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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Guest Blog: But I Like My Third Eye!

...or how I came to stop worrying and love WAC.

January 9, 2019
 
 

In Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, I lament that, in my view, students don't do enough writing, and from the student perspective, the writing they do do seems disjointed one course to the next. On Twitter, I heard from Paul Hanstedt of Roanoke College that they do some things different. I asked him to tell me more. - JW

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But I Like My Third Eye! Or: How I Came to Stop Worrying and Love WAC

I’ve been at my Roanoke College for twenty-three years. Like anyone who’s been in a relationship that long, I’m well aware of my school’s quirks and peccadillos, the weird administrative protocols that don’t exist anywhere else, the assumptions about teaching or students or the profession that only the 130 faculty who’ve been huddled together here for so long seem to have.  You know what I mean: you’re at a conference, having drinks, when you casually mention, “Well, at my school . . .” and then go on to describe something completely, you know: normal. Only everyone stops and stares like you’ve grown a third eye.

For example: at Roanoke College every student takes at least seven—and as many as ten—writing intensive courses. 

Don’t look at me like that.

After all, Ronald Kellogg points out, there’s no biological imperative for writing—unlike, say, for speaking. As a result, mastering writing is akin to learning how to play chess or the violin, requiring ten years of intensive and highly motivated training (2). And sure, most students have thirteen years of schooling before they arrive at college, but their writing training is hardly intensive and seldom highly motivated. What’s more, different collegiate fields require different methods, different styles, different forms of argumentation and evidential support. So, seven courses? It’s actually sort of a reasonable standard. Indeed, a reasonable minimum. 

This approach is embedded into our gen ed program, adopted in 2008: there’s the standard first-year writing seminar, followed by a second, oral-intensive seminar which also requires writing. There’s a senior capstone course where students investigate (usually collaboratively) and propose solutions to a big and messy problem; this requires a major, carefully researched rationale and lots of smaller forms of writing. In between the first and senior years, we require a fairly standard distributional array: two arts and humanities, two social sciences, three math and natural sciences. These courses are theme-based and specific to gen ed, so students take courses like Statistics and Gun Laws, Science and Art, The Anthropology of Law, Consumer Behavior in Sport, The Teenager in US History, Black Death, and The Silk Road.  

Aside from their themes, another thing that’s different about these general education courses is that instructors are required to assign “at least one paper that requires critical thinking.” It’s up to instructors to determine the length of these papers, the degree to which external sources are expected, and what sort of process is employed, although faculty are strongly encouraged to employ drafts, paper conferences, and peer responding.

As a result of this requirement, students find themselves writing papers comparing biology and music trends in different decades, analyzing statistics on gun control or data on gender issues, critiquing pseudo-science, analyzing advertisements from the 1920s, sketching out a commencement address in the 19thCentury, critiquing statistical use in local news reporting, or outlining plans for a new dinosaur park—including thespecies to include, the possible technology used to bring them back, and the biological, economic, and ethical problems this project could potentially encounter.[1]

And students do this every semester in every gen ed class regardless of field or discipline, drafting, revising, considering different audiences, pivoting to different expectations regarding evidence, citation, structure, and tone. 

And just for the record: every gen ed class alsorequires and teaches either oral communications or quantitative reasoning. 

Not surprisingly, we have data that shows excellent growth in students’ writing abilities over the course of their four years on campus. Students demonstrate substantial improvement in everything from thesis and focus to reasoning to grammar and style. Which is good for them, because nearly every poll exploring employer hopes regarding candidates lists written communication as one of the most desirable attributes.

So yeah: that’s what we do on our campus. Faculty from every department teach writing—that is, not just assign writing, but attend to a student’s writing process—in all of their gen ed classes—and indeed, in many of their major courses. For us, this has come to be part of what we consider “normal.” 

The story of how Roanoke College came to have such a robust writing-across-the-gen-ed program began in 2002 when the Dean hired this failed Victorianist with a love for writing theory to direct Gen Ed. Among other things, he asked me to “do something about first-year writing.”

I quickly recognized that the problem wasn’t first year writing, but what came afterwards—or, rather, what didn’come afterwards. Because a student could grow magnificently in their two first-year writing courses, drafting and revising and conferencing and moving from a C+ student who swears “I’ve never been a good writer,” to a confident A student capable of managing her powerful voice.  And then, two years later, that same student might struggle to put words on the page. Which isn’t any more surprising, really, than a student who aces first-year French, only to find herself incapable of uttering a single fluent sentence their junior year. 

Because, again, writing is hard. Asking a student to maintain mastery without also asking them to practice constantly won’t work. 

So I formed a task force to explore practices of teaching writing after the first year. When we discovered there wasn’t much going on, we brainstormed: first, implement an on-going developmental seminar helping faculty address writing issues in their courses; second, explore the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, writing centers weren’t a trend that we could ignore; third, invite and train faculty from across campus to teach in a first-year writing program historically dominated by the English department. 

The reasoning behind was that if we could train faculty from across campus in the context of first-year writing, we would, a) have a more varied program; and b) create a web of writing support across campus, wherein there were faculty in every building familiar with best practices in writing pedagogy. 

I had my doubts. I couldn’t help seeing myself as a pedagogical Tom Sawyer, trying to convince my colleagues from other departments that “Hey! Teaching writing is fun!Betcha wish you could teach writing!” I don’t know that I said “It’ll never work” out loud, but I certainly thought it. 

It worked. And how. The first year, we budgeted for five grantees, then expanded to accept seven. Within five years, a quarter of faculty had been through the WIG—Writing Initiative Grant—Program. When a new president came to campus and we suddenly found ourselves in a full-fledge revision of gen ed,we very quickly pivoted to a model that required 100% of gen ed courses to be writing intensive. And it was the WIG faculty who stood up at contentious meetings and said “This isn’t rocket science. If I can teach writing, you can too.” (Actually, to be honest, a couple of them said, “I drank the Kool-Aid. It’s not actually that bad.” But hey: I’ll take what I can get.) In other words, without really intending to, we’d developed a program that changed the culture of the campus-the way faculty thought about their role as instructors, the way faculty thought about writings relationship tothinking, the way faculty approached students as learners-in-process.

The program itself was simple: faculty applied to the program, proposing a topic to be explored in the context of a first-year writing course. If accepted, they received a one-time grant of $2000. In exchange, they taught at least three iterations of their course. They only stepped into the writing classroom, though, after engaging in a year-long development program that included observing and meeting with experienced writing faculty, studying John Bean’s brilliant Engaging Ideas, and numerous breakfast meetings to discuss everything from constructing assignments to responding effectively to dealing with sentence-level writing issues. 

This approach worked for a few key reasons: first, two thousand bucks is a chunk of change. Second, we took our time: a full year makes space for a lot of conversations, a lot of new ideas, a lot of reflection. A lot of growth.  

Third, and this is implicit in #2, we took an intellectual approach to teaching writing. Though at times we resorted to to “tips and tricks,” we spent just as much time talking about deep issues:identity and language and power and the impacts—both good and bad—of joining a literacy community. We talked about how writing is not just communication but visible thought, or as Chris Anson puts it, “Words written become words reconsidered, ideas put to new tests” (x). Sure, faculty need to feel confident walking into class, but in the end what drives us is the life of the mind. Faculty development should honor that—both in how it asks us to approach our students, and in how it approaches us. The WIG program did an excellent job of turning a task into a vocation. Which in time changed the entire culture of the institution, even now, when at least half of the current faculty came on board after the program was phased out. 

None of this is to say that writing instruction is perfect at Roanoke College. It’s not. The WIG program was phased out several years ago, replaced by less comprehensive and more sporadic forms of pedagogical development (the new director of Pedagogical Innovation really should do something about this!). In recent years, a big portion of our faculty has turned over, meaning that fewer and fewer instructors have been directly exposed to Bean’s ideas and best practices. Still, though, Roanoke’s faculty plug away, assigning papers, requiring drafts, conferencing, structuring peer editing. At a time when many universities are implementing classes so large that it’s impossible to assign even a single paper, a recent student survey revealed that the vast majority of our STEM students write anywhere from 3 to 5 papers a semester[2]. That’s impressive. Amazing even. And crucial. 

Because writing? It’s hard. Really hard. And if students are going to get where we want them to be—where employers want them to be, where theywant to be—then it’s going to take more than a couple of first-year courses. 

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Paul Hanstedt is the Director of Pedagogical Innovation at Roanoke College, where he was part of the team that lead his campus’s general education revision. He is the author of General Education Essentialsand, more recently, Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. He can be followed on Twitter @curriculargeek.

 

 

[1]Many thanks to my colleagues DB Poli, Chris Lee, Marit Berntson, Lindsey Osterman, Mary Henold, David Taylor, and Chris Lassiter for these examples.

[2]Many thanks to Megan Blackwell, Rebekah Carey, and Abigail Supplee, whose excellent survey for their Honors 300 course unearthed this meaningful nugget.

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