At the core of WAC pedagogy lies the idea that learning to write and writing to learn are equally important. In other words, continuous writing practice helps students to both improve their writing skills and better understand course material. WAC approaches writing not merely as a communication skill but also as a process and product of critical thinking. When you present students with problems and ask them to identify and challenge assumptions in writing, writing itself becomes an act of problem solving. As John Bean explains in Engaging Ideas, one of the foundational texts of WAC pedagogy, rather than asking “Is the writing clear,” you also want to ask “Is the writing interesting? Does it show a mind actively engaged with the problem? Does it bring something new to readers? Does it make an argument?” This type of writing asks students to think about rhetorical problems, such as audience, purpose, and tone, and recognizes writing as a messy process that requires drafting and revising. In such an active, inquiry-based learning environment student engagement and learning dramatically improves.
In an overview of the history of WAC, David Russell points out that cross-curricular writing plays an essential role in providing access to the academic and professional world, which is especially relevant at a university like CUNY:
In a very real sense, education is initiation into a discourse community, a process of learning how to use language in a certain way to become accepted, literate, or, as is often the case in American higher education, credentialed in some profession.
Writing in the Disciplines builds upon WAC’s underlying philosophy that writing is not simply a matter of prior instruction, aptitude, or intelligence, or a single, universally applicable skill that is learned in high school or English 101 classes. WID’s focus is on discipline-specific writing instruction as it recognizes that student success largely depends on the ability to use the discourse of a specific academic or professional field. For more info, see the WID section below.
As a Writing Fellow, you will often be working on faculty development. Rather than teaching a class yourself, you will be assisting a faculty member to integrate WAC strategies into the classroom. Or you will be giving workshops for faculty at your college. For many Fellows this is the first time they’re working with other faculty members on course development, and this might feel like an uncomfortable situation. You might feel insecure thinking you have to advise faculty, who are often more senior than you, on how to teach.
Rather than seeing it this way, you want to regard WAC collaboration as dialogic and communal: you’re thinking through problems and coming up with new approaches together, not imposing them on someone else’s teaching practice. Together with a faculty member, you’re coming up with ways to integrate writing in a course, improve assignments, or find new teaching tools. Doing this, you both benefit from each other’s experience and ideas, which will improve teaching and learning overall.
Depending on your specific duties as a Writing Fellow, you may work with faculty on your campus to do the following:
- draft informal, “low-stakes” writing exercises
- draft sequenced and scaffolded writing exercises leading up to a formal, “high-stakes” essay assignment
- build in revision and feedback of writing exercises
- create ways for students to reflect on their learning processes
- find effective forms of responding to and assessing writing assignments
- develop strategies to discourage plagiarism
- develop strategies to work with ELL students
- develop ways to teach discipline-specific writing guidelines
The CUNY-wide WAC Fellows professional development series and WAC programs at your campus will give you background and resources on these and other WAC concepts and tell you how their college works with WAC principles. For more details on some of the core concepts, such as low-stakes writing, scaffolding, and responding to writing, see our next section on Core Teaching Strategies.
Core Teaching Strategies
Peter Elbow describes the uses and benefits of frequent low-stakes writing exercises in this article. Such writing, often in the form of freewriting, letters, journal or notebook entries, makes students think about and understand course material and their own responses to it. According to Elbow, it is the perfect place for students to translate their nonverbal knowing into verbal knowing, as they can “fumble and fish for words for what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say” (6). These kinds of assignments are not graded and often quickly read by the instructor, mostly to gauge the students’ thought processes and their responses to their teaching.
Integrating low-stakes exercises into the curriculum can increase student engagement, keep them on track with readings and prepare them for the more formal and higher-stakes assignments later on in the semester. These assignments can also help students find their own language to think through the issues the course raises. Low-stakes assignments can help students get in the habit of writing prose that’s clear, alive, and natural, preventing contrived and tangled language in follow-up exercises.
It is important to acknowledge that the mere presence low-stakes writing exercises does not guarantee that your students learn and write better. One of the key things here is to understand why you ask your students to do such exercises. You want to be clear about their purpose both to yourself and to your students, and cultivate these newly-acquired skills through attentive teaching. When you discuss a complex theoretical concept, for example, you might ask your students to put it in their own words or apply it to their personal lives so that it becomes more tangible. You can ask them to freewrite for a few minutes before starting a discussion to improve the quality of their contributions. As another example, you can ask your students to write two short letters, one to a friend and one to a professor, so that they become aware of audience and tone. Finally, you can ask students to summarize what they learned in a short freewrite during the last five minutes of class. They can then use this to study for an exam.
Another key WAC practice is the scaffolding of larger assignments. Starting with short, low-stakes exercises and building up to a lengthier more formal (research) essay or final project gives both instructor and students many important moments of revision and feedback. You can make sure your students stay on track with their work and improve along the way. For many students, especially those who are not familiar with what goes into larger academic assignments, it is very important to show the structure and process of completing larger projects. Modeling this for them helps them tackle capstone or thesis work later on.
Sequencing larger, otherwise overwhelming assignments into manageable building blocks also opens up the learning process to both instructor and student. Sharing drafts (of reading and writing) with peers and instructor, giving and responding to feedback, writing and rewriting, students see and can reflect on their own learning processes, and, ideally, learn from their own learning. This form of learning, or meta-learning, takes places when students become conscious of how they learn. Focusing on this in your teaching will give your students the tools to become better learners as they understand what works and doesn’t work for them. Simple ways to do this is to ask students to submit a short note with an assignment in which they describe how it went. It will help you respond more constructively to student work when you know they were struggling formulating their argument or synthesizing material, or when they were happy about their improvements in clarity and style.
Responding to Student Writing
One of the challenges for many instructors is responding to and grading a larger and sometimes overwhelming amount of student writing. Also, research shows that there is a tremendous amount of miscommunication between instructors commenting on written work and students interpreting these comments. How can we grade more efficiently? And how can we make sure that our comments actually make students learn more and write better? These are questions WAC tries to answer. Instructors often write comments fast, in a hurry, and maybe not always in the best mood, and students tend to see any form of criticism as negative criticism.
To address this, instructors can use different levels of responding in the same way they vary the stakes of writing exercises (see Elbow 8-9). A low-stakes exercise may require zero response. Minimal, non-verbal, non-critical response (simply underlining strong passages) works well for middle-stakes exercises. High stakes writing demands more critical response, diagnosis, and advice. It is important to not feel guilty about not commenting on every exercise, and to mix different levels of response. Responding to content is not the same as editing or proofreading. And it is always a matter of giving supportive response, of reinforcing what a student is already doing right instead of criticizing what he/she is doing wrong.
One of the main objectives of Writing in the Disciplines is to teach students to not just have passive subject matter knowledge of a discipline but to become active participants in its discourse community. To speak with “expert insider prose” (MacDonald in Bean xii) in their majors, students need conscious, discipline-specific writing instruction. Students have to learn how to speak within a disciplinary conversation, and to do so they have to know the discipline’s genre conventions, method of argument, typical kinds of evidence, ways of referencing other researchers, and typical rhetorical contexts and audiences (Beaufort in Bean 3).
This is not to say that you want to mute students’ own voices but that academic disciplines, and professional fields too, are discourse communities that students should be given access to and learn to participate in. As such, discipline-specific writing instruction will not only help students learn better but also increase their success later on.
Below are some ideas on how to integrate writing and active learning into humanities, social science, and science classrooms.
WID in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Most humanities and social science courses already require a great deal of writing, mostly in the form of final research papers, reports, group projects, translations or ethnographies. Since these type of assignments can be overwhelming to students, especially those who haven’t been taken through the steps of a larger project before, it is always smart to scaffold such writing and bring in low- and middle-stakes exercises. You can for example ask students to keep a journal when doing the readings for class, write down questions for class discussion, or possible paper topics.
In literature classes, you can ask students to annotate a text and have them share their notes in groups before writing a short response. When you’re dealing with complex literary or theoretical terms, it is a good idea to ask students to define in a few sentences what something means. Such exercises can take just a few minutes of class time, usually reinvigorate the discussion afterward, and show students what they have or haven’t grasped yet. For language classes you can ask students to write a personal essay on the role of language in their home environment or their neighborhood. Sociology and anthropology students can benefit from taking field notes or jotting down a certain number of observations about a specific place.
You want to get students to start thinking while they’re writing, while also introducing them to the conventions and terminology of your discipline. Remember that you have been part of this discipline for a while and that what comes naturally to you might be new to your students. When you consciously employ writing exercises and other strategies to help your students enter your discipline, their engagement will deepen.
WID in the Sciences
There are various ways in which you can integrate writing into science courses. A quick and simple way is to ask students to briefly explain a scientific concept in their own words. You can do this short, five-minute exercise at the end of class to see if they understood the material or you can start with it to gauge how strong of a grasp they have on the readings for that day. This can open up questions and help direct your teaching.
For medium-stakes writing assignments you can ask students to write about their work in a mock setting, such as a science or healthcare company. You can ask them to write a memo to the board of directors, for example, or a press release, which requires them to carefully consider audience, purpose, and tone. Alternatively, you can ask students to reflect on their understanding of concepts before and after taking your course. This shows them how they now think as “scientists” and makes them conscious of their own learning process.
Below are sample exercises from previous WAC Fellows (from Assignment Scaffolding and Strategies for Assigning Composition):
In-Class Student Writing / Low-stakes Exercises
Brief periods (2-5 minutes) of silent, uninterrupted writing in the classroom. (Can double as a means to take attendance.)
- A question provided at the beginning of class can serve to review material from the previous session, verify completion of the day’s assigned reading, or encourage speculation on a new topic to prime in-class discussion.
- Focused writing during the class period can provide a forum to cool a heated discussion, to stimulate ideas when discussion is lagging, or to summarize (or express confusion about) challenging new information.
- A very brief writing period (a minute or two) at the end of class can encourage students to sum up what they have just learned or pose questions that need further clarification, either in the next session or in their own outside reading.
- Students write for a set period of time (such as 10 or 15 minutes) to answer a course-related question. Such questions may ask students to analyze/interpret material, clarify similarities and differences, pose an opinion in agreement or disagreement, or ask students to relate course material to contemporary issues and current affairs.
- Writing assignments can provide a stimulus for in-class discussion.
- Focused freewriting can be aimed toward exploring all sides of an issue prior to developing a thesis and writing a final paper on that topic. In this case several freewriting questions would be posed on a topic over time to encourage lengthy engaged inquiry into it.
- Freewriting can also be assigned without a specific question or prompt. In this case, students pose and answer their own course-related questions. This can help them come up with topics for research papers later on or be of use when studying for an exam.
- A dual-entry notebook can promote the pairing of observation and analysis. The student may observe visual information (such as a lab experiment or a work of art), research presented in a scholarly article, etc. on the left side of the page. The observation would then be paired with mental process on the right side of the page in the form of a hypothesis regarding the reason for the observed phenomenon or an argument for or against the accuracy of the presented information based on ideas read elsewhere or presented in class.
- Creative writing such as imagined dialogues between writers, researchers, historical figures, characters, etc. can provide a light-hearted way of engaging deeply with course content.
Instead of simply saying that a formal paper is due on a certain date, break it up into steps which will allow students to link the learning of writing to the modes of inquiry and discovery in your discipline. The goal is to get students personally engaged with the kinds of questions that propel writers through the writing process, so that it becomes a powerful means of learning in the discipline.
- Assign Low-Stakes Writing first to give your students the opportunity to develop their ideas and concepts prior to their first attempts at writing their essay.
- In one LSW assignment, have students brainstorm topics. Return them with notes and suggestions.
- In another, have students brainstorm topics and Thesis Statements drafts.Return to them with notes.
- Once you’ve approved paper topics and thesis statements, formally assign the paper with a typed Assignment Handout.
- Return the paper with revision-oriented feedback.
- Collect revised drafts.
*There is no one way to scaffold an assignment. Rather than asking for an outline, you might consider asking for one or more of the following items:
- A prospectus, in which the student is asked to describe the problem that will be addressed and the direction that the student intends to take.
- An effectively designed prospectus assignment can guide students toward a problem-thesis structure and steer them away from writing which lacks focus or strong reasoning.
- For shorter papers, students can be asked to submit two sentences: a one-sentence question that summarizes the problem the paper addresses and a one-sentence thesis statement that summarizes the writer’s argument in response to the question.
- A 100 to 200-word abstract of their drafts can be an alternative to asking for question-plus-thesis summaries. The act of summarizing one’s own argument helps writers clarify their own thinking and often reveals organizational and conceptual problems that prompt revision.
The WAC/WID and QR Guide: