English 110 helps first-year students find meaning, connection through writing

Surveys this spring showed that students' appreciation of writing — and their perception of its power to change themselves and the world — grew after classes went remote. English 110 is a First Year Foundations course and part of the Core Curriculum.

One of the key objectives of  ENG 110: Writing: Argument and Inquiry is to help first-year students appreciate writing’s capacity “to change oneself and the world.”

“That’s a big ask, especially of first-year students,” said Heather Lindenman, assistant professor of English and ENG 110 coordinator. The objective is unique to Elon, and one that English faculty are proud of fostering as students begin their undergraduate careers. It’s been a course goal for decades.

But it’s also one of the most difficult objectives to measure. It relies on subjective personal growth and expression, and growing facility with writing to different audiences in various contexts. For the first time this spring, English faculty attempted to assess the objective from students’ points of view — while paying particular attention to perceptions of their writing before and after COVID-19 emerged.

“The numbers are higher after COVID disrupted students’ lives, suggesting that students found even deeper value in the writing they did … when they found themselves displaced,” Lindenman wrote in the study report.

Looking ahead to this fall, English 110 faculty hope the personal reflection, expression, and public communication involved in the course will help first-year students acclimate and connect with each other amid a physically distanced semester.

“The less we are physically together, the more the writing we do matters,” Lindenman said. “This fall more than ever, the things they put on paper or a screen is the way they’re communicating. We will begin our meaningful relationships with each other through the words we write.”

Student survey responses included in Lindenman’s report showed students found that deeper meaning. What’s more, responses showed that the genre of the writing assigned didn’t affect whether students found it meaningful.

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, generally, I would only write when I was assigned papers or projects by my teachers and professors. However, since the pandemic, I have found writing to be therapeutic. I have begun journaling, which has helped me express my thoughts and feelings regarding the pandemic. Something that I was not expecting, however, was that writing papers for school has also had a similar effect on me, as it forces me to focus on things besides the COVID-19 world,” one student responded in the survey.

English 110 is an integral course in the Core Curriculum, and as thousands before them have, the incoming Class of 2024 will find their voices in various media and forms. The course requires first-year students to tackle writing for different purposes — including academic, non-academic, and civic.

If you’re an incoming student and that sounds like a drag, fear not says Ons Bouali ’23 a biochemistry major minoring in neuroscience. Bouali originally tried to skirt taking the course. She became a strong writer in her high school’s International Baccalaureate program and wasn’t looking forward to a semester of academic papers.

“I ended up enjoying it,” Bouali said. “It wasn’t just research papers and formal essays. I was able to write and get valuable feedback on a scholarship application. Another one of our assignments was to write a speech about a personal hero, and I wrote about my father. I enjoyed the practice of writing. I would go to Global Commons, listen to jazz music, and write for English 110.”

Or, as another student surveyed put it: “English 110 has made me feel like every piece of writing I do matters. Even if I am just writing something for an academic assignment, it is still important to be oneself, and to write something meaningful and relevant. In high school when we would constantly write analytical essays, I lost my love for writing and for expressing myself through words. However, (this course and my professor) have helped me to find myself and my love for writing all over again.”

The course is structured to give faculty and students freedom of choice in how they approach writing. It offers students fluidity in writing for and engaging with different media — print, screen, and audio — and the opportunity to research and to write about individual interests.

Senior Lecturer in English Paula Patch was the previous coordinator of English 110. She enjoys teaching the course because it allows students to bring their values and views into their work.

“We’re teaching students about the power of language, and that way of writing can get kind of messy,” Patch said. “Thinking about changing the world, that’s not necessarily going to happen through an academic paper. Today, we’re much more likely to change the world through a petition or a tweet.”

Assistant Professor of English Lina Kuhn hopes students will find greater community and empowerment from work in the course, whether that’s from online discussion, in-class writing prompts and analysis, or publishing their final pieces. There is pleasure in the practice of writing.

“The main thing I want students to keep in mind is to be patient with writing as a process,” Kuhn said. “I want them to use whatever methods they can to make it meaningful and interesting to them: Find something that sparks your interest and hold onto that.”

Patch hopes students will enter the class ready to be open to their own expression, not to censor themselves, and ready to explore.

“Sometimes students are afraid they don’t have the right idea or what they have to say isn’t important. But everything you have to say is important,” Patch said. “You have an audience in this course. This course can help you take passionate ideas and put them out into spaces beyond this course.”

Lindenman echoed that, emphasizing that the course isn’t about judging what is and isn’t “good writing,” but about honing the skills they already have toward more effective expression.

“English 110 gives them the chance to siphon what they’ve learned about writing for their whole lives, to confirm the strategies that are productive for them, and understanding and letting go of those that aren’t,” Lindenman said. “This course values students’ incoming experiences. We help them make effective choices about writing in different contexts and mediums, and to practice that.”