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The College at Brockport, SUNY
Writing in College: From
Competence to Excellence
with Aly Button, Peter Farrell, Kaethe Leonard, and
The College at Brockport, SUNY
Open SUNY Textbooks
©2016 Amy Guptill
ISBN: 978-1-942341-21-5 ebook
This work is licensed under a
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This publication was made possible by a SUNY Innovative Instruction Technology
Grant (IITG). IITG is a competitive grants program open to SUNY faculty and support
staff across all disciplines. IITG encourages development of innovations that meet the
Power of SUNY’s transformative vision.
Published by Open SUNY Textbooks, Milne Library (IITG PI)
State University of New York at Geneseo,
Geneseo, NY 14454
About the Book
Writing in College is designed for students who have largely mastered high-school level
conventions of formal academic writing and are now moving beyond the five-paragraph
essay to more advanced engagement with text. It is well suited to composition courses or
first-year seminars and valuable as a supplemental or recommended text in other writingintensive classes. It provides a friendly, down-to-earth introduction to professors’ goals and
expectations, demystifying the norms of the academy and how they shape college writing
assignments. Each of the nine chapters can be read separately, and each includes suggested
exercises to bring the main messages to life.
Students will find in Writing in College a warm invitation to join the academic community as
novice scholars and to approach writing as a meaningful medium of communication. With
concise discussions, clear multidisciplinary examples, and empathy for the challenges of
student life, Guptill conveys a welcoming tone. In addition, each chapter includes Student
Voices: peer-to-peer wisdom from real SUNY Brockport students about their strategies for
and experiences with college writing.
While there are many affordable writing guides available, most focus only on sentence-level
issues or, conversely, a broad introduction to making the transition. Writing In College, in
contrast, provides both a coherent frame for approaching writing assignments and indispensable advice for effective organization and expression.
About the Author
Amy Guptill is an Associate Professor of Sociology at The College at Brockport, SUNY
where she has a joint appointment with the Delta College Program, an alternative interdisciplinary General Education option. Her research focuses on spatial and structural shifts
in agriculture and food systems with recent work on innovative agricultural marketing. She
teaches courses in the sociology of food, development and globalization, community and
social change, social statistics and college writing. In addition to Writing In College: From
Competence to Excellence, and she is the coauthor of a recent college textbook entitled Food
& Society: Principles and Paradoxes (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012).
Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence assists well-prepared high school students
as they transition to college writing, helping them understand how they, as young independent scholars, fit into the university and can improve their writing to succeed in their new
environment. Focusing on the argument-driven essay, Guptill guides beginning college
students through the sometimes arcane practices of the academy and does so with warmth,
enthusiasm, and humor. The textbook takes students through deciphering assignments, developing sophisticated arguments, finding and using appropriate sources, and some basics
of paragraphing, sentence structure, and style. Instructors will find this textbook to be a
handy tool for explaining the argument-driven essay and reference for addressing common
college-level writing issues. With a diverse range of examples, useful references to other
sources, and purposeful exercises, Writing in College focuses on developing students’ skills
in practical ways—and helps students understand why their instructors have them do what
Jennifer Haytock is professor and chair in the English Department at the College at Brockport,
About Open SUNY Textbooks
Open SUNY Textbooks is an open access textbook publishing initiative established by
State University of New York libraries and supported by SUNY Innovative Instruction
Technology Grants. This initiative publishes high-quality, cost-effective course resources
by engaging faculty as authors and peer-reviewers, and libraries as publishing service and
The pilot launched in 2012, providing an editorial framework and service to authors, students and faculty, and establishing a community of practice among libraries.
Participating libraries in the 2012-2013 pilot include SUNY Geneseo, College at Brockport, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, SUNY Fredonia, Upstate Medical
University, and University at Buffalo, with support from other SUNY libraries and SUNY
Press. The 2013-2014 pilot will add more titles in 2015. More information can be found at
Really? Writing? Again?
What Does the Professor Want? Understanding the Assignment
Constructing the Thesis and Argument—From the Ground Up
Secondary Sources in Their Natural Habitats
Listening to Sources, Talking to Sources
Back to Basics: The Perfect Paragraph
Intros and Outros
Clarity and Concision
Getting the Mechanics Right
Really? Writing? Again?
Yes. Writing. Again.
Obviously you can write. And in the age of Facebook and smartphones, you might be
writing all the time, perhaps more often than speaking. Many students today are awash in
text like no other generation before. You may have even performed so well in high school
that you’re deemed fully competent in college level writing and are now excused from
taking a composition course.
So why spend yet more time and attention on writing skills? Research shows that deliberate
practice—that is, close focus on improving one’s skills—makes all the difference in how
one performs. Revisiting the craft of writing—especially on the early end of college—will
improve your writing much more than simply producing page after page in the same old
way. Becoming an excellent communicator will save you a lot of time and hassle in your
studies, advance your career, and promote better relationships and a higher quality of life off
the job. Honing your writing is a good use of your scarce time.
Also consider this: a recent survey of employers conducted by the Association of American
Colleges and Universities found that 89 percent of employers say that colleges and universities should place more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in
writing.”1 It was the single-most favored skill in this survey. In addition, several of the other
valued skills are grounded in written communication: “Critical thinking and analytical
reasoning skills” (81%); “The ability to analyze and solve complex problems” (75%); and
“The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources” (68%). This
emphasis on communication probably reflects the changing reality of work in the professions. Employers also reported that employees will have to “take on more responsibilities,”
“use a broader set of skills,” “work harder to coordinate with other departments,” face “more
complex” challenges, and mobilize “higher levels of learning and knowledge.”2 If you want
Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the
Economic Downturn, http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf, 9.
Really? Writing? Again?|1
Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence
to be a professional who interacts frequently with others3—presumably you do; you’re in
college—you have to be someone who can anticipate and solve complex problems and
coordinate your work with others,4 all of which depend on effective communication.
Writing is one of the most important skills to our society, and it almost
always has been. Having the ability to write is what separates history from
pre-history! That’s a pretty big deal! Because most professors have different expectations, it can be tricky knowing what exactly they’re looking
for. Pay attention to the comments they leave on your paper, and make
sure to use these as a reference for your next assignment. I try to pay attention and adapt to the professor’s style and preferences.
The pay-off from improving your writing comes much sooner than graduation. Suppose
you complete about 40 classes for a 120-credit bachelors’ degree, and—averaging across
writing-intensive and non-writing-intensive courses—you produce about 2500 words of
formal writing per class. Even with that low estimate, you’ll write 100,000 words over your
college career. That’s about equivalent to a 330-page book. Spending a few hours sharpening
your writing skills will make those 100,000 words much easier and more rewarding to
write. All of your professors care about good writing, whether or not they see their courses
as a means to improve it. Formal written work is the coin of the academic realm. Creating
and sharing knowledge—the whole point of the academy—depends on writing. You may
have gotten a lot of positive feedback on your writing before college, but it’s important to
note that writing in college is distinct in ways that reflect the origins of higher education.
The origins of higher education
College may look and feel similar to high school, and, for the most part, you already know
how to perform your student role within this setting. However, there are some fundamental
differences. The most obvious ones are that high school is mandatory (to a certain point),
freely available, and a legal right. They have to offer you the opportunity, regardless of your
grades. College is optional, costly, and performance-based. Most institutions will dismiss
you if your grades don’t meet a certain minimum. But college is different in more subtle
ways as well, and those differences reflect the evolution of the university.
In their original ancient and medieval forms, universities were centers for scholarship, existing at the pleasure of the crown, church, or state. While centers of study go at least back
to ancient Mesopotamia 2500 years BCE, the Islamic and European universities of the first
and second millennium CE are usually considered the first of the modern model. Highly
privileged people went to these universities as students, but they didn’t really attend classes,
If you don’t want to be as interactive, but you want to make good money, you’re better off
seeking training in a skilled building trade like plumbing or electrical work. Frankly, a lot of
plumbers make more money than a lot of your professors!
Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning
and Student Success. http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
Really? Writing? Again?|2
Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence
write papers, and take exams like college students today. Instead they acted as independent,
though novice, scholars: they read everything they could find in their areas of interest,
attended lectures that expert scholars gave, and, if they were lucky (and perhaps charming),
got some feedback from those scholars on their own work or assisted scholars in theirs.5
Students were simply the most junior of scholars at a university, enjoying the extraordinary
privilege of interacting with the revered academic superstars of their day.
Obviously, colleges and universities today are much more student-centered,6 and most
higher education faculty spend most of their time carefully crafting educational experiences
for students. But the notion of the university as a center for scholarship and exchange still
shapes how colleges and universities operate today. Some points:
1. Professors are scholars and artists: Most of your professors have had little to no formal
training in pedagogy (the science of teaching). They’re extensively trained in their
scholarly or creative fields, well versed in relevant theories, methods, and significant
findings. Many taught during graduate school, but most come to their jobs relative
novices about teaching. Professors apply themselves to the craft of teaching with
the same creative and intellectual fervor that drew them into their fields. They
attend conferences and presentations about effective teaching and learning (such
as The Lilly Conference, the AAC&U, or the American Educational Research Association), keep journals and portfolios to reflect on their teaching work, and read
books and articles about cognitive neuroscience, trends in higher education, and
the social worlds of their students. There are some professors who still see themselves in the classical model—as someone who delivers content through lectures
and assesses performance through a final exam or term paper, but that approach
is becoming ever rarer. Almost all professors seek out innovative and engaging
2. Professors have competing obligations: While you may view your professors primarily
as teachers,7 your instructors are also collecting data, writing books and articles,
making films, writing poetry, consulting with businesses and organizations, or inventing things. Even those who spend a majority of their time on teaching think of
themselves as scholars or artists who also teach.8 Scholarship and creative activity
are central ways that colleges and universities serve society. In addition to educated
graduates, higher education also produces ideas, findings, and innovations. High
You may have noticed that some instructors have the title “assistant professor” or “associate
professor.” It’s because in the original European model there could be only one “Professor” for a
given topic, and those other titles were developed for younger scholars. Nowadays most universities
have several “professors.” Many newer faculty are still called “assistant professors” even though they
don’t assist other faculty.
As students became a larger and larger presence at European universities, “colleges” emerged
as semi-autonomous units within universities to provide housing, meals, and venues for social
interaction. The model of the stand-alone “college” emerged in the Americas after European
At big research universities, a full-time faculty member might teach only one or two
courses a year. At a community college, an instructor might teach five or six classes a semester.
Undergraduate four-year colleges are usually somewhere in between.
This is why some instructors are VERY persnickety about being addressed as “Doctor” or
“Professor” and not “Mr.” or “Ms.” Not all fields have doctoral degrees—for example, many
professors in the arts have MFA degrees (Masters of Fine Arts) -- but “Professor” is always an
appropriate choice for addressing your instructors.
Really? Writing? Again?|3
Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence
school teachers, though similarly engaged in the craft of teaching, have much more
formal training in instruction and are more likely to see themselves primarily as
teachers, even those that are writing magazine articles, restoring wetland ecologies,
or composing music on the side.
3. Professors design their own classes: While both college professors and high school
teachers teach, one condition of their work is substantially different. Most high
school teachers in public school systems are contractually obligated to deliver
a particular curriculum and, in some cases, to use particular methods to do so.
The topics and materials are often determined by state regulators, local boards of
education, and school administrators. There is room for innovation, but under the
current mania for standards, many teachers are no longer treated (and respected)
like craftspersons in their own right. Higher education instructors still have a lot
more latitude than their high-school counterparts. Your instructor may be required
to cover particular concepts and skills or even assign a particular textbook, especially if one class is a prerequisite to more advanced classes. However, he or she still
has a lot of freedom to determine what students should learn, what they will do to
learn it, and how their achievements will be measured. As a result, two different
sections of the same college course (such as Ancient World History) could differ
dramatically, much more so than two parallel high school sections.
4. Students drive their own learning: The assumption behind high-school instruction
is that the teacher is the engine of learning. Consequently, a lot of time is spent in
direct face-to-face instruction. Homework is for further practice to reinforce material from that day. Teachers will often tell students what each night’s homework
assignment is, follow up on missing work, and closely track students’ progress. The
assumption behind college instruction, in contrast, is that students are the engine
of learning, and that most of the significant learning happens outside of class while
students are working through a dense reading or other challenging intellectual task
on their own. Most college classes meet only 1-3 times a week for a total of about 3
hours. Consequently, college instructors think of class meetings as an opportunity
to prepare you for the heavy-lifting that you’ll be doing on your own. Sometimes
that involves direct instruction (how to solve a particular kind of problem or analyze a particular kind of text). More often, though, professors want to provide you
with material not contained in the reading or facilitate active learning experiences
based on what you read ...
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