Saturday, December 31, 2005

Offering a Course in Scholarly Writing

In an attempt to provide more support for upper-level students who are tackling their R&W requirements, UMKC's Law Library Director, Paul Callister, and I developed a course in scholarly writing last spring.  You might consider proposing a similar course for your law school as part of your ASP efforts.

The course is designed as a one-credit, pass/fail offering that takes students from the initial stages of topic development through strategies for getting their articles published in appropriate journals.  Using two outstanding texts, Mary R. Falk's Scholarly Writing for Law Students and Eugene Volokh's Academic Legal Writing, we use a "writer's workshop" approach that includes direct instruction in the writing process and advanced research techniques, as well as numerous opportunities for the students to share their research and drafts with one another for critique and advice. 

Paul provides most of the instruction in research; and I provide most of the instruction in writing, each of us playing off the other's focus to create as best we can an integrated approach to the material.  We do not grade the students' work or even provide much reading or critique because we believe that such input should come from their individual faculty advisers.  Our objective is to give the students strategies and techniques they may not get from advisers and to help them work through writing and research difficulties as they arise.  As long as they attend the class and participate fully, they can earn the credit.

One of the most important and appreciated facets of the class, we have found, is the workshop approach that allows students to bounce ideas off each other and obtain feedback as their projects develop.  They are not allowed to edit each other's work, of course, or to collaborate inappropriately; but they seem to benefit tremendously from the workshop interaction as they test their own theses and those of their peers.  It is intriguing to watch them as they talk through conceptual difficulties with one another and find their thinking crystallizing into more coherent and focused approaches to their projects.

The class is scheduled to meet for an hour, once a week.  When the students' schedules permit, however, we sometimes take a couple of weeks off to allow them to work on their drafts and then reconvene for an extended session that allows for more extensive group work.  Last spring, we were able to schedule two class times during the week to give ourselves more flexibility in class meetings, given that a one-hour course need only meet once per week.  This fall, however, our students' schedules made such an arrangement impractical; so we stuck with once a week.  Nevertheless, the interactions were rich and beneficial.

We are still massaging the course and experimenting with our approach, but students seem to have found it quite helpful so far.  Because we have avoided the grading load, the course has not been particularly burdensome, as writing courses go; and our rapport with the students has had more of a "coaching" feel than is sometimes true of first-year writing courses, where students and professors have to deal with disappointing grades on the students' assignments. 

All in all, our feeling is that the course has been a success and has addressed an important need for students.  You might want to explore a similar offering, perhaps using a larger team of instructors or guest lecturers from among the scholars, writing professors, and librarians on your faculty.  The resources are there; with a little creativity, you can offer an important set of resources without creating too much strain on anyone's already crowded schedule. (dbw)

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