teaching.

You will also complete a research project (10-20 pages) exploring an issue related to writing or teaching/tutoring writing. The project may be either theoretical or practical; it may be a traditional academic research paper, a comparative analysis of selected readings, a manifesto, a handbook for future Writing Center staff, or something else I haven't even imagined. You may choose to work individually or to collaborate with other members of the class. Whatever approach you choose, you'll support the project with information gained from primary and/or secondary research. The process for this paper will include a proposal and an annotated bibliography, a draft to be discussed by a small group of your peers, a class presentation based on your research in progress, and a final revised version of the paper to be submitted near the end of the semester.


  • Working With Student Writers, 2nd ed (Leonard & Joanne Podis, eds.)

Additional readings will be accessed via JSTOR or e-reserve.