PWR to add writing specialist to CS program

Sept. 24, 2013, 1:30 a.m.

After a successful pilot in the 2012-13 academic year, the Program of Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) will continue its writing specialist program with an added expert for the computer science department this year.

Nicholas Jenkins, associate professor of English and director of PWR, said that the program—through which PWR lecturers are placed into specific academic departments—was prompted by the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report.

“It was a recommendation of the SUES committee that we integrate [PWR] more directly into the academic lives of departments,” Jenkins said. “Inside the program, we wanted to be more closely involved with departmental life and to support students throughout the four years of their careers of Stanford.”

Last year, writing specialists were placed into the departments of public policy and history and also into the Program in Human Biology. This year the program will add a specialist in computer science beginning winter quarter.

“As we tried to spread out and locate good partners in those three different parts of the University—the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities—we really have been lucky in finding people who can work with us,” Jenkins said. “It’s really important for us to try and give as much direct help to places that really need it and that are significant for the entire University.”

The writing specialists do not teach courses within the departments. Instead, they work with faculty to develop goals for undergraduates, come up with good writing assignments, train teaching assistants, hold office hours and help students with their communication skills.

“There are very different goals in different departments for what good, effective communication is,” Jenkins said. “The writing specialists in each department work with the faculty…to come up with an agenda that fits the department’s needs.”

This partnership plays a major role in determining how the writing specialist should function in each department, Jenkins added.

Katherine Preston, associate director of the Program in Human Biology, explained how writing specialist Shay Brawn, who obtained her Ph.D. from Stanford’s Program in Modern Thought and Literature, developed rubrics with faculty and worked with course associates, in addition to initiating peer reviews and writing groups to support honors students in the department.

“One of the things we want to do is just be more explicit about the role of writing in the professional activities that our students are going to be engaging in later on,” Preston said. “The students who met with Shay in office hours before their Writing in the Major projects really got a lot out of it.”

While some writing specialists may be new to their specific department, others, like Alyssa O’Brien, have prior experience in the field. O’Brien worked with graduate students in the Public Policy Program for several years before becoming the department’s writing specialist.

“I hope to help students improve their writing and communication abilities not only for the courses they take at Stanford, but also for their future careers in public policy,” O’Brien wrote in a statement.

The decision to continue the writing specialist program was based on the positive responses from faculty and students in the departments where last year’s pilot program took place, according to Jenkins.

“I think that the fact that there have been…long lines of people outside the writing specialist’s office is a sign from the students that they really think this is a valuable thing,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said that the program ultimately aims to not only provide students with support from PWR throughout their Stanford careers but also to diversify the academic backgrounds of PWR instructors.

“We’re limited by the resources that we have, but the pilot has been very successful, and I think we’re hoping that we’ll be able to continue and offer more help to more departments as the years go by,” Jenkins said. “I really see it as a part of our mission of continuous support for students throughout their four years at Stanford.”

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’

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