In the past year, we have all learned to live with the realities of a pandemic and tried to understand what we and our students need in order to thrive in uncertain and constantly evolving public health, economic, political, and social contexts. At the same time, we have worked to advance our core Sweetland mission of thoughtfully supporting writers and teachers of writing.

As Director, I have spent most of the pandemic evaluating how well Sweetland’s Directed Self-Placement for Writing (DSP) works and how it connects with the first-year writing curriculum. I have sought to understand DSP from multiple perspectives. This effort has involved collaboration with Newnan academic advisors, who have raised questions about outcomes for students who do or don’t follow DSP recommendations for first-year writing courses, and who have asked about the reliability of the recommendations. I have also surveyed students in first-year writing courses about their experiences with DSP; I am presently meeting in focus groups with some of those students to learn more about their perceptions of the DSP process. Throughout my assessment of DSP, I’ve worked with a splendid team of graduate student researchers to analyze patterns of DSP recommendations, enrollment, and first-year writing grades. The research team includes Jason Godfrey, Anil Menon, Andrew Moos, Laura Romaine, and Michelle Sprouse. Naomi Silver contributed much to the research project while she was Sweetland’s Associate Director.

Our research has led us to the conclusion that DSP does not function as it’s intended to, so we’re revising the placement method for first-year writing. One important research discovery is that the essay task students complete as part of the DSP process is not consistently used in first-year writing courses, as intended. This makes the essay task a less valuable learning experience than it might be, so we will be eliminating it. A more exciting research finding is that all U-M students—whatever their background or specific experiences as writers—are highly likely to succeed in first-year writing (the failure rate is less than 1%). In the future, we’ll be able to tell all incoming students that we believe they are prepared for first-year writing!

Starting spring 2022, students will select among first-year writing courses by using a new self-placement tool, called UWrite, which consists of an online module to be completed before orientation. Since LSA offers over a dozen first-year writing courses, some of which have dozens or scores of individual sections, it’s difficult and time-consuming at present for students to sift through all the opportunities available to them. UWrite will streamline this process and enable students to pursue their individual interests and to find courses that give them a learning environment that suits them. UWrite will invite students to reflect on their writing experiences and to identify their academic interests and learning preferences. The module will then suggest for each student several first-year courses that might be good fits for them. I’m eager to discover how incoming students see themselves as writers and what courses most interest them. UWrite will increase our knowledge about student writers’ preferences and allow us to bring their voices into discussions about the curriculum.

This research project demonstrates the collaborative, student-centered administrative philosophy I bring to the Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing. It is my great honor to be able to collaborate with academic advisors, graduate students, and undergraduates to improve writers’ first-year experience in LSA.

Theresa Tinkle
Director, Sweetland Center for Writing, Professor of English, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor