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Two-Year Investigation Redefines Writing at Kenyon

By Carmen Perry

Kenyon prides itself on its strong literary tradition, but writings role at Kenyon is not well-defined. With help from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Kenyon Writes, a two-year investigation of writing at Kenyon, plans to craft a unified definition.

Kenyon Writes will study writing at Kenyon through surveys and focus groups beginning this spring. The idea is to study writing attitudes and writing behaviors among students and faculty members, said Joseph Murphy, director of the Center for Innovative Pedagogy. We talk about Kenyon as a writing place all the time, but its not clear that we have a shared definition of what that means.

The study will be led by Jenn Fishman 94, assistant professor of English at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. Fishman, who was looking for an opportunity to study writing when Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent first approached her, will work alongside Lee Nickoson, assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at Bowling Green State University, Kenyons own Associate Professor of Mathematics Brian Jones and the 2011-12 Curricular Policy Committees subcommittee on writing.

Its a formal study of writing at Kenyon in a place that loves writing and is all about writing, Fishman said.

Kenyon Writes distributed a survey on writing to all faculty members. The group will also send a different survey to a random sample of students from each class in April. The second half of the project will begin next year, when members of the graduating class will participate in focus groups to gather more specific information.

The questions deal with every type of writing, from lab reports to personal journals, and ask about writing both inside and outside the classroom. We want to try and find out what people mean when they say, Writing is important to me, Murphy said. What behaviors do they mean, why do they believe that, how does it play out in their classes … or in their personal life?

The organizers of this project hope it will prompt the community to consider how it looks at writing. With faculty, we want to get a sense of the writing they do, what they think about writing themselves, not just the writing they do for their positions as teachers, but also as scholars in their disciplines, Nickoson said.

Fishman emphasized the importance of getting a look at the big picture. How do you use writing to be you right now?

Murphy also expressed a need to look at the discrepancies in different types of writing taught at Kenyon. I see that our science faculty are acutely concerned about the fact that scientists have to be able to communicate with the general public, he said. They want to make sure that Kenyon students are not just good at talking to other scientists, but that theyre good at talking to political science majors.

Kenyon aims to create scientists who can write and politicians who can solve mathematical problems, Murphy said.

Fishman and Nickoson stressed that this project is not an assessment of the College, but rather a description of it.

Were truly interested in understanding what happens on campus in terms of writing and why, Nickoson said.

Murphy is optimistic about the impact Kenyon Writes will have. We will see significant changes to individual courses, he said. Murphy is not worried, however, about what the findings might show. Faculty members take writing and writing development very seriously. I expect that well see that we really are the kind of place we think we are. I think it will open up some interesting conversations.

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