• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


Guest Post: We Know How to Support Writing Instructors

There’s a simple approach to developing good writing programs

August 31, 2017


While John is off enjoying a well-deserved vacation, he’s asked me to keep the lights on here at Just Visiting. I’m Susan Schorn, the Writing Program Coordinator in the School of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of, among other things, Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly.


Recently, John posted about the existing, yet seldom acknowledged, consensus on writing pedagogy, and he listed many of the approaches that we know improve students’ writing skills. 

Since neither John nor I has been shy about criticizing approaches that do not improve students' writing, it seems only fair that I share some of my experience with the methods John and I, and countless other writing instructors, prefer. I’ve spent 16 years working with faculty to translate John’s list of “what works” into actual classroom instruction. As a result I have a hard-won understanding of how effective instructor support differs from the vast majority of instructor supports people seem to want to talk about. My experience, and that of my fellow writing program administrators, has shown the value of the following practices:

1. Set aside dedicated time for instructor development. 
2. Compensate faculty for time spent learning about writing instruction and adapting their classes. 
3. Draw together faculty from a range of disciplines or specialties, and let them share their knowledge.
4. Ground your advice in research, and adapt it in response to feedback.
5. As much as possible, let faculty experience the learning techniques you are advising them to employ. 

As you can see, it’s not rocket science. And yet, faculty regularly describe these practices as “life-changing” when exposed to them. Twice a year at my institution, I spend two days with a group of faculty who teach writing within their disciplines. We always have an impressive range of fields represented: chemistry, history, engineering, music—UT-Austin offers writing-intensive courses in twelve colleges and schools (filling over 30,000 undergraduate seats per year). I work faculty pretty hard during these retreats; they are introduced to research and theory, they do a lot of experiential learning and group work, and they work on their own course materials. Each attendee receives a reasonably generous (given current higher ed budgets) amount of professional development funds for their participation. 

Each instructor also receives a copy of John Bean’s unsurpassed guide Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Many of the techniques I introduce during the retreat are covered in detail, with excellent sourcing and multi-disciplinary models, in Bean’s book. (Honestly, if you want to replicate this retreat as cheaply as possible, you could just give each instructor a copy of Engaging Ideas and lock them all in a room together for two days.) 

There are blocks of time for independent work, sessions with research librarians, and a visit to our writing center, but here are the sessions which stand out as real game-changers for the attendees:

We start the first day with an interactive discussion of grammar and mechanics that unpacks the difference between errors of correctness and errors of comprehension. This discussion is based on the findings of Maxine Hairston, and provides an opportunity to begin exploring differences in opinion about error. Participants see immediately that their own judgments about “correctness” are actually shaped by the conventions of their field (things like passive voice, for example, are perceived one way in the business world and another way altogether in the English Department), by their own socio-economic background, and by personal preference. This realization colors how we talk to students about error, and how we make different audience expectations clear to them. As we think about our practices for working with student error, I introduce the faculty to the research of Gary Dohrer, who documented writing instructors’ tendency to fixate on surface-level error even as they insist they are primarily concerned with students’ critical thinking. I also bring up Richard Haswell’s findings that a scaled-back, minimal approach to marking error results in more student learning and improved control of mechanics. 

This section of the retreat gives instructors a new way to measure the value of “correct” grammar, while simultaneously showing how their own evaluative habits might work against student learning. It also suggests practical methods, based on research, to develop students' grammatical proficiency.

The retreat next provides an overview of writing skills development based on the work of cognitive psychologist Ronald Kellogg. This perspective allows instructors to identify certain features of student writing as markers along a well-established developmental track (rather than just “weaknesses”). In this session, we also talk about the writing instruction our students have had before coming to college, and how it has helped or hindered their skills development.

Finally, we do a group peer review, where I model methods for successful peer interaction. This session appears to be a threshold experience for many faculty members who either doubt the efficacy of peer review, or doubt their ability to implement it effectively in their classes. We work with samples of their own writing, and I conduct the session almost exactly as I would in an undergraduate class. This activity is framed by research on the efficacy of peer review, by scholars like Lundstrom and Baker and Patchan, Charney & Schunn.

After each retreat, we check in with attendees annually. Faculty report high rates of use and success with minimal marking, peer review, and other methods explained in the retreat. They feel confident in their ability to adapt these pedagogical tools to new course material and new student populations. And they report much less frustration with the work of writing instruction—they feel, in a word, supported.

As John said, there’s a consensus on the best ways to teach writing. There is likewise consensus on the best ways to support writing instructors. Though I work in a large, cross-disciplinary writing program at a Research I institution, everything I do in our retreats is replicable, on some scale, at other types of institutions—provided they are willing to acknowledge that teaching writing is a professional-level skill that deserves time, reflection, and compensation. I’m fortunate to work at an institution that has made this commitment. As John said, the way our institutions approach writing instruction isn't so much about what we know; it's about what we value.




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