Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How to Start UW20 on the Right Foot!

Every semester some students needlessly underperform in UW20. And not because they're ill-prepared or "bad writers." Prof. Eric Drown explains why this happens and what you can do to get the most out of UW20.

Every semester students needlessly underperform in UW20. And not because they're ill-prepared or "bad writers." They perform below their abilities because their expectations of what the course is meant to accomplish for them don't match the University’s expectations of the course’s functions.

Confronted with a course that's more challenging, less rule-bound, and less focused on grammar, style, and technique than expected, some students resign themselves to simply getting through the course with minimum effort. They not only risk having to retake the course, but also miss out on a major educational opportunity that the University values so highly that it’s the only course that the University requires of every single first-year student.

Approaching UW20 with the right attitude is vital to making the most of the course. So let's dispel some myths about the course and offer you some success strategies.

One last thing before we get on with it: I'd love to hear what you think about all this. Please leave a comment by clicking on the link at the end of this post.

UW20 is not remedial. It's not the University's way to ensure that you can write competently or proficiently. It's the University's way to introduce you to the intellectual practices and communication conventions of an institution dedicated to creating new and productive knowledge. Think of UW20 as the University’s way to invite you to become full participants in our most important mission.

UW20 does not teach “good” writing according to some arcane universal and timeless standards (like “concision” or “one-idea-per-paragraph”). Communities of people who create and use pieces of writing to do work establish local standards of what counts as “good” writing, “good” argument, “good” style, “good” research, and so on. As you might expect, what counts as “good” in one locale might be deemed “bad” writing in another, depending on the needs, customs, and purposes of the local discourse community. Since UW20 is designed to introduce students to the ways of writing and the habits of mind of academics and public experts, you’ll need to expect a class where the “rules” for writing well are contingent, flexible, and dependent on idea, audience, and purpose.

Accordingly, UW20 is not an extension of the kind of writing required of students in High School or other first-year University classes. The writing tasks assigned to you in UW20 are not simply longer, more complicated, and more intense than what you’ve done in HS and other first-year classes. In the main, they will be qualitatively and purposively different. In UW20 you’re not just working on developing clear and logical expressions of ideas. More than any other course early in your GW career, this one asks you to think of yourself as an emerging scholar, capable of creating new knowledge. With this change come new standards, new motives for writing, new analytical and argumentation techniques, and new responsibilities to readers.

Our best advice: EMBRACE CHANGE!

Don't trust that what worked in HS will work to the same degree or at all in UW20. Expect that you'll probably have to change your beliefs about yourself as a writer, as well as about what writing is and does. You’ll definitely have to change your work processes, and the standards by which you evaluate your achievement.

Change your self-image with regard to your role in UW20. When you think of yourself as an emerging scholar, not a first-year student learning a “skill,” you’ll expect more of yourself and see writing both as part of the way you learn something new, and the way you teach that new thing to other people in a way that enables them to do something with the knowledge.

Develop effective study methods for doing more than memorizing and reproducing facts or expert opinion. Ask your peers, professor, or librarian for help.

Expect more frequent, more complex, and more interrelated homework assignments, ones that will directly shape your abilities to do the major projects of the course. Poor work on the supporting assignments will make success on the larger assignments far more difficult.

Realize that grading will be more process/results-oriented and less related to amount of effort.

Develop a conviction that responsibility for passing the course rests primarily with you, although your instructor and your librarian are there to help you do your best.

Work on the course frequently, diligently, and consistently. Don't think you can fall behind by a couple of weeks and catch up in a marathon session the night before the paper is due. All you’ll do is lose sleep, miss the deadline, and have to re-do the project.

Use office hours—early and often, and not just when you’re experiencing problems.

Go along with the learning processes your professors have designed for you, even if you don't fully understand them (but do ask lots of questions to better comprehend what's being asked of you and why).

Try to do the tasks assigned at the level of complexity with which they're presented to you. Don't substitute what you know how to do from high school for what is being asked of you. Don't reduce "interpretive synthesis" to "compare and contrast" or "write a persuasive argument" to "have an opinion."

Expect revision to be more about testing and developing ideas, rather than simply correcting errors in style, grammar or working on clarity of expression. Revision will be ongoing throughout the writing process. Editing for grammar, style, and clarity will come at the end of the project.

Don't believe in the myth of writing as a talent. It's a craft—something that can be learned through practice and response. No one is inherently a "bad" writer. Everyone can improve their ability to communicate complex, interesting, and useful ideas more persuasively. But you have to work well and effectively at it.

Don't believe that “proper” writing instruction should focus primarily on skills, techniques, style or grammar. Because academic and expert public writing seeks to provide its communities with rich, productive, and transformative knowledge, time spent working on reading, interpretation, idea-development will enhance your writing.

Don't quit on the course when: a) it gets difficult, b) it gets confusing, c) the instruction you’re getting doesn’t match what you learned in other settings, d) you don't get the grade you wanted, e) you realize that you’re going to have to change your approach to academic or expert public writing. Instead, get help—Fast. Form a study group, ask a peer for help, visit your librarian or professor.

Don't browse the internet, check your e-mail, update your Facebook page, tweet or text in class or while you’re working on your UW20 homework. Recent scientific research shows that multitasking strongly disrupts learning, particularly the kind of complex analytical and logical operations you’re setting out to learn in this class ( So while you might have been able to listen to music, chat with a friend, watch YouTube, do some algebra problems, and write your history report in HS, you’re very likely to be sabotaging your chances of success if you apply the same strategies to your UW20 work.

Expect to work on UW20 outside of class, between 8 to 12 hours a week.

Expect to be pushed well beyond your current capacities—no matter what level of proficiency you bring to the course.

Go to class, every time.

Be well prepared for class, every time.

Do assigned work to the best of your aspirations, not to meet minimum expectations.

Participate fully and actively in every class.


  1. Appreciate the candid manner of this article and look forward to a challenging semester. If the class achieves all of the objectives listed above- I'm sure it will be the most worthwhile class as an undergraduate.

  2. I appreciate the candor too, and think that it'd be cool to get a version of this written by students who have taken UW20, too!

  3. Well-written and very informative article, the honest and straight-forward manner of the topic is extremely helpful.

  4. its refreshing to hear the university's view on writing beyond the "proper" structure and form