How I Teach — Writing
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Délice Williams | Photo illustration by Kate Dempsey February 26, 2021
Professor Délice Williams makes UD’s writing requirement fun and engaging — even for the non-English major
Editor’s note: First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents) wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks with University of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by students during their first year on campus. The series includes professors who teach biology, writing, business, calculus, political science and sociology, and those stories can be read on the How I Teach website. In this story, Délice Williams, associate director of composition and assistant professor of English, explains how she teaches writing. The class, called "English 110 - Seminar in Composition," is the only course required for every UD undergraduate.
A universal truth about writing is that if you consider it easy, you are not likely all that good at it. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is trying at the best of times. But in middle school and high school, this difficulty is sometimes compounded by the way the subject is taught — as a set of rules to be adopted and meticulously followed. Your thesis goes here. Your main point goes there. The final product must be five paragraphs long — no more, no less. You want an A? You better conform to these rigid constraints.
This means many students enter their college’s general-education writing requirement with an attitude of, well… ugh. The breadth requirement is seen merely as something to suffer through. To check off. To move on from as quickly as possible before getting to the fun and exciting work of a chemistry or music or mechanical engineering major.
But, at the University of Delaware, anyone with this outlook entering English 110, a seminar in composition required for every student on campus, is sorely mistaken.
“This course is not a hoop to jump through,” said Délice Williams, associate director of composition and assistant professor of English. “It is an empowering, enriching experience. It has the power to ignite something in students. It opens their eyes to opportunities for growth and discovery.”
A former K-12 teacher, Williams is familiar with the formulaic way high school students are sometimes led to think about writing, and she knows this type of instruction has its value. She said high school teachers “are not being mean.” Rather, these educators are laying the necessary groundwork, readying their pupils for what comes next: Writing 2.0. Or, as Williams referred to it, the place where you “rediscover the joy” of the subject while honing skills necessary for a variety of disciplines.
Consider Michael Mallozzi, a first-year student who entered one of UD’s leadership classes in the fall of 2020 feeling fairly confident in his writing abilities. But once that first assignment got returned to him — complete with a disappointing grade — a sense of fear settled in. He had gone into this particular writing task with the strategies he gleaned from high school — or, as he called them, a “cookie-cutter approach.” He soon realized this would not cut it in a university class. Fortunately, at the same time, Mallozzi was enrolled in English 110.
“The course gave me insight into what my work should look like in college, and it helped me overcome any anxieties about writing at this level,” he said. “It gave me a new-found confidence in my abilities and a set of skills I will apply in courses throughout my academic career.”
So how does it work? How do initially reluctant writers at UD come out of Williams’ English 110 class feeling more empowered and more competent? Much of it is down to the level of freedom they are afforded.
Take the signature research assignment, in which students need to pen a persuasive argument. The topic is largely up to the individual Blue Hen. In the past, science majors have gravitated toward the value of genetically modified organisms or colonizing Mars. Sociologists have explored American culture’s nonchalant attitude toward bingeing of all kinds — from alcohol to TV. And aspiring business tycoons have tackled the idea of a universal basic income. In each case, agency is with the writer.
Freedom comes in, also, when composing the paper. No longer are students forbidden to write in the first-person — indeed, this is encouraged. Incorporating one’s own voice — rather than attempting to channel some perceived writerly, academic voice — allows for a level of comfort and ownership that is novel for many.
“This is not the research paper you wrote in eighth grade,” Williams said. “You are entering the conversation with other scholars and positioning yourself as best you can in that conversation.”
As for structure, there is room for creativity there as well — Williams encouraged one student to write her paper in the form of an open letter.
“I wish more of them would look at the assignment and ask the question: ‘What can I do with this? How can I turn this into something cooler than what the professor imagined?’ ” Williams said. “Please, be willing to talk to me. I’m always open to hearing: ‘Can I do it like this?’ I think the best papers come from that kind of creative thinking.”
This focus on freedom applies for other assignments as well, which include writing an Instagram story and completing a multi-modal project that could incorporate video, podcasting, even Tweeting — the medium to which a student is most drawn.
“One of the positives of a college writing course is definitely how open it is,” said Mallozzi, whose work explored the use of Native American mascots in professional sports. “The class allowed me to take a step back and critically examine my preconceived notions. I learned there is more than one way to write.”
As much as this license is appreciated, there is one area where students do not want to forego formula: assessment.
“If you are resistant to English class, often this resistance is articulated as: ‘It’s too wishy washy. There’s no one answer like there is in my math class. My English teachers are just too subjective’,” Williams said. “But I reject that.”
To give her students a firm handle on the grading process, she offers them clear-cut rubrics which incorporate technical aspects (yes, you get points just for formatting correctly and citing the required number of sources), and the class spends time looking at model papers in advance, noting elements of the writing that are working and vice versa. Additionally, students go through several drafts before turning in a final version of their work for assessment, meaning there is ample opportunity to conference with Williams for feedback: “I don’t think you can teach writing well without a lot of conversation around it,” she said.
Throughout the course, Williams emphasizes her role not just as a judge of the students, but as their advocate.
“I frequently compare writing to athletic training,” she said. “No one is naturally good at every sport — but with coaching, you can improve. Transferring this analogy over to writing makes it easier for them to see: If they are struggling, it is not because they are failures. They simply need coaching. I will be there to provide this guidance and to cheer you on.”
For Nicole Gill, a first-year, chemical engineering major, this support was key.
“Writing has never been my strongest subject,” she said. “I would consider myself more of a STEM person, so I was anxious at the beginning of this class. But I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. Professor Williams made herself very available, and I met with her twice. She helped me to clarify my writing, to see where there might be gaps in a reader’s understanding and to turn in a much stronger paper.”
By the last class session — or, in writing parlance, by the kicker — engaged students do not feel simply as though they’ve checked off a required box. Rather, they view English 110 as an important stage in their personal character arc.
“I think very few students imagine they will discover anything about themselves in a first-year writing course,” Williams said. “But one of the delights of teaching is seeing the lights go on when they realize they can do more with this. This can build on this. They can use the skills in this class to do more cool stuff throughout their college careers. That’s what college is all about. That is why you are here. And we are certainly excited you are.”
Support for Academic Success
The University of Delaware empowers all Blue Hens with the skills and strategies they need to succeed.
UD students in any major are encouraged to take advantage of a range of peer tutoring services, as well as comprehensive skill-building resources offered by the Office of Academic Enrichment (OAE). Most services are available free of charge. To learn more, visit the OAE website. Students may also utilize the Blue Hen SUCCESS platform to connect with their academic advisor or access additional resources on Advising Central.
For UD’s community of educators, the Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning (CTAL) offers programs, workshops and confidential consultations to support faculty as they develop and achieve their pedagogical goals. UD instructors at every stage of their career are invited to explore online and contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
How I Teach — Series
The How I Teach website provides a collection of the stories in this series.