Southwestern University has a received a $720,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will enable it to reshape its writing program. The initiative will be done in conjunction with the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin.

In 2009 Southwestern decided to eliminate its traditional first-year writing course and instead implement a concept known as “Writing in the Disciplines.” Writing in the Disciplines is an increasingly accepted approach that focuses on the progressive development of the writing skills that students need to succeed in their chosen fields. Faculty present specific vocabulary, lines of argument and research strategies that are used in disciplinary writing. Students learn to use these tools both to write for their professional peers and to inform more general audiences about the pressing issues in their disciplines.

“The idea of Writing in the Disciplines is to help students learn how experts in a field use writing in their work to offer their ideas and extend or challenge the work of others in the field,” said Davida Charney, a professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at UT-Austin.

Southwestern implemented Writing in the Disciplines in fall 2010 in conjunction with a new four-credit curriculum.

“Bringing in additional expertise from The University of Texas to work alongside our faculty members will greatly speed the implementation of this new program,” said Southwestern Provost Jim Hunt. “We are excited about this innovative partnership with The University of Texas that draws upon the strengths of both institutions.”

The Mellon Foundation grant will enable Southwestern to hire two postdoctoral students from the UT Department of Rhetoric and Writing each year for four years beginning in fall 2011. One of the writing fellows will focus on disciplinary writing in the humanities and fine arts and the other will focus on disciplinary writing in the sciences and social sciences.

The two fellows will each select two departments to work with each semester. They also will hold weekly office hours for drop-in consultation with all interested faculty members and offer workshops for faculty members each semester.

“I look forward to having additional experts in the subject of teaching of writing on hand to hone my skills further,” said Elizabeth Green-Musselman, professor of history at Southwestern. “Teaching students to communicate effectively is one of the hardest − but also one of the most rewarding − parts of my job. This will help me get even better at understanding how to help students move to college-level writing that communicates really strong ideas.”

Southwestern Chemistry Professor Emily Niemeyer said students in the sciences face unique challenges in their writing due to the highly technical nature of the material.  “Although we place a strong emphasis on writing within the sciences, most of our faculty members are not formally trained to help students develop these skills,” Niemeyer said. “Working closely with a postdoctoral fellow with expertise in pedagogical approaches to improve scientific writing has the potential to transform the ways in which we are teaching writing within our courses.”

Charney and Mark Longkaer from the UT Department of Rhetoric and Writing will mentor and assist the writing fellows during the course of the grant. Charney said an added benefit of the grant is the career preparation it will provide the UT students.

“Nationally, there’s a lot of interest in adding more writing instruction in disciplinary classes, but really the only discipline that is familiar to our graduate students is English,” Charney said. “Collaborating on writing assignments with Southwestern faculty in several different disciplines will give our graduate students a real edge when they enter the job market.”

The grant also will enable Southwestern to hire two library interns who are enrolled in the graduate program at The University of Texas School of Information. These interns will assist in the preparation of library research materials for the writing program.