Writing Across the Curriculum A presentation for Northeastern Conference Teachers August 19, 2008
What is “Writing Across the Curriculum?” • In their “real life,” both personal and professional, people use writing every day for a variety of purposes: • to communicate information (memos, evaluations, letters of recommendation, e-mail, reminders to children, spouse…self) • to clarify thinking (when we work through an idea or problem on paper) • to learn new concepts and information (taking notes on reading, research topics, and lectures) • Students need practice writing effectively to meet these same goals. One English class a year just can't provide enough daily practice. • “WAC” occurs when teachers in disciplines besides English include a variety of writing activities on a regular basis.
History and Philosophy of WAC • Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs emerged in the 1980s as a response to concern about the lack of writing in content areas. The philosophies supporting these programs underscore certain basic principles: • that writing is the responsibility of the entire academic community, • that writing must be integrated across departmental boundaries, • that writing instruction must be continuous • that writing promotes learning, and • that only by practicing the conventions of an academic discipline will students begin to communicate effectively within that discipline.
Why include WAC in your curriculum? • Most non-English-teaching teachers want to know “What's in it for me?” • Including writing in courses has both short- and long-term benefits for teachers. • In the short run, teachers are better able to gauge how well students grasp information and which key concepts need more attention. • In the long run, as more teachers incorporate writing into more courses, students become more and more practiced at using writing as a communication and learning tool. • Especially for more advanced or specialized work in the discipline, teachers reap the benefits of having students who are better grounded in the fundamentals and ready to engage in more sophisticated analysis of ideas.
How do students benefit with WAC? • Students, too, will want to know “What’s in it for me?” • Like all skills, writing skills atrophy when they aren't used. If not required, some students may never take down a single note, and may take only multiple-choice exams. Except for their English classes, writing could be avoided almost completely for months at a time. Assigned writing in all courses helps students keep their writing skills sharp. • Moreover, faculty in all disciplines have discovered that writing in their classes helps students learn material and improve their thinking about ideas in the courses. • Writing assigned across the curriculum also helps students prepare for the day-in and day-out communication tasks they'll face on the job, no matter what the job is. • Equally important, students need to learn about how writing is used within a discipline, and many kinds of assignments give students practice with disciplinary forms and conventions.
What kind of writing works for WAC? • Writing assignments generally fall into one of two categories: • Writing to Learn (WTL) • Writing in the Disciplines (WID) • Some teachers combine the two categories and assign writing that meets the goals of each, but many teachers choose to focus on one type or the other.
Write to Learn Assignments • Generally, Write-to-Learn activities are short, impromptu or otherwise informal writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. • Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments. • Toby Fulwiler and Art Young explain in their "Introduction" to Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum:
Fulwiler and Young on W.T.L. • Writing to communicate--or what James Britton calls "transactional writing"--means writing to accomplish something, to inform, instruct, or persuade. . . .Writing to learn is different. We write to ourselves as well as talk with others to objectify our perceptions of reality; the primary function of this "expressive" language is not to communicate, but to order and represent experience to our own understanding. In this sense language provides us with a unique way of knowing and becomes a tool for discovering, for shaping meaning, and for reaching understanding. (p. x)
Write to Learn Assignments • The reading journal • Generic and focused summaries • Annotations • Response papers • Synthesis papers • The discussion starter • Focusing a discussion • The learning log • Analyzing the process • Problem statement • Solving real problems • Pre-test warm-ups • Using Cases • Letters • What counts as a fact? • Believing and doubting game • Analysis of events • Project notebooks • The writing journal
Using Computers with WTL assignments • Summarize and respond to readings • Summarize key points from prior class • Pose problems based on class material • Clarify unclear points in reading or class • Plan writing or speaking projects • Discover potential audiences • Practice format for paper/projects • Record observations over time • Define key terms • Record round-robin comments for inductive learning • Organize group-response sheets • Capture peer review of papers in progress
What is Writing in the Disciplines? • T he second category of WAC is often called Writing in the Disciplines (WID). • Writing assignments of this sort are designed to introduce or give students practice with the language conventions of a discipline as well as with specific formats typical of a given discipline. • For example, the chemistry lab report includes much different information in a quite different format from the annual business report.
WID Assignments—defined • WID assignments are typically, but not exclusively, formal papers prepared over a few weeks or even months. • The final papers adhere to format and style guidelines typical of the professional papers they are helping students learn about. • Teachers comment primarily on the substance of these assignments, but teachers also expect students to meet professional standards of layout and proofreading (format and mechanical correctness).
WID Assignments—examples • Although the research paper is the most common kind of WID assignment, it's not the only format that students can use to learn about disciplinary writing conventions. Examples include: • Project or lab notebook • Progress report • Management plan • Position paper • Interpretive essay • Review of literature • Journal or professional article • Project proposals • Grant proposals • Lab/field reports
Combining WTL with WID • In addition to discipline-specific formats, other kinds of writing assignments can help students learn the language and ways of thinking of a discipline, even though they may not mimic its professional writing. • Any of these writing activities can provide the basis for a longer, more formal assignment, or can be used only to promote class discussion and/or thinking about course material: • Reading journalJargon journal • Rhetorical analysisAnalyze an expert's revisions • Popular article
Who, me? An English teacher?!!! • Responding to students' writing involves far more than simply marking errors in punctuation and mechanics. Most grading time, by far, is devoted to commenting on focus, development and arrangement of ideas, the quality of arguments, and other larger issues. • Tell students in advance specifically what your expectations are for high-level writing skills. Then focus your commenting on how well students meet those specific criteria. • Also consider developing a check-sheet or some other commenting guide to help you comment quickly but thoroughly on the points you decide are most important for a given paper.
What if grammar is not my forté? • If you assign write-to-learn tasks, you won't want to mark any grammatical flaws because the writing is designed to be impromptu and informal. • If you assign more polished pieces, especially those that adhere to disciplinary conventions, put the burden of proofreading squarely where it belongs--on the writer. • If you feel compelled to mark grammatical and stylistic flaws, work out a shorthand for yourself and give students a handout explaining your marks. Most teachers can get by with one symbol for a sentence that gets derailed or confused, another for faulty punctuation of all sorts, and a third for inaccurate words (spelling or meaning). Save your time and energy for commenting on substance rather than form.
What makes a good writing assignment? • Surprisingly, teachers have been known to assign writing tasks without articulating to themselves what the task is supposed to do for students. • Good writing assignments always start with a clear goal that the teacher can express, usually on the assignment sheet, so that students understand the goal as well. • Good writing assignments often take shape by thinking backwards. In effect, teachers ask themselves, "What do I want to read at the end of this assignment?" This way, teachers can give students detailed guidelines about both the writing task and the final written product.
5 principles of a good assignment • In making up writing assignments, use these five principles: • Tie the writing task to specific pedagogical goals. • Note rhetorical aspects of the task, i.e., audience, purpose, writing situation. • Make all elements of the task clear. • Include grading criteria on the assignment sheet. • Break down the task into manageable steps.
Writing should meet teaching goals • Asking questions like these about your assignment will help guarantee that writing tasks tie directly to your teaching goals in the class: • What specific course objectives will the writing assignment meet? • Will informal or formal writing better meet your teaching goals? • Will students be writing to learn course material or writing conventions in your discipline or both? • Does the assignment make sense to you?
Sample grading criteria—A • A (90-100): • Thesis is clearly presented in first paragraph. • Every subsequent paragraph contributes significantly to the development of the thesis. • Final paragraph "pulls together" the body of the essay and demonstrates how the essay as a whole has supported the thesis. • In terms of both style and content, the essay is a pleasure to read; ideas are brought forth with clarity and follow each other logically and effortlessly. • Essay is virtually free of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.
Sample grading criteria—B • B (80-89): • Thesis is clearly presented in first paragraph. • Every subsequent paragraph contributes significantly to the development of the thesis. • Final paragraph "pulls together" the body of the essay and demonstrates how the essay as a whole has supported the thesis. • In terms of style and content, the essay is still clear and progresses logically, but the essay is somewhat weaker due to awkward word choice, sentence structure, or organization. • Essay may have a few (approximately 3) instances of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.
Sample grading criteria—C • C (70-79): • There is a thesis, but the reader may have to hunt for it a bit. All the paragraphs contribute to the thesis, but the organization of these paragraphs is less than clear. • Final paragraph simply summarizes essay without successfully integrating the ideas presented into a unified support for thesis. • In terms of style and content, the reader is able to discern the intent of the essay and the support for the thesis, but some amount of mental gymnastics and "reading between the lines" is necessary; the essay is not easy to read, but it still has said some important things. • Essay may have instances (approximately 6) of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.
Sample grading criteria—D • D (60-69): • Thesis is not clear. • Individual paragraphs may have interesting insights, but the paragraphs do not work together well in support of the thesis. • In terms of style and content, the essay is difficult to read and to understand, but the reader can see there was a (less than successful) effort to engage a meaningful subject. • Essay may have several instances (approximately 6) of misspellings, sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices, semicolon errors, wrong word choices, and paragraphing errors.
P.S. Creative WAC works, too! • A variation to the more “academic” writing assignments is creative writing across the curriculum. These often incorporate the more “artsy” forms of writing: poetry, drama, short story, music (lyrics), etc. • Again, every single discipline can make good use, literally, of the creative juice that flows through their students. Don’t be afraid to make the most of it. • Examples of activities are on the hand-out.
Resources • http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/index.cfm • http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/WAC/ • http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~WAC/category.jsp?id=2 • http://712educators.about.com/cs/writingresources/a/writing.htm • Writing Across the Curriculum: Because All ... - by Shelley Peterson - 170 pages • Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum - by Charles Bazerman, Joseph Little, Lisa Bethel - 188 pages • Landmark Essays on Writing Across the Curriculum - by Bazerman, Charles Bazerman, David R. Russell - 272 pages