Little Red Schoolhouse continues its work of 25 years in a new home in Stuart HallBy Josh Schonwald and Jennifer Carnig
The Little Red Schoolhouse may need a new nickname.
The humble-sounding moniker may have been appropriate for a fledgling program with only a couple of cramped classrooms, two tiny offices and one chalkboard, but as the writing center celebrates its 25th anniversary, it is doing so in style.
The English composition program, which works with more than 1,200 students every quarter, has moved from a diminutive space on the fourth floor of Classics to the sunny, spacious confines of the old Graduate School of Business.
Gone are the days when writing workshops met in converted closets, coffee shops and borrowed faculty offices. The vaulted ceilings and leaded-glass windows of the third floor of Stuart Hall, as well as Harper Memorial Library located just next door, make the Little Red Schoolhouse’s new home the perfect birthday gift.
“There’s no question that the quality of the services we offer has improved dramatically,” said Larry McEnerney, Director of the University’s Writing Programs and an instructor in the Little Red Schoolhouse course since it began in 1980.
McEnerney explained that the new offices provide more than just a change in scenery. The space operates almost as a partner in the Schoolhouse’s teaching program, offering both a constant outlet where students can go at any time to find help with their work, as well as a dynamic atmosphere where the 60 to 75 teaching assistants employed by the program can interact with one another, finding innovative ways to solve writing problems and help their students.
McEnerney points to an area where teaching assistants can now eat lunch together and beams. “That informal consulting has proved invaluable already,” he said. “That kind of unstructured interchange pushes the whole program forward. You simply can’t schedule a creative planning session for Monday at 3 p.m. and yield the same kind of results that a cup of coffee together produces.”
In addition to the lounge area, the new location offers rows of private cubicles that provide an intimate classroom experience, and a computer lab that allows graduate students the chance to work on paper comments in a communal setting.
The Little Red Schoolhouse started with the maverick, counter-intuitive idea that a class on the nuts-and-bolts of academic writing should be taught not in the first year or even second year of college, but during the third and fourth years. What was more outrageous was the idea that talented third- and fourth-year students—advanced students, working on B.A. papers, looking toward graduate school—would want to take a writing class which required a completed paper every single week of the quarter.
But this unusually grueling class has become as much of an institution in the College curriculum as many of the venerable Core sequences. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Little Red Schoolhouse, formally known as English 130 Advanced Academic and Professional Writing, has provided nearly 5,000 students in the College, and hundreds of Chicago graduate and professional students, with the skills they need to improve the clarity of their writing.
“Our students come to the College with considerable skills. They knew how to structure an argument, they’ve been drilled in the basics of composition, they’ve learned about dangling participles and sentence fragments and unfocused paragraphs,” McEnerney said. But as they advance in their studies, they sometimes discover that “they’re dealing with a new set of problems.”
The class structure has changed little over 25 years, addressing writing problems at the micro-level, such as sentence construction, to macro-issues such as composition. All along, the central goal of the class has remained constant—to teach writers how to make their work clear, organized, persuasive and valuable.
The success of the class, which has been expanded to include graduate-level versions and versions designed specifically for students in the Graduate School of Business and the Law School, has drawn imitators at other universities. “But,” McEnerney said, “most attempts have failed.” McEnerney believes that is because the ingredients for a successful class, aimed at teaching writing for experts, are unusual. “You have to have advanced students who are extremely dedicated,” he said. “You really, really have to want to write to succeed in this class.”
A key component of the program is its training sequence. Little Red Schoolhouse staff members Ð the program’s Associate Directors Kathy Cochran and Tracy Weiner, along with Assistant Directors Kristin Boyce, Annal Frenz, and Millie Ray Ð train 50 or 60 advanced graduate students in the techniques of the Little Red Schoolhouse each year. “Many schools believe that advanced graduate students who have written extensively are immediately ready to teach,” McEnerney said. “We want to use our training to enhance their experience.”
Graduate students who are accepted to the writing program can become either writing-program lectors, who supervise workshops in the Little Red Schoolhouse; interns, who provide writing support for Humanities Common Core classes; or tutors, who are based in the libraries and dorms and provide tutoring support for students. All are paid positions.
“The work of writing interns is essential to maintain the quality and value of the Humanities Core, since they introduce first-year students to the basic tools they need to write effectively,” said Mario Santana, Associate Dean and Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division. Humanities faculty, who teach Core classes, can choose to tap the writing program as a resource to help students working with papers.
One of Santana’s goals as the new Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division is to expand the Little Red Schoolhouse into foreign language training. Next year, as an experiment, students in advanced Spanish literature classes will have Little Red Schoolhouse interns as a resource to assist them with critical thinking and writing problems, and interns may eventually be trained to work in other languages. The Little Red Schoolhouse also increasingly functions as a resource for staff and faculty.
“I think we can provide insights into the process that are useful to experts in any discipline,” McEnerney said.
And now, with the new space, “virtually everyone who wants it will be able to find constant support. To me, that’s really exciting.”
The Little Red Schoolhouse’s new office space is on the third floor of Stuart Hall, next door to Harper Memorial Library. For more information about the program, visit its Web site at: http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/.