A Model for Undergraduate Writing Support for the Campus

by Megan Moodie, Assistant Professor

When our students leave UCSC and step out into the “real world,” they take with them the skills they have mastered during their time as anthropology majors. None of these is as important as the ability to write well. Our students go on to careers in world-changing non-profit organizations, life-saving public health initiatives, and democracy-building local government. In each and every one of their chosen fields they must write well, whether it is in the form of grant applications, business correspondence, or press releases. In the Department of Anthropology, we value writing deeply, both for its own sake – one of our departmental mottos is “Clear grammar is clear thinking” – and as one of the skills that will separate our students from the pack when they apply for post-graduate jobs, internships, and graduate study.

This year I had the pleasure of serving as the faculty coordinator for our Writing Assistant Program. The only in-house, departmental writing support initiative of its kind at UCSC, the Writing Assistant Program was founded in 2010 to train a cadre of strong writers to serve as a peer- to-peer support system for student writing. We had an amazing bunch of writing assistants in 2013-2014. They worked closely with their fellow anthropology majors at every stage of the writing process, from brainstorming ideas for an assigned essay to polishing the punctuation and grammar of a major research paper.

Since its inception, student response to the Writing Assistant Program has been overwhelmingly positive. This year, we had the great fortune to be able to document some of our successes. One of our outstanding anthropology graduate students, Suraiya Jetha, received a Chancellor’s Graduate Internship to conduct qualitative research over the course of the year to evaluate the Writing Assistant Program. Through surveys, class visits, and interviews with writing assistants, students, and faculty, Suraiya assessed, among other things, student satisfaction with the program, particularly as it relates to student outcomes –which, as it turns out, goes far beyond only grades.

The students Suraiya studied this year found that participating in the Writing Assistant Program helped them improve their study habits and increased their confidence in their writing skills. Even in classes without mandatory consultations, students used the writing assistants to develop a schedule for completing written assignments, which, they reported, helped them avoid procrastination and end-of-quarter stress. Students also reported that taking a class with a writing assistant helped them improve their study habits in other classes and in later quarters.

One unexpected finding of Suraiya’s study is that some students, including transfer students and students of color, found that meeting with a writing assistant helped them feel less intimidated when meeting with faculty or graduate student teaching assistants. This is an important outcome for students who might otherwise have had difficulty accessing instructors  and building mentoring relationships. It is also an important outcome for the department and the university, given that we have the largest number of students who are the first in their family to attend university in the entire UC system – a fact of which we are quite proud.

None of our studies could completely capture, however, the important peer-to-peer relationships that arise between writing assistants and the students with whom they work.

Other departments across campus have noticed that we are doing something special in Anthropology. We are very pleased that we are becoming the campus model for well-supported undergraduate writing and intend to carry our program on into the future. Next year, we will open a drop-in center to open up the possibility of even more students taking advantage of this fabulous resource. We are so grateful to them for all they have given us this year.