Maine foundation awards college $255,000 grant for writing program

As Bates College prepares to begin its first academic year with a new set of core educational requirements, a foundation in Falmouth has awarded the college more than $250,000 to support the requirements’ focus on writing skills.

The grant was received from the Davis Educational Foundation established by Stanton and Elisabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc.

The foundation gave a three-year, $255,000 grant to help implement programs designed to strengthen writing instruction at Bates. The funds will support faculty development and a new peer tutoring program, as well as formal assessments of Bates’ new approaches to writing instruction.

Accepted by a faculty vote in 2006 and taking effect this fall for the classes of 2011 and after, the new general education requirements represent a significant shift in Bates’ curriculum and teaching methods. For many years, most Bates students have taken a first-year seminar with a writing focus and have written a senior thesis, a major undertaking that brings to fruition much of what they have learned at the college. The new writing program will develop students’ writing abilities through the interim.

“What the Davis Foundation did was help us build a bridge across the river” in implementing the writing-related requirements, says Margaret Imber, a faculty member and member of a team exploring ways to support students and faculty during the transition to the new requirements.

“We were going there in any case,” says Imber, referring to the new approach to writing, “but here was somebody who had the capacity to say, ‘Let us help you get there faster.'”

The peer writing-tutor program, in which experienced Bates students will help fellow students write more effectively, debuts this fall with two components.

One involves the first-year seminars taken by 95 percent of Bates students. These seminars, well-established in the curriculum, are designed to give new students the fundamentals of college-level reasoning, writing and research. The peer tutoring program will attach 15 tutors to certain first-year seminars to serve as a resource for the class.

The other piece of the program is the creation of a pool of 15 writing assistants in the college library five evenings a week — for many students, prime time for doing academic work. “Students will have writing assistants available to them when they’re actually writing their papers,” says Imber, whose team observed similar writing-support programs at other colleges such as Wellesley and Middlebury.

“The numbers show that students are responsive to these programs. And if that’s where they are, that’s where we need to be.”

Davis funds will also support workshops where faculty will explore new techniques for teaching writing at different levels. In addition, the grant will provide opportunities to examine what works best in the peer-tutor program and to assess the writing curriculum as a whole.

Bates’ new “gen ed” requirements emphasize interdisciplinary study, scientific reasoning, laboratory experience and quantitative literacy in addition to writing.

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