- Introducing Students to College WritingMoving beyond Humanities-Centered Practices
First-year writing (FYW) courses can play a pivotal role in helping students move from high school to college-level writing. Yet at my institution, about a fourth of our students take required "first-year seminars" — courses with substantive writing assignments taught by faculty from across the college — before FYW, and even more take them simultaneously. Regardless of our curricular intentions, many of our students first face the transition to college writing not in FYW but in other courses. Unfortunately, in contrast to the rich variety of instructional materials designed for FYW, there is not much suited to students in these kinds of courses. So I was excited to see Keith Hjortshoj's newly revised and expanded Transition to College Writing; the concept of the book suggested a good fit for students in these courses, and I admire The Elements of Teaching Writing (2004), the guide for teachers of Writing in the Disciplines (WID) courses that Hjortshoj coauthored with Katherine Gottschalk.
A combination self-help guide and didactic "rhetoric," Transition begins with matters of process — note taking, reading, drafting, and so on — before moving to specifics of focus, organization, claim making, and citation. I particularly like the way Transition is built around discussions [End Page 211] of common but generally unproductive writing and reading practices. Yet, despite the publisher's claims on the jacket that the book addresses "the essential reading and writing strategies students need to succeed in courses across the curriculum," much of the advice and most of the examples do not adequately represent scholarly practices beyond humanities and qualitative social science disciplines. I do not mean to imply that this shortcoming is unique to or even especially present in this book — it is neither. Rather, this issue is important because it is so common. (Pick up your nearest putatively generic student writing guide and take a look.) That humanities sensibilities about writing and research are treated as general academic practices even here, in a book explicitly presented as a broadly applicable introduction to college writing written by an author of an outstanding instructors' guide to WID, shows just how stubborn a matter this is.
In "Orientation," Hjortshoj explains that high schools typically prepare students more for the college admissions process than for college itself. High school success, then, is only a rough predictor of success in college, a point emphasized in the contrasting stories of Eduardo, who "adapted to college studies with apparent ease and obvious success," and Marie, who did well in high school but "struggled to complete [her first] term … even though she devoted enormous amounts of time to her courses" (3). These tales introduce a principal lesson of this book: reading and writing practices that sufficed in high school may not serve students well in college.
Hjortshoj then moves to "predatory reading," his term for actively choosing what, how, and when to undertake different kinds of reading — from skimming to methodical analysis (32). I found the approach both smart and engaging, and I appreciate the attention he gives to reading early in the book since, as David A. Jolliffe and Alison Harl (2008) have explained, most students do not enter college with any sense of how to read strategically — or even with the notion that one might do so.
In his discussion of organization, Hjortshoj deftly takes on the five-paragraph essay. Rather than simply excoriating the genre, he uses its familiarity to expose the difference between form as a substitute for thought and as a tool for thinking. "Good writing," Hjortshoj proclaims in bold type, "establishes a clear point of departure that turns the reader's attention in a particular direction, sustains reading in that direction through a series of connected passages, and leads to a real destination" (116). The chapter takes a less productive turn, however, when Hjortshoj tries to help students write better college lab reports by pointing out formal similarities with the five-paragraph theme. In my view, the important similarity here is that both are [End Page 212] often...