The Idea of Transference: What Does Writing 20 Teach?

Writing 20 is a freshman tradition at Duke.

Duke freshmen share many experience in their first year on East Campus: dinners at the Marketplace, figuring out the bus schedule, and painting their dorm benches. Of course, those shared experiences do not necessarily extend to the classroom—each student has different academic interests, and not everybody can take the same classes.

Then there is Writing 20. The required first-year writing course is offered in a variety of topics, but each student has similar experiences: drafting, research, and the final paper among them. In a sense, Writing 20 symbolizes the trials of freshman year: it’s something you just have to do.

But what are the benefits of this unique program? As the topic of the individual classes vary from gothic literature to bioethics, does each student walk away from Writing 20 with a similar set of skills that provides him with a grounding in university-level writing?

To investigate this question, DukeWrites interviewed several Writing 20 professors and Thompson Writing Program staff to discover what they value in their classes and the skills they impart on students regardless of their specific discipline. A fundamental concept inherent in Writing 20 is the idea of transference: how does a student apply the concepts he learned in his Writing 20 on religion and politics to a honors thesis on biology?

  • Seth Dowland, a historian, teaches Writing 20 classes on the interplay between religion and politics in American culture. For classes within the discipline of history, Dowland sees several benefits of the Writing 20 program, including “close reading and analysis of primary sources” and the “ability to synthesize secondary literature around a historical question.” Additionally, certain skills like “workshopping, drafting, revising, editing, close reading, and evaluating sources of information” are applicable to all fields of study.
  • Holly Ryan is a scholar of rhetoric and composition whose specific research centers on the rhetoric of medical literature, looking at “how medical texts persuade us.” Although rhetoric is not a major offered at Duke, Ryan sees many useful aspects of the curriculum of Writing 20. She values the writing of multiple drafts, receiving feedback from several other students, and the practice of writing toward an audience, claiming that “writing is best when directed at a particular audience.”
  • Bridget Cooper’s primary educational background is in literature, and her Writing 20 class discusses the art of the personal narrative. This type of writing has many benefits to making convincing claims: “I strongly believe that students should learn how to better present themselves and their ideas, and I have found that personal writing presents many rewarding and challenging opportunities to do that,” Cooper said. An issue with many undergraduates is finding their voice in the discourse of academia. Cooper strives to teach her students to “blend narrative or personal elements with critical reflection…a skill and approach that I hope they apply to future writing.” This tactic, Cooper believes, helps students “speak alongside and with the voices of experts, rather than through them.” Indeed, this is a vital ability to writing an academic paper regardless of discipline.

Dr. Denise Comer, director of the First-Year Writing Program, notes that the main objectives of Writing 20 are learning to do the following:

  • Articulate a position
  • Engage with the work of others
  • Situate writing within a disciplinary context

She believes that the skills learned in Writing 20 are applicable to all academic disciplines, as “writers in all disciplines benefit from approaching writing as a process that is most effective with revision and feedback.” As Writing 20 engenders a sense of collaboration between classmates; each student learns from the work of the others in the class.

“Reading and engaging with others’ ideas,” Comer says, “is all part of the culture of writing that Writing 20 introduces students to, regardless of whether the Writing 20 class is about religion, biology, or literature. Students then build on Writing 20 by moving on to more intensive writing experiences within the disciplines themselves.”

Writing 20 teaches many writing practices that are relevant and useful throughout a student’s undergraduate career. The program blends the academic interests of talented professors and scholars with goal-oriented curricular strategies for preparing students to write for the next three years—in whatever classes they decide to take.

For more information on Writing 20, visit the Thompson Writing Program website.


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