Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing Across the Curriculum

I went to a meeting today expecting to be able to sit quietly without having to say anything. I plan on doing that until I get tenure (just kidding, but the thought had occurred). I was sitting there minding my own business when the "writing across the curriculum" came up. This was followed by discussion of the "disastrous state of student writing in the university"--veering toward the edge of apocalyptic. What I heard in the conversation was that clarity was more important than ideas, and that these teachers were spending a lot of time editing for grammar and sentence structure.

It was an interesting conversation, and my main point was that we weren't discussing writing as a way to learn and think (Emig, 1977 among others). I wanted to make the point that we ask students to write for reasons other than summative or transactional purposes. We can do that, but do we offer formative assessment before asking them to turn in that final paper? What are the purposes of the writing assignments we ask students to do? Is it to think and figure out the ideas in the discipline? Or is it a grammar test? This is not to say that students should not be required to polish papers in a final draft and make the paper ready for presentation.

But, why aren't students taking pride in the paper in the first place? I think we have to look at our assignments. What are we asking them to do, and why are students' having problems?
The great thing about writing across the curriculum programs is that teachers who don't have a background in writing instruction and research can be presented with writing to learn strategies.

The part that scared me about the conversation occurred when someone looked at me--the lone English person--and said, "So why aren't you teaching them grammar in English 110?" I think I handled myself well in the face of that, and I was forced to speak.

Bob Tierney's study of his science class showed that students who wrote frequent, informal pieces of writing retained more information and did better on final assessments, even months after the class ended. Bob's essay is a wonderful example of using writing as a process for discovery.

We're lucky in Missouri to have a pioneer in W.A.C. I admire her and her work, which is so influential.

I am worried about the state of W.A.C. after reading the interview. One part of the interview I do want to remember is this:

What advice do you have for The WAC Journal readers who may be asked to defend WAC pedagogy and/or assessment?

mt: Read the now-voluminous research. Talk to scholars at institutions that have WAC programs. Heed the findings of Richard J. Light in Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Harvard UP, 2001), who reports, “Students identify the courses that had the most profound impact on them as courses in which they were required to write papers, not just for the professor, as usual, but for their fellow students as well” (64). Heed the findings of Langer and Applebee in How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning (NCTE, 1987) who report, “there is clear evidence that activities involving writing (any of the many sorts of writing we studied) lead to better learning than activities involving reading and studying only” (135). And for those who require quantitative data, read Alexander Astin’s “What Really Matters in General Education: Provocative Findings from a National Study of Student Outcomes,” Perspectives, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 1992, pages 23-46, especially Table 13, “Effects of Taking Courses that Emphasize the Development of Writing Skills.”

W.A.C. Programs
University of Missouri

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