Understanding Writing: Theories and Practices

Applications for Fall 2014

Understanding Writing application
Information for Recommenders

Applications received by April 1 will have priority. Review will continue until the class is full.

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?

Academic writing is a lot easier for me because of this class.

– student evaluation, Fall 2011

I welcome applications not only from English and Education majors but from students in any field who are serious about developing as writers and/or are considering graduate study. Understanding Writing is a demanding course that assumes a demonstrable interest in writing, tutoring, or teaching; it is most appropriate for juniors and seniors, though students interested in taking the class as sophomores are welcome to apply.

Why is there an application for this class?

In the history of my college career, I can say with confidence that I have never walked out of a class at the end of the semester and thought, "Wow, I have really changed." Understanding Writing, however, has actually changed the way I write, the way I view writing, and my philosophies for teaching writing.

– student reflection paper, Fall 2012

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 whose maturity and intellectual abilities suggest that they are ready to contribute to and benefit from this class even if they struggle with writing or have limited academic writing experience;
  4. to gauge which students would be a good fit for Writing Center work.

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:

There are many different ways to approach writing and to be an effective peer writing tutor, and I keep those differences in mind as I review applications; I like class members to have a mix of interests, experiences, backgrounds, and strengths, because that makes our conversations more interesting.

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

Not only do I have a deeper understanding of the material but I also believe that I have come to understand my own writing better & have improved as a writer.

– student evaluation, Fall 2012

Not necessarily; plenty of students have completed the course successfully without working 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.

Students who are ready to begin work in the Writing Center concurrently with Understanding Writing will co-enroll in a one-credit practicum (IS 3720), which will cover a two-hour weekly shift in the Writing Center. In subsequent semesters, staff can continue to work in the Writing Center for credit or for pay.

Course Description for Understanding Writing

Understanding Writing serves four related but separate functions: it provides an overview of composition studies, a subfield of English that focuses not on literature but on writing; introduces major theories of and debates about the principles and practices of teaching writing—that is, writing pedagogy; offers advanced instruction in and practice of academic writing; and prepares selected students to work in UMM's writing center.

No other class I've taken here (as a senior English major) has helped me so much with my writing.

– student evaluation, Fall 2007

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'll investigate composing processes, collaborative learning, academic discourses, disciplinary conventions, and some of the ideological and social factors that affect our experiences of these things. Discussions, writing assignments, and (in some cases) Writing Center work will allow us 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.

Understanding Writing has ultimately given me the ability to reflect critically on my experience not only as a writer, but as a student and a member of a larger learning community. Perhaps most importantly, it has allowed me to put myself back into the equation, to remind myself that I have a voice that can be used in meaningful and purposeful ways.

– student reflection paper, Fall 2013

We'll be asking some big questions:

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 develop and grow as writers yourselves.

Writing Assignments

Before writing my research project, the only emotion I experienced in writing was anxiety. For this research project, I actually became excited. I was so eager when I got my rough draft back because I actually had ideas that were my own.

– reflection paper, Fall 2013

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.

Required Texts

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


I have not yet finalized the syllabus for next fall, but it will probably look very much like the syllabus from 2013.

last updated: Saturday, 01-Mar-2014 15:15:00 CST

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The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.