The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in May, 1996.
Exploring all the uses of languageIn Associate Professor Beverly Wall's world, writing is a process of learning, a complex interaction between writer and audience, an opportunity for peer dialogue, and a vehicle for critical thinking and clear argumentation. "She is one of the top handful of experts on writing, probably in the country," asserts her colleague Professor of English Dirk Kuyk, who has co-taught many courses with her. As director of the College's Allan K. Smith Writing Center, Wall believes that it is her responsibility to interest students "in all of the uses of language."
A member of the faculty since 1987, Wall has been at the heart of faculty efforts to develop a writing program that reaches across the curriculum and trains students to use electronic information networks effectively. The writing center offers drop-in tutoring, writing courses and workshops, and helps students learn to navigate the Internet and create their own computer homepages. "It's not merely a part of the English department. The writing center properly belongs to the whole College," she said.
One of Wall's cross-curricular achievements has been the development of the writing associates program (modeled on a similar program at Brown University). Fifteen to 18 of the campus' best student writers-from a wide range of disciplines-are selected to become, in effect, writing TAs (teaching assistants). They take Wall's advanced course in writing theory and practice, in which they prepare to be writing center tutors and classroom TAs.
A student of rhetoric as well as a writing specialist, Wall has been instrumental in reviving Trinity's dormant debate club. Debate, which builds on tightly constructed logical arguments, is one of many places in the College's intellectual life where it becomes clear that logical argumentation is a "bridge concept" or "common language" that can function across disciplinary boundaries.
"Making claims and supporting them with evidence is essential in any discipline," says Greg Orpen '96, a biology major who took Wall's course on comparing writing and reasoning in various disciplines. The majority of students were English majors or writing associates, and Orpen admitted, "At first I was a little apprehensive about it." But Wall persuaded him that his perspective as a student of the natural sciences would be valuable.
The result was a terrific class experience for Orpen that included some interesting group discussions: Should scientists, for example, use language that more lay people can understand so as not to alienate so many? Or is it more important for a scientist to speak and write in ways that are accepted, respected, and understood by the scientific community?
Tricia Balatico '96 offers another example of Wall's ability to focus simultaneously on the development of individual talents and on group interaction. Balatico was in Wall's class on rhetoric and Southern writers (team taught with Kuyk), which explored the differences between the way Northern and Southern writers use language. While the natural inclination was for the class to create an invisible Mason-Dixon line, dividing itself into Southerners and Yankees, Wall worked hard to fight that division and to focus on the writing itself. "She's very good at getting the class to work together," Balatico said.
The computer revolution
One of Wall's top priorities has been to take advantage of the electronic revolution to help students learn to write well. When Wall taught her first computer-based course in 1991, she recalls that "everything went wrong from a technical standpoint." And yet, one moment revealed that "electronic pedagogy" was worth the trouble.
A freshman volunteered to have a draft of his paper edited collectively by the class. Wall called up the paper on her computer and projected it onto a large screen. Someone spontaneously made a suggestion to improve the second sentence, and Wall then keyed in the revision.
"I watched as the students, as a group, sort of leaned forward," she said.
Other suggestions spilled out, and the revision suddenly became a dynamic process that revealed the fluidity and power of the electronic medium, the interactions among writers, readers and teachers it made possible, and its ability to pull students to the edge of their seats.
Wall went on to develop with Kuyk a course that functioned almost entirely on computer, a sort of "virtual class" in which papers were handed in via computer networks, and class discussion flourished on electronic bulletin boards. At all hours of the day and night, students created dialogues and discussions.
This fall, Wall will teach another course without walls, a first-year seminar on the final phase of the 1996 presidential election. In addition to classroom debates and writing projects, students will take advantage of the opportunity provided by Trinity's co-sponsorship of the vice presidential debate in Hartford in October and also will join in community service and voter registration programs.
Working in a state-of-the-art computer-equipped classroom, the students will develop skill in tapping the world-wide resources of the Internet for research and explore different approaches to political argumentation. They also will use electronic mail to discuss the campaign with students at seven other colleges, whom they will join for a post-election conference.
"A democracy needs to have argumentation," said Wall, "healthy, constructive argumentation."
- by Leslie Virostek