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$1 million in grants will expand writing program

Cornell has received two grants totaling $1 million to expand the John S. Knight Writing Program, which seeks to improve student writing and the teaching of writing through a variety of innovative techniques and programs.

A $750,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will establish a national center for writing in the disciplines. The grant will allow the Knight Writing Program to collaborate with institutions nationwide through a summer seminar, postdoctoral fellowships and other initiatives and will expand the program's existing Writing in the Majors component, which is geared for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

Also bolstering the Knight Writing Program is a $250,000 grant from the Park Foundation, which will fund five new Writing in the Majors courses per year in the social sciences. Together, the Knight and Park grants make it possible to increase the number of teaching assistants in Writing in the Majors courses from the present level of approximately 20 to a minimum of 30 per year.

Cornell's Knight Writing Program was established in 1986 with a $5 million endowment from Knight Foundation in honor of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and newspaper executive John S. Knight, Cornell class of 1918. In addition to Writing in the Majors, the writing program's interdisciplinary offerings now include 170 freshman writing seminars each semester and a walk-in writing workshop.

"The writing program built jointly by Knight Foundation and Cornell has become an outstanding tribute to the memory of John S. Knight and his efforts to encourage the highest standards in the use of the English language," said Cornell President Hunter Rawlings. "Cornell is grateful to Knight Foundation for enabling us to realize more fully the writing program's potential for national outreach even as it builds internally on its existing strengths and accomplishments."

He added, "Thanks to the generous support of the Park Foundation, Cornell can now expand its Writing in the Majors program to benefit undergraduates in economics, government, psychology and sociology, while helping faculty and graduate students in these fields develop their pedagogical skills."

A National Forum

Jonathan Monroe

Jonathan Monroe, director of the John S. Knight Writing Program and associate professor of comparative literature, envisions the new center as a national forum for research on writing instruction. It will offer other institutions exposure to the Cornell model, he said, and encourage them to build their own innovative programs.

The center's primary avenues for outreach will be a Summer Seminar in Writing in the Disciplines that will bring faculty and administrators from nine colleges and universities to the Cornell campus over the next three years. The center also will sponsor four postdoctoral fellowships, three visiting scholars-in-residence, a lecture series on the work of Cornell faculty involved in the writing program and a publications program.

"The previous grants have helped the John S. Knight Writing Program at Cornell to become one of the most widely respected programs in the nation," said Creed C. Black, Knight Foundation president and chief executive officer. "Through this program and our grant-making in literacy and in the field of journalism, Knight Foundation has carried on its founder's serious commitments to, and fondness for, the written word. We are eager to help Cornell spread the benefit of what it has learned."

"All of us in the Knight Program are extremely grateful for Knight Foundation's most recent recognition of our efforts to encourage innovative approaches to writing at all levels of the curriculum and to the Park Foundation for the expansion of our course offerings," Monroe said. "Thanks to the vital support the program has continued to enjoy during the past five years from the College of Arts and Sciences and the central administration, the Knight Program has established a solid foundation on which to expand its work."

Writing in the Majors

One of the Knight Writing Program's most innovative components is Writing in the Majors, established as a pilot project in 1987 and endowed with a directorship in 1992 with a Knight Foundation grant of $620,921. Now offered in disciplines ranging from astronomy to economics, Writing in the Majors courses cover the same material as other courses in their disciplines but place greater emphasis on effective writing and active learning. The Park Foundation grant will expand Writing in the Majors course offerings in the social sciences.

"Writing in the Majors operates on the basic premise that students write best about what they most care about," Monroe said. "As a result of the new grants, Cornell faculty, teaching assistants and students can look forward to enriched opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration with each other and with scholars at other institutions."

Keith Hjortshoj, director of Writing in the Majors, said the program has been particularly successful for students of the "hard sciences" but that it has offered relatively few courses in social sciences like economics, government and psychology.

"I see these new grants as a fortuitous fit," he said, "between Knight Foundation's interest in expanding the Knight Writing Program as a whole and the Park Foundation's interest in helping us place greater emphasis on an area we have neglected."

From Islamic Spain to the universe

In his Writing in the Majors course "Muslims, Christians and Jews in Islamic Spain: Literature and Society," Near Eastern studies Professor Ross Brann requires students to keep a reflective journal in which they record their reactions to primary sources and secondary reading assignments and issues discussed in class.

"These journals generated a tremendous amount of student learning through writing," Brann said. "Some of the best analytic and synthetic prose to come out of the course came from the pages of the student journals, because the students were unencumbered by the formalities of page lengths, stylistic requirements and grades."

In "Human Genetics and Society," taught by genetics Professor Harry T. Stinson Jr. and senior lecturer Rita Calvo, students choose controversial issues surrounding human genetics and, in small groups, write position papers that they present to classmates for critique. And in "Our Home in the Universe," taught by astronomy Professor Martha Haynes, students have held mock conferences, compiling papers into conference proceedings.

But perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the Writing in the Majors Program are the graduate teaching assistants who help teach the program's courses.

Carol Yoon, a frequent contributor to the "Science Times" section of The New York Times, was a teaching assistant in Stinson and Calvo's genetics course while pursuing her doctoral degree in ecology and systematics in the early 1990s.

She recalled, "Instead of just going over material that the students might have read or been quizzed on, I was getting them to conduct a dialogue with each other about whatever question we were addressing at the time and thinking through the problem together. It was incredibly exciting."

David Takacs, holder of three Cornell science degrees who now teaches his own writing-oriented classes in environmental science and policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, noted, "I think the graduate students that come out of the Writing in the Majors program really have a head start, because they've had to design courses and think about the pedagogy of writing in their own disciplines. My work with the program definitely helped me get this job."

Established in 1950, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation makes grants in journalism, education and the field of arts and culture. It also supports organizations in 27 communities where the communications company founded by the Knight brothers publishes newspapers, but it is wholly separate from and independent of those newspapers.

The Park Foundation of Ithaca is named for the late Roy H. Park, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Park Communications Inc. The Park Foundation makes grants for educational purposes to organizations based mostly on the East Coast of the United States.


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