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History of the Junior Year Writing Program at UMass Amherst
by Charles Moran
In the late 1970’s there was a general sense that American college students’ writing skills were slipping, and that something should be done about it. In 1975, a Newsweek cover story, “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” noted declining SAT scores; and in 1983, President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report, A Nation at Risk, which deplored what the Commission saw as declining educational standards in this country.
Partly in response to this zeitgeist, and partly in response to local administrative dynamics, on April 29, 1982 the University’s Faculty Senate accepted the “Special Report of the Academic Matters Council Concerning a University Writing Program” and approved the new University Writing Program in very much its present form: “Basic Writing,” to be taken by first-year students whose placement test results indicated that they needed two semesters of writing; “College Writing,” to be taken by all first-year students; and a one-semester junior-year writing course given as part of the student’s declared major and designed and staffed by the faculty of the department offering the major. The first-year writing requirement was implemented in September of 1982; the junior year writing requirement was implemented in September of 1984, as the students entering in 1982 attained junior standing. (The 1982 report is available here.)
This new University Writing Program, both its first-year and junior-year components, was to be overseen by a newly-created University Writing Committee, which would report annually to the Faculty Senate. Membership of the Committee was to be cross-campus, including two members from the professional schools and one from the Library. The program was to be directed by a faculty member from the English Department, ideally one whose research interests coincided with the work of the program.
The “Special Report” argued for the Junior-Year Writing Requirement in language that still carries weight:
Students write better when they are expected to write better; they are likely to develop the habit of careful writing when this expectation is satisfied in various intellectual contexts over a number of years.
The Report further defined the function of these courses, locating them in the tradition of “writing to learn”:
The function of writing in these third-year courses will be to enhance and reinforce the subject being studied, not to teach grammar and spelling at the expense of that subject.
In the fall of 1982, the University Writing Committee issued a call for junior-year writing course proposals from all major-offering academic units. In that year, members of the Committee met with the relevant faculty in every department, helping the departments think through the goals and structure of their junior-year writing course. By September of 1983, all departments had drafted proposals and had received feedback on these proposals from the Committee. During this year and the next, the Committee mounted a series of faculty workshops in the teaching of writing. In these workshops, faculty met across the disciplines to read students’ writing, talk about what they valued in particular pieces of student writing, and to consider ways in which, in their junior-year writing courses and in their major programs generally, they could help their students improve as writers in their disciplines. By September of 1984, all departments had junior-year writing courses approved by the Committee and ready to offer to their junior majors.
Among the most thoughtful of the junior-year course proposals came from the Physics Department, whose undergraduate director, Professor William Mullin, became the first junior-year writing program director and Associate Director of the Writing Program. He continued in this position through 1992, leading the biennial junior-year program evaluation, a formative process that included meetings of University Writing Committee members with appropriate faculty from all academic departments.
The Junior Year Writing Program has been blessed with strong leadership ever since, and it continues to be a national model in writing-in-the-disciplines. In fact, in 2003, U.S. News & World Report named the junior-year writing program here one of 25 “Programs that Really Work” in writing in the disciplines (America’s Best Colleges, p. 114). Local research has borne this out as well: in a 2000 study by the University’s Office of Academic Planning and Assessment, three-quarters of surveyed UMass juniors reported that their general education courses helped them learn to write clearly and effectively, and two-thirds rated their junior year writing course in particular as helpful in preparing them for their careers, with nearly 40% strongly agreeing with that sentiment. These were among the most positive findings in the whole study. (For that report, click here.)
The UMass Amherst Junior Year Writing Program has also been a fertile ground for interdisciplinary, collaborative research on writing in the disciplines and professions. See the bibliography at the end of the Sourcebook for examples.
Charles Moran is Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Amherst and former Director of the University Writing Program (1982-1990)
Updated September 3, 2008