The Burgess-Proctor et al (2014)

The Burgess-Proctor et al (2014)







512458

research-article2013

TSOXXX10.1177/0092055X13512458Teaching SociologyBurgess-Proctor et al.

A Collective Effort to
Improve Sociology Students’
Writing Skills

Teaching Sociology
2014, Vol. 42(2) 130­–139
© American Sociological Association 2013
DOI: 10.1177/0092055X13512458
ts.sagepub.com

Amanda Burgess-Proctor1, Graham Cassano1,
Dennis J. Condron1, Heidi A. Lyons1, and George Sanders1

Abstract
Nationwide, academic sociologists at all types of higher education institutions face the challenge of working
to improve students’ writing skills. In this article, we describe a collective effort by a group of faculty
members in one undergraduate sociology program to implement several effective writing-improvement
strategies. We advocate aiming to improve students’ writing by working together on a united front rather
than working in isolation. After explaining the origins of the collective emphasis on writing that emerged
in our group and briefly outlining the writing-improvement strategies that we utilize, we use student
survey data to reflect on major themes before concluding with a discussion of the merits of our collective
approach.

Keywords
student writing, writing across curriculum, professionalization of students
As sociology professors, we have the opportunity
to teach our students not only concepts and theories
that will help them develop their sociological
imaginations, but also effective writing skills that
will benefit them in their working lives and postuniversity careers (see e.g., Hudd, Sardi, and
Lopriore 2013). Indeed, these need not be separate
endeavors, as strategies that promote coherent,
logical, effective, and even elegant student writing
can accomplish both aims. Good writing helps produce good critical thinking, so sociology instructors accomplish their tasks more effectively with an
emphasis on written assessment. Just as importantly, good writing skills constitute an invaluable
tool for students as they navigate their lived experiences after graduation.
This article emerges out of a collective effort by a
group of five faculty members in one undergraduate
sociology program to implement effective writingimprovement strategies for students. We begin by
using the literature on teaching writing in sociology
to situate the origin of our collective approach. We
then describe how our group came together and

what we do in the classroom to improve our students’ writing skills. At the heart of our discussion is
our use of a student survey as a tool for assessing
and improving our collective effort. We conclude by
elaborating lessons learned from our endeavors and
highlighting merits of our collective approach.

Teaching Writing in the
Sociology Classroom
Although an abundance of literature supports our
core aim of improving students’ comprehension
through writing (e.g., Grauerholz and BoumaHoltrop 2003; Hudd and Bronson 2007; Roberts
1993), we believe our contribution advances these
1

Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA

Corresponding Author:
Dennis J. Condron, Department of Sociology,
Anthropology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice,
Oakland University, 518 Varner Hall, Rochester, MI
48309, USA.
Email: condron@oakland.edu

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Burgess-Proctor et al.	
works by highlighting the collaborative nature of
faculty in our department to institute the practices
outlined in those works. Some prior research
addresses related efforts but lacks our specific
goals and strategies. A number of articles, for
instance, describe the ways in which departments
collectively have recognized a perceived challenge
or need and the resulting work toward redressing
that issue (e.g., Ciabattari 2013; Clark and Filinson
2011; Waltermaurer and Obach 2007). Schmid
(1989) discusses his department’s work to develop
a mission statement and then draw on that statement to develop the curriculum. Shostak et al.
(2010) describe their department’s efforts to integrate research methods as a core focus in their curricula. In the smartly titled “Kicking and Screaming:
How One Truculent Sociology Department Made
Peace with Mandatory Assessment,” Clark and
Filinson (2011) narrate the obstacles and successes
along the way to curricular self-assessment.
Pittendrigh and Jobes (1984) describe how they
emphasized the importance of writing in the sociology classroom, but their work took a team-teaching
approach in which a writing instructor and a sociology instructor worked in tandem within one course
at a time.
Two recent articles come particularly close in
form to our contribution. First, Waltermaurer and
Obach (2007) discuss their energies toward connecting multiple courses in the department via content and themes so that students can see better how
sociology is a cohesive and coherent discipline.
This piece, while significant for a variety of reasons, does not accomplish what we attempt to do:
highlight the importance of implementing a collective effort to improve sociology students’ writing
skills. Second, Ciabattari (2013:61) describes a
department-wide initiative to build “sequential
writing competencies” into a sociology program.
This approach involves identifying specific competencies that students at each course level (100level, 200-level, etc.) should possess and working
together to help students master these competencies. Compared to the effort described in Ciabattari
(2013), ours involves a subgroup of faculty members within a larger, multidisciplinary department.
Our approach emphasizes that a collective effort
need not be a department-wide, institutionalized
one. Indeed, faculty can still collaborate and students can still feel the impact of a concerted effort
even if only a subgroup of like-minded faculty
members participate. In addition, compared to
Ciabattari’s (2013) greater emphasis on student
competencies, our approach elaborates more on the

actual writing-improvement strategies used in the
classroom and provides insightful background on
the formation of our group—to which we now turn.

Developing a “Culture
of Solidarity” Around
Writing Instruction
Oakland University enrolls roughly 16,000 undergraduate and 4,000 graduate students, about 96 percent of whom are Michigan residents with about
84 percent of them coming from the tri-county metropolitan Detroit area. The Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching classifies our institution as a “Doctoral/Research University” (DRU). In
our department, faculty members typically teach
five courses per year and maintain active research
agendas, with the expectation being that faculty
members publish a minimum of one peer-reviewed
article per year. In the teaching-research continuum
of higher education, then, we fall somewhere in the
middle—we are not a small liberal arts college with
an eight-course teaching load, nor are we a “high” or
“very high” research activity institution with a threeor four-course load. It is also important to point out
that our students come from widely varying socioeconomic and academic backgrounds, with many
students in our department being first-generation
college students or nontraditional students returning
to college later in life. As a result, our students’ writing skills vary widely.
Our group consists of five faculty members in a
multidisciplinary department that is home to the
Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work, and
Criminal Justice programs. In recent years, a combination of faculty retirements, institutional
growth, and program growth has led to the hiring of
numerous junior faculty members and has changed
the complexion of the faculty. All of us were part of
this departmental transformation. We vary in our
research specializations, teaching interests, and
even our disciplines (one of us is trained not in
sociology but criminal justice), but what we have
in common is that we all teach core theory and
methods courses in which we require abundant
writing. In the fall of 2011, we formed a collaborative group dedicated to promoting effective writing
in our curriculum. The motivations behind our
group are (a) to help students produce better papers,
thus helping our department produce better sociology graduates, and (b) through a renewed emphasis
on writing, to prepare our students better for
employment.

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Prior to forming our group, we had frequent
informal discussions about student writing, but the
impulse to formalize these discussions came from
two sources. First, one member of our group participated in an interdisciplinary college committee
charged with producing an online document that
would help promote writing across the university.1
The committee members took their experience
working on writing-improvement techniques back
to their respective departments. At the same time,
another member of our group was advocating the
creation of a departmental writing handbook for
students. This concurrent advocacy helped mobilize our existing interest in implementing specific
writing-improvement strategies in our courses. Just
as important, through our work in common, our
group members developed a “culture of solidarity”
(Fantasia 1988) around writing instruction.
Led by a supportive chair, junior and senior faculty alike are encouraged to collaborate in a variety
of ways along shared research and teaching interests, and this commitment to collaboration shapes
the way things are done in our department. For
example, at annual retreats we identify issues of
shared faculty interest such as mentoring, curriculum, pedagogy, and recruitment. In addition to
these somewhat more formal mechanisms of creating professional solidarity, the general warm regard
faculty hold for one another is evident in informal
socializing, both on campus and off. This emphasis
on departmental solidarity results in part from
rapid institutional and departmental growth in
recent years, which has led faculty members to
guard strategically against fragmentation.
These preexisting cultural factors had a direct
impact upon the formation of our group. We came
together through a combination of informal “hallway chats” and as a result of a faculty retreat. At that
retreat, we decided to begin our series of meetings to
discuss writing strategies. While all members of our
group were interested in improving our students’
writing skills, our interests and our tools would have
remained isolated without the active encouragement
toward collaboration we received from our department and our university. Once we began this discussion, we achieved a group consensus on strategy by
following the collective model established in our
departmental culture. We sought methods that would
allow each group member as much autonomy and
flexibility as possible while still presenting a collective image to our students. In part, we preserved this
flexibility by allowing participating instructors to
choose from a wide range of strategies. At the same
time, we have been able to preserve our effort over

time because through our discussions we have
learned that we encounter the same kinds of challenges in the classroom and share similar criteria for
evaluating student work. We discussed our assessment methods and shared resources such as assignments and grading rubrics. We stored these
documents in an online depository available to all
faculty members in our department. Beyond these
concrete resources, we also shared more intangible
ones such as insights on what works (and what does
not) based on our experiences and information on
writing-related university policies and resources
about which other (particularly new) faculty members may be unaware. As a result, our group members have seen how much we have in common in our
mission as instructors.
The formation of our group was not without
challenges, however. Perhaps the biggest impediment was finding time to meet regularly within our
busy and often conflicting schedules. We also
sometimes had difficulty reaching a consensus
about the extent to which our efforts should be
standardized across faculty and across courses. We
all want to help improve students’ writing skills,
and we want to work together in doing so, but we
also want to maintain autonomy as instructors.
Therefore, issues such as papers’ page lengths,
whether assignments should include opportunities
for revision, and the nature of feedback provided to
students are left to individual instructors to determine. Finally, some of the courses we teach (e.g.,
Intro, Statistics) involve few or no writing assignments and therefore few or no opportunities to
implement writing-improvement strategies. This
produces variation in the number of strategies used
in the courses we teach.
Despite the challenges just noted, our shared
vision prompted us to implement a series of writingimprovement strategies in our classes the following
semester. Beginning in winter 2012 and continuing
through the following academic year (fall and winter 2012–13), the five members of our group simultaneously incorporated these strategies into our
courses when appropriate (with deviations in the
number of strategies used in any given course,
noted previously). It is possible that each individual instructor came to the group with a pre-given
set of standards. But it is also quite likely that
through our discussions, each group member
sharpened his or her own sense of best practices
and found in one another’s methods new tools, new
ideas, and new approaches to old problems.
None of the six writing-improvement strategies,
used in isolation, is new. Therefore, our intent here

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Burgess-Proctor et al.	
is not to explain the mechanics of the strategies in
great detail but rather to give readers a sense of
what we do and how we collaborate. Subsequently,
we turn to an elaboration of the benefits of our collective effort and the related group solidarity surrounding the effort.

Writing-Improvement
Strategies
In-class writing exercises constitute our first writingimprovement strategy. These tend to be “low-risk”—
as long as students complete the exercise, they
receive full credit. Low-risk writing not only alleviates students’ grade anxiety and promotes more creative, insightful responses, but also dissuades
students from simply regurgitating what they think
their professor wants to hear. Furthermore, the questions that these exercises pose typically do not ask
students to recall specific details from readings, but
instead prompt application of course material. For
example, a discussion question might ask: “Based
on today’s assigned reading, what do you think is the
most important implication of this study for policy
makers, and why?” Asking students to apply the
course material in this manner allows them to
develop their critical thinking and writing skills as
well as gain confidence in their writing by practicing
in a low-risk setting.
The second strategy is peer review. As sociologists, we are, among other things, professional
writers, and peer review exercises allow sociology
instructors to mobilize that expertise. Through our
professional activity, we recognize the importance
of revision and we realize that writing is a craft.
Like any craft, writing improves through constant
practice. We do not suddenly become “good writers.” Too often, undergraduates confront writing
difficulties with the fatalistic claim, “I’m just not a
good writer.” Underlying this claim is the assumption that at some point someone might become a
“good writer,” as if entering a new, permanent state
of being. Peer review provides students the opportunity to work through their writing—revising,
reconsidering, and remaking their texts.
Third, we expose our students to a library
research orientation in which our social science
librarian conducts a workshop on information literacy. The library research orientation exposes students to a wealth of research-related resources.
Beyond exposure, though, students need to be able
to sort through the wealth of information that they
discover. Librarians are particularly well suited to
assist in this regard, given their ability to teach

students how to discern relevant information from
irrelevant information, scholarly sources from nonscholarly ones, and efficient strategies for extracting and making use of information (Abowitz 1994).
Fourth, we conduct an in-class writing workshop to offer students guidance on writing mechanics, hallmarks of scholarly writing, and proper use
of the ASA style of citing sources. The specific
content of the writing workshops varies somewhat
across group members, but they share some commonalities. For example, all members of our group
who utilize this strategy cover basic writing
mechanics and address concerns related to proper
citation. Some of us create PowerPoint slides and
distribute a handout to students that includes
detailed examples of in-text and reference list citation format, common errors to avoid (e.g., subject/
verb disagreement, tense-switching, etc.), and suggestions for improved writing skills (e.g., making
use of transitions, avoiding clichés, etc.). Despite
variation in the specific lecture format, all group
members who employ this strategy allow ample
opportunity for students to ask questions and clarify their understanding of the writing material and
the requirements of the paper assignment in that
particular course.
Finally, based on the premise that properly citing
source material is equally important an academic
skill as proper writing mechanics, we utilize two
strategies aimed at preventing plagiarism: an online
plagiarism tutorial and a signed student integrity
statement. The latter was adapted from Sims (2002).
Like the research orientation, our university library
provides these useful resources for instructor use.
The plagiarism tutorial is an online course that
explains in detail what plagiarism is and how to
avoid it, then presents a quiz to assess students’ comprehension. Students must achieve a certain score in
order to pass the quiz; upon doing so they may email
to their instructors or print an award-like certificate
that includes the student’s name, score, and date of
completion. The student integrity statement is a document that students sign and submit along with their
papers. It states that the student (a) is the author of
the paper and is submitting it only for the current
class, (b) cites all paraphrases and direct quotes,
(c) includes quotation marks whenever more than
three consecutive words from a source have been
used, and (d) provides a corresponding list of references. Signing the integrity statement requires students to reflect on plagiarism one more time before
submitting their papers, an act that faculty may
require students to complete as a condition for submitting papers.

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While each member of our group maintains
autonomy in his or her implementation of these
writing-improvement strategies in the classroom,
the vocational solidarity is beneficial both to our
students and to us as faculty. First, students understand that the common set of practices and policies
and the simultaneous implementation of these
strategies across our classes signal a widespread
commitment to improving writing. Second, we
possess a common vocabulary for the analysis, discussion, and assessment of these strategies, to
which we now turn.

Major Themes from
Student Survey
A survey of students constitutes the final component of our collective effort to improve sociology
students’ writing skills. At the conclusion of each
semester, each of us identifies the courses in which
we implemented writing-improvement strategies
(i.e., the courses for which it is appropriate to survey students). We then distribute a link to the
online survey to all students in the targeted courses.
While we obtained Institutional Review Board
approval in anticipation of publishing survey
results, this step would be unnecessary for departments’ internal assessment purposes (e.g., in conjunction with end-of-semester course evaluations).
The brief online survey asks students to report
the extent to which they agree with a number of
statements pertaining to each writing-improvement
strategy utilized by their professor. For example,
students can rate the extent to which they agree that
a particular strategy improved their overall writing
skills, improved confidence in their writing abilities, and/or made them more aware of issues related
to plagiarism and academic integrity. Students can
report that they strongly disagree, disagree, neither
agree nor disagree, agree, or strongly agree with
each statement—or they can report that the statement was not applicable if their professor did not
implement the strategy to which the statement pertains. Finally, after responding to the statements
about a given strategy, students can type in a
response to an open-ended question asking them,
“What additional feedback would you like to give
to the faculty about [the writing-improvement
strategy]?”
The student survey is essential for three reasons. First, it gives us a sense of whether students’
attitudes toward the writing-improvement strategies are generally positive or negative. The quantitative results allow us to see which strategies are

being received most and least favorably, and the
qualitative comments help us understand the reasons behind the quantitative scores. Second,
administering the survey at the end of each semester allows us to track changes in students’ feedback
over time. We use the results of the surveys to
implement changes in subsequent courses toward
the goal of improving our collective writingimprovement program. Third, because students
indicate the course and instructor for which they
are taking the survey, we can compare the results
across courses/instructors toward the goal of learning from one another. For example, if one instructor received lower marks on a given strategy
compared to another instructor, the former may
consult the latter in aiming to improve his or her
own subsequent use of that strategy. Our survey
questions are available to readers upon request.
In the following, we explain how we use the
student survey as a tool for assessing and improving our collective effort. We discuss the major
themes coming out of our first three rounds of data
collection (surveys administered at the end of the
winter 2012, fall 2012, and winter 2013 semesters),
as well as how we use the data to strengthen our
collective effort. Most importantly, we demonstrate
the merits of our collective approach by explaining
what we gain from working together as opposed to
working in isolation. For the sake of space, we do
not present and discuss detailed results from the
survey (although, like the survey, that information
is available upon request).

Increased Satisfaction with the Library
Research Orientation
The first theme emerging from the student survey
data is increased satisfaction with the library
research orientation over time. Indeed, the quantitative scores on the library orientation questions
increased in both the second and third rounds of
data collection, making the library orientation the
top-ranked writing-improvement strategy in the
third round.
The data reveal related reasons why the library
research orientation is successful. First, most of our
students are emerging adults who appreciate technology and enjoy learning how to use electronic
databases, search engines, reference management
software, and other tools that make researching
their topics convenient and user-friendly. Students
report leaving the orientation with concrete
research skills that they will use not only for the
current course paper but also for their other classes

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(both within and outside our department) in which
research papers are required, giving the research
orientation high “value added.” Second, through
the orientation students learn that the academic
research process need not be intimidating but
instead can be manageable. Third, they learn where
they can go for help if they become overwhelmed.
This offers students a sense of mastery (or at least
competence) in their academic research skills,
which in turn offers them confidence in preparing
written assignments.
The positive student feedback on the library
research orientation indicates to us that this is a
writing-improvement strategy well worth continuing to utilize. In our group discussions, and based
on the student survey data, we have determined
that attending multiple library research orientations
is not problematic for the vast majority of students.
To the contrary, students often report that they learn
something new every time they attend a library
research orientation, a finding we elaborate upon in
the following section. Tailoring the orientation to
the course and the specific writing assignment
helps in this regard. One student’s open-ended
response on the survey illustrates: “I have been to
the library resource orientation a few times. . . . The
refresher of the resource material is nice and if a
course page has been made, there’s usually some
specifics that you didn’t learn before gone over
during the orientation.”

Consistently Positive Feedback on the
In-class Writing Workshop
The second theme emerging from the student survey
data is that the in-class writing workshop is consistently among the highest ranked strategies in terms
of student satisfaction. Students report an appreciation for gaining a clear understanding of the instructor’s specific expectations for successful writing and
for having an opportunity to ask questions and gain
clarity about the academic writing process. For
example, “The in-class writing lecture was useful
because it gave me a clear idea of what the professor
expected for the paper written in [his or her] course.”
As noted previously, our students come from diverse
academic backgrounds and therefore have highly
varied writing skills entering our classes. Many of
our students lack significant experience with academic writing techniques and therefore appreciate
the opportunity to learn (or refresh) those skills
before having them evaluated. Moreover, we find
that students appreciate the transparency in expectations these writing workshops create, making them

feel like they know what it takes to produce a good
paper.
One concrete strategy that some group members have found to be successful is making grading
rubrics available to students during the writing
workshop (which occurs well before the assignment deadline). Providing rubrics to students and
covering them during the workshop demystifies
what constitutes a good paper and offers students
specific criteria for preparing their assignments.
Additionally, we find that the workshop is a valuable opportunity to show students that we are “on
their side” in wanting to help them develop and
strengthen their writing skills, which makes students feel supported by faculty. Thus, while our
students like the workshop because it offers transparency and clarity in expectations, it also allows
us to demonstrate to students our active commitment to assisting them as they develop their writing
skills.

Consistently Lukewarm Feedback on
Peer Review
The third theme in the survey data is that students
provide generally and consistently lukewarm evaluations of the peer review assignments. We believe
that student dissatisfaction with peer review has
two separate but related sources. First, some students, particularly high-performing students, perceive a mismatch of competencies when paired
with lower-performing students. The high performers sometimes feel that their peer reviewers did not
provide the kind of feedback necessary to craft an
improved paper. These students typically prefer to
receive feedback from the professor rather than
from a student. This can present instructors with a
difficult dilemma—it would be unfair to provide
some but not all students with systematic feedback
on paper drafts. One group member addresses this
issue by telling students that although the professor
will not read students’ drafts in their entirety and
provide feedback, he welcomes questions after
class, during office hours, and via e-mail. In addition, we have become more cognizant of the need
to be more strategic in our pairings and avoid randomly assigning peer reviews, keeping in mind the
goal that everyone in the class should benefit from
the peer review assignment.
Second, students are sensitive to their classmates’ feelings and understandably are hesitant to
share criticisms that may hurt those feelings. To
address this, one professor shares one of her own
article submissions and asks the students to practice

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peer review on a portion of it. Students are asked to
identify the thesis statement, summarize the research
findings, and offer constructive criticism. As a part
of the same exercise, the professor also shares some
of the actual feedback from the blind reviews she
received. Doing this enables students to practice
peer review and to learn that peer review is an effective and beneficial part of scholarship.

Plagiarism Paranoia
A final theme emerging from our student surveys,
and from one-on-one conversations with students
seeking assistance with their papers, pertains to
paranoia that students experience surrounding plagiarism. We find that our emphasis on preventing
plagiarism leads some students to become fearful
of facing repercussions for plagiarizing. This
plagiarism paranoia can result in extreme overcitation—some students having this problem provide a parenthetical citation for nearly every
sentence in the paper because they fear getting into
trouble if they fail to support a point with a citation.
Although this does not occur terribly often, we find
that it happens often enough to warrant action on
our parts to combat it. The challenge for our group
members is helping students strike a good balance
between under-citation or plagiarism on the one
hand and paranoia-driven over-citation on the other
hand.
In our collective discussions of this issue, we
have shared a number of potential solutions with
one another. One member of our group uses his inclass writing workshop as an opportunity to address
plagiarism paranoia. Using a published article to
illustrate, the instructor points out instances in
which parenthetical citations are and are not needed
and explains why. Another group member who
requires rough drafts of paper sections to be submitted throughout the semester identifies problems
with plagiarism on the section drafts. This helps
students find the over-/under-citation balance in
their own work before the final paper is due, giving
them the opportunity to sort it out before they
might lose credit for over-citing sources or face
institutional penalties for plagiarizing. A third
member of our group addresses plagiarism paranoia in the context of annotated outlines. These
outlines include introductory and concluding paragraphs in which the students must demonstrate
proper citation technique. Citation problems are
resolved before the student turns the outline into a
paper. In sum, we have learned from each other
several ways to combat the plagiarism paranoia

that accompanies our emphasis on preventing
plagiarism.

Discussion
Based on the survey feedback and our own estimations of the success of these writing-improvement
strategies, we now turn to a contextualization of
our findings. In this section, we offer a series of
lessons learned from our project, including alterations to these strategies we have already identified
for future courses. We conclude by affirming the
merit of our collective effort, supported by the
feedback from the student survey and our own
observations.

Lessons Learned
Open-ended comments in the survey data reveal
that many students pick up on redundancy stemming from our collective effort. However, we
believe it is important to distinguish between what
we call “repetitive” redundancy, which undermines
the impact of the strategies, and what we call “reaffirmative” redundancy, which arguably boosts their
impact and indeed is part of the spirit of our collective approach.
The first round of survey data indicated that students experienced some repetitive redundancy
from attending multiple library research orientations. Students in upper-level courses who previously had completed one or more library research
orientations noted that as senior students they
already had this knowledge and, in some cases, felt
it was a wasted class period. In the words of one
student, “Once we have completed this orientation,
why is it necessary to repeat it multiple times?”
However, in subsequent semesters, students
reported appreciating the orientation even when
they had been through it before. One reason for the
students’ change in perspective is the tailoring of
the orientation to each specific course (noted previously). When the librarians scaled back general
information on library resources and focused—
with guidance from the instructor—on the
resources that would be most useful for the assignment at hand, students experienced less repetitive
redundancy and shifted toward reaffirmative
redundancy. For example, in an orientation for students working on a social stratification research
paper, the librarian demonstrated searching strategies by having students first brainstorm terms
related to stratification (e.g., income inequality,
socioeconomic status, wealth, etc.) and health (e.g.,

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mortality, life expectancy, etc.) and then search for
articles using various combinations of those keywords. When library research orientations are more
tailored to specific courses, they are less redundant
and more beneficial.
Likewise, some students were required to complete the online plagiarism tutorial (which takes
approximately 40 minutes to complete) for multiple courses. This was problematic because it felt
like busy work to the students and undermined our
emphasis on the importance of academic integrity.
To address this problem, we established that a tutorial completion certificate obtained any time during
the current academic year will suffice. In other
words, students may submit their certificate for any
course that requires it for an entire academic year,
so they need to take the tutorial anew only once per
year at most. We hope this adjustment will alleviate
the repetitive redundancy students had reported
experiencing.
Conversely, the library research orientation and
the in-class writing workshop involve reaffirmative
redundancy—repetition of the material that helps to
underscore its importance. As noted previously, tailoring a library research orientation to the specific
course and assignment is important for achieving
reaffirmative (rather than repetitive) redundancy. As
for in-class writing workshops, students—regardless
of class standing—seem to appreciate receiving concrete examples of good writing and learning about
their professor’s expectations up front. Distributing
a hard copy of the lecture notes can help too, as students appreciate being able to refer back to it as they
prepare their papers. Our own experience, which is
undoubtedly shared by faculty across the country, is
that even students in upper-level courses can benefit
from additional guidance on writing good papers.
We believe that library research orientations and inclass writing workshops are beneficial in every
course requiring a writing assignment, due in part to
the reaffirmative redundancy that they promote.
The student feedback also can be used to identify modifications and adjustments to be made to
each strategy before implementation in future
courses. For example, we find that it is important to
require students to complete the online plagiarism
tutorial early in the semester so that students may
utilize the information they learned in the tutorial
throughout the semester. Absent this requirement,
we learned, some students merely wait until the last
minute to complete the tutorial. Building upon the
success of one member of our group, another
adjustment we plan to make is to include a plagiarism component in the in-class writing workshop.

Leaving coverage of plagiarism issues solely to the
tutorial misses an important opportunity to develop
reaffirmative redundancy; addressing proper citation format and plagiarism-avoidance techniques in
class reinforces what students learn in the tutorial.
It also allows us to address the problem of overcitation that occurs when students develop plagiarism paranoia.

Managing the Message
Next, we recognize the importance for faculty to
“manage the message” about writing in the classroom in order for our efforts to be successful. That
is, as instructors we need to be clear about our purpose in using the writing-improvement strategies
and their importance for students’ improved mastery of writing skills. Moreover, a shared message
repeated by all group members helps to construct
and maintain the narrative we wish to develop—
that writing is highly valued in our department and
is a skill students will employ during their academic and professional careers.
Managing the message also helps strengthen the
cohesiveness of our group. Student survey data
indicate that the writing skills they have developed
in one class have helped them succeed not only in
their other courses in our department, but across
the university. Our collaborative efforts are paying
dividends by communicating to students that ours
is a shared commitment designed to set them up for
success in their writing assignments throughout
their academic careers. In particular, we find that
the in-class writing workshop is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate to our students that the writing strategies we implement are neither punitive
nor arbitrary, but instead are carefully considered
assessments designed to assist and support them as
they develop as writers. More importantly, this
message is echoed and reinforced by members of
our group who teach a wide variety of courses, further supporting the message that developing strong
student writing is a shared goal.

Merits of a Collective Approach
Finally, our experience affirms that a collective,
group approach can accomplish more than separate
attempts by individual faculty to emphasize good,
scholarly student writing. This observation is based
on both the results of our assessment component
and our own observations as faculty members.
When it comes to the student response to our
endeavor, the survey is designed to assess students’

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Teaching Sociology 42(2)

reactions to the in-class writing-improvement strategies and does not directly measure their recognition
of our effort as a concerted one. Nonetheless, we can
infer awareness of our collective effort from students’ open-ended responses. As noted previously,
the redundancy findings reveal that students recognize the emphasis on writing in their classes by multiple professors. Moreover, the overall feedback
from students has been favorable, suggesting that
our collective strategy not only avoids student resistance, but is in fact generally supported by students.
Several students, though, have commented specifically on our collective effort. One student declared
that the writing-improvement strategies were “very
helpful in not only writing my paper for this particular class but . . . [also] for other classes. It made writing much easier and as a result I received good
grades on all of my writing this semester.” Another
student’s remarks sum up our point well:
I really appreciated the effort put forth by
the professors to make this work. For once,
the faculty understood that we all come from
different writing backgrounds. These writing
improvement strategies help place us
students on even footing. It is nice to know
what professors expect from us instead of
just assuming we know. Great program to
start, and I think the program will help
students tremendously.
As faculty members, we have identified several
benefits of our collaborative effort on our own. We
perceive great value in having conversations to learn
from one another’s experiences as we work to
improve students’ writing. For example, we debated
the appropriate timing of hosting the in-class writing
workshop, discussed whether the plagiarism tutorial
should be required or merely encouraged, and identified various “best practices” across our courses. We
have ongoing discussions about what we are doing in
the classroom and how we can do it better, as the
example of peer review assignments noted previously
illustrates. Indeed, our effort is organic. Our purpose
in implementing these strategies is not a pragmatic
attempt to ease our teaching duties, but instead is
rooted in a sincere, shared commitment to improving
our students’ writing.
As this article demonstrates, collaborating to
improve students’ writing need not begin as a
department-wide effort. Instead, a small group of
committed faculty members who communicate,
collaborate, and operate with a shared vision can
initiate larger, department-wide changes. For

example, we plan to present an overview of our
collective effort to the entire faculty in order to
share resources even more widely and to begin a
conversation about adopting department-wide
standards and strategies for student writing.
We began our informal conversation by identifying specific skills that we hope majors who
emerge from our degree program will possess, and
writing like a sociologist was primary among them.
Ensuring that majors graduate with a common skill
set that includes the ability to prepare a scholarly,
sociological manuscript is, we believe, most easily
achieved when there is a shared commitment to the
goal among faculty, be it in a small group or across
the department. While undoubtedly many departments have a collective commitment to improving
students’ sociological writing, we believe the
endeavor to create a conscious culture of solidarity
around writing instruction, and thus to share our
collective resources, brought us closer to our goal.

Acknowledgments
The authors thank Ray Liedka for valuable assistance
with the survey described in this article and Chris Urban
for helpful research assistance.

Notes
The authors made equal contributions to this article and
are listed in alphabetical order.
Reviewers for this manuscript were, in alphabetical order,
Sue Hudd, Shirley Jackson, and Maralee Mayberry.
1.	 In 2011, Associate Dean Robert Stewart of
Oakland University asked several members of the
University’s faculty to collaborate on the “Writingto-Learn Wiki,” a writing resource for university
faculty and students. This interdisciplinary group
included Lori Ostergaard (Writing & Rhetoric),
Andrea Kozak (Psychology), Mark Rigstad
(Philosophy), and Graham Cassano (Sociology).
Many of the writing strategies explored in this paper
also appear in the Wiki. See http://writingtolearnou
.pbworks.com.

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Author Biographies
Amanda Burgess-Proctor, PhD, is assistant professor of
criminal justice at Oakland University. She teaches
courses on criminological theory, gender and crime, and
the U.S. war on drugs. Her primary research interests
include feminist criminology, criminological theory, intimate partner abuse, and crime and drug policy.
Graham Cassano, PhD, is associate professor of sociology at Oakland University and Culture and Media
Editor for Critical Sociology. His essays on social theory, political economy, and the sociology of American
cinema have appeared in various interdisciplinary journals, including The Journal of American Studies, Left
History, and Rethinking Marxism. He teaches courses on
theory, race and ethnicity, urban sociology, and social
stratification.
Dennis J. Condron, PhD, is an assistant professor of
sociology at Oakland University who teaches introductory sociology, research methods, statistics, and social
stratification. His research addresses social stratification,
especially as it pertains to students’ unequal educational
opportunities and outcomes in the United States.
Heidi A. Lyons, PhD, is assistant professor of sociology
at Oakland University. She teaches courses in introductory sociology, research methods, statistics, family, and
demography. Her research examines romantic and sexual
behaviors among adolescents and young adults.
George Sanders, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Oakland University who teaches courses on gender, theory, social stratification, and the sociology of religion. His current research investigates the intersections of
American religion and popular consumerism.

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