Writing Across Campus: How Two Religion Professors Make Writing Relevant

By Kayla Barnes and James Ogletree

Writing is not everyone’s favorite subject/hobby/activity. Ask any college student and they will likely tell you that they dread the constant barrage of essays they are required to churn out. Even the best writers have often admitted that their craft caused more blood, sweat, and tears than health, fame, and fortune.

The unamicable relationship between students and their writing is often the result of rubric-based exercises that encourage fact regurgitation instead of critical thinking. Rather than rewarding a student’s comprehension of the subject matter, their ability to restate class material in their writing is evaluated. Dai Hounsell of the University of Edinburgh refers to this as “the undergraduate’s Amazon” because the coursing river of papers is so prevalent in the undergraduate experience.

There is a simple solution to this problem: offering response-based writing can lead to true comprehension and ownership of material.

This strategy has been aptly named writing-to-learn as teachers have begun using writing as a way to increase student engagement with material.

The methods used in this instruction are very different depending on the subject, teacher, and classroom atmosphere. Short, highly personalized response-based journals might be more productive in a science class, while longer pieces might allow for more complex ideation in a history class. What is important is that students become accustomed to writing as a form of thinking and expression, rather than something only done to satisfy the university’s English requirement.

Dr. Robert Foster and Dr. Adel Amer in the university’s Religion Department use writing as a way for students to explore and engage with class material. Simultaneously, their exercises in writing helped celebrate our originality as undergrads and our individual experience with texts.

In lieu of regular assignments or worksheets, the professors structure learning around student’s response to content through writing. We wrote weekly or daily journals where we could freely react to class discussions or readings in our own words. As Fahad Alharbi of the University of Kansas notes, “When students write, they learn from their writing because they create a text that includes ideas with relationships among them.” Their use of writing as an overall experience in learning brought new life and fresh perspectives to our class times.

For us, offering response-based writing led to true comprehension of the material.

Each professor’s individual passion for immersive writing is a catalyst for student’s information retention. We frequently wrote before and after discussing ideas to ensure we felt comfortable with new theories or interpretations of texts. Foster was never remiss in reminding his students the new worlds of thought and mental stimulation writing produces. Dr. Amer simply instructed students to keep a journal on the class, and to post entries on the class’s web page.

The professors could choose any number of engaging, exciting, and exhilarating learning tools to facilitate thought production among students. In fact, they often do.

What is notable about their integration of writing into habitual class time is the normalization of writing that occurs for students spanning vast academic disciplines. The Religion Department is where an English major can be found simultaneously seated next to Criminal Science, Cellular Biology, Veterinary Medicine, and Theater Arts majors. By expecting written engagement with material (that extends beyond the dreaded 10 page paper), both professors deem writing as a valuable, standard teaching method in the classroom.

All it takes for a student to find a love of writing is for one teacher to nurture that affection and foster a greater understanding of any given subject.

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