Learning the Write Way

USC students steeped in science find their own voice and style by embracing a university program committed to better writing.
By Katherine Yungmee Kim
Norah Ashe-McNalley and her colleagues in the USC Writing Program are committed to making "better writers, not just better papers."

Photo/K.Y. Kim

Can scientists succeed as writers?

Premed students, dental hygienists and others pursuing careers in health care are likely to find out by enrolling in Writing 340, an upper-division requirement for all undergraduates at USC.

The students in this workshop - Writing 340 - led by Norah Ashe-McNalley read Dr. Atul Gawande's essays from "Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science." They also have analyzed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in order to examine how such ethical transgressions in medicine could occur.

Dan Witcher, a senior majoring in biology, said that in high school he was taught to write essays that fell into a certain format. "Every paper turned out the same," he recalled.

But in 340, Witcher discovered the emphasis was on finding his "own voice and style" and "embracing that rather than trying to fit my paper into a preconceived mold," he said.

Ashe-McNalley and her colleagues in the Writing Program are committed to making "better writers, not just better papers." They offer reading material to broaden the young writers' perspectives and encourage students to arrive at new ideas. In addition, the program emphasizes proper grammar and structure - tools for learning how to be one's own best editor.

The Writing Program in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences was established as an independent unit in 1978 in response to a renewed interest in rhetoric and linguistics and a widespread cultural perception that writing needed to be taught at an undergraduate level.

For nearly two decades, the Writing Program offered Composition 101 and 102 - a mandatory, two-term freshman writing curriculum. But in 1997 - as an integral part of the university's reorganization of its undergraduate general education curriculum - the Writing Program split the year-long requirement into one freshman semester and another upper-division semester: Writing 140 and 340.

This curricular structure represented, at the time and even now, an innovative approach in terms of university-level writing instruction.

Writing 140 - "Writing and Critical Reasoning" - has three principal themes: process, critique and craft. Each class is capped at 17.

Each Writing 140 section is affiliated with a general education lecture course addressing particular issues such as "The Holocaust," "Environmental Issues in Society" and "Poverty and Welfare in America." The lecture course, with its discussion section, provides students with the concepts, theories and topical information that form the basis for the essay assignments.

Dividing the classes in this manner allows students to focus more intensely upon their writing and creative process.

Writing Program Director John Holland said that by the time students are juniors and seniors, they have matured as both writers and critical thinkers who take their writing more seriously and better understand the importance of writing in terms of both their academic and professional careers.

Writing 340 - "Advanced Writing"- offers instruction in writing for various audiences on topics related to a student's professional or disciplinary interests. The College offers five versions of Writing 340 - Arts and Humanities, health sciences, natural sciences, pre-law and social sciences. There are 20 students in each class taught by full-time faculty - all of whom have doctorates.

Last year, student assessment of 340 ranked an outstanding 4.3 (on a five-point scale), and their evaluations of the faculty reached an unprecedented 4.7.

"We're gratified to see that students have not only accepted the upper-division course," Holland said, "but they have embraced it."

But student accomplishment is the true litmus test for the success. The goal, said Holland, is to make better writers and thinkers.

"There is no better way to do this than by demonstrating that writing is a process through which we arrive at a greater knowledge of ourselves."