For Writing Arts majors, 'a sense of community' to hone their craft
In a third-floor classroom of Rowan University's stately Bunce Hall, Professor Sanford Tweedie passed out matzo ball-sized lumps of clay and tiny wooden etching sticks and told his students to get to work.
Their assignment? Tell complex stories-announcements about new inventions, stories about clandestine war tactics, persuasive papers arguing their position on a controversial topic-using nothing but the clay and the stylus.
"No rough drafts. No extra tools," Tweedie said with a smile. "And be sure to read your instructions. Some of you aren't allowed to use words."
Welcome to Rowan's Introduction to Writing Arts course, where 20 undergraduate students in Tweedie's class are learning concepts about the art of writing--of storytelling--without "delete" or "cut and paste" or "spell check."
At Rowan, Introduction to Writing Arts is taught in three modules--by three different professors--in the University's College of Communication. The module Tweedie was teaching, "History and Materiality of Writing," shows students how the use of technology-even seemingly "primitive" technology-affects writing.
"What you're writing with, what technology you're using, affects what you write," Tweedie told his students.
The exercise, Tweedie says, takes students "back in time to experience what it might have been like to attempt to write during a different era. This helps them better understand that the technology they use to write today will not be the technology they will use to write tomorrow. The hands-on aspect of the exercise also increases the likelihood they will remember the lesson into the future."
As the students worked in pairs to tell their stories, they were forced to think about their mode of communication and the economy of their language. Furthermore, they were required to think about their audience, their fellow classmates, who had to read and interpret their writings.
"I felt I had a deeper connection to writing than just writing on paper," student Matt Kanoff said during class discussion.
The "Introduction to Writing Arts" experience, which also includes modules titled "Issues in Writing" and "Technologies and the Future of Writing," aptly sets the stage for Rowan's intensive Writing Arts major, which requires 34 credits.
Altogether there are 347 undergraduate Writing Arts majors at Rowan, a number that has nearly doubled in just four years. Tweedie, Rowan's coordinator of undergraduate writing programs, believes Rowan's writing program is the only one in the country with the title of Writing Arts.
"We chose to include ‘arts' in the name because the word emphasizes the creative writing aspect of the major and because it captures the plurality of contexts in which writing occurs," says Tweedie, noting that the major was created in 1999, as was the graduate M.A. in Writing program.
"We're going through a period of tremendous change and growth," he continues. "It's exciting. The idea of an independent writing program has recently become very popular in the United States. But we were at the forefront of that."
This year, Writing Arts launched a new accelerated B.A./M.A., also known as the "4 + 1 Program." Now, qualified students can pursue their undergraduate and graduate degrees, completing both in five years instead of the normal six years. The program allows students to begin graduate work in their senior year, completing up to four courses while still paying undergraduate tuition.
Approved last August, the "4 + 1" already has three students, including Millville's Krystle Wright, who also is pursuing a minor in psychology and a concentration in creative writing.
"I never thought I could go to graduate school," says Wright. "I felt like the program would open up a lot of opportunities for me."
Most students in Writing Arts transfer from another department from within the University, which is something the "4 + 1" program would likely change, says Tweedie.
"We usually don't see too many freshmen coming in as Writing Arts majors. With the ‘4 + 1,' we're hoping to get students right from the beginning who have that commitment," says Tweedie, who adds that the major also is popular with education majors who choose Writing Arts as their dual major.
Senior Katie Fitzpatrick of Upper Darby, Pa. chose the major as a freshman because of the program's rigor.
"It's surprisingly hard to find schools with strong writing programs," says Fitzpatrick. "The Writing Arts department was kind of shining out of the mist for me. The specificity of the program was really attractive to me."
As they move through the program, Writing Arts majors take required courses titled "Communication Studies," "The Writer's Mind," "Writing, Research and Technology," "Evaluating Writing" and a portfolio seminar, the senior capstone course.
The courses are designed to prepare students who will become writers in all fields-from fiction to technical writing-but, also, for those who will spend their work days with the written word. In a world that communicates chiefly via email, blogs, and Twitter, the degree is especially valuable, Tweedie maintains.
"In today's world, we write more than ever. And we read more than ever," he says. "Writing Arts is educating students in the expanding role these technologies play in all of this."
The sense of community fostered among students in Writing Arts courses is one of the hallmarks of the program, according to Jackie Cassidy, a 2008 Writing Arts alumna who is completing her master's degree in the program. The graduate program boasts 30 students this year.
"If you can't foster a sense of community in the classroom, then the writing workshops would just fall flat," says Cassidy. "The atmosphere in the classes isn't intimidating. The major teaches skills not just about writing, but about analyzing other people's work."
"When you're writing, you need people to tell you, ‘Yes. It's working. Keep going,'" adds Wright. "There's a real sense of community, a very close-knit feeling in Writing Arts classes."
For information about Rowan's Writing Arts program, visit www.rowan.edu/colleges/communication/departments/writingArts/.
To access "An Echo Sounded," a blog of students' writing maintained by students, visit: swamaru.wordpress.com.