A Vermont college's new curricular venture enables students to self-publish books -- a project officials hope will aid a largely first-generation student body and give humanities students a "deliverable" for the future.
Most of my faculty colleagues agree that Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), in which the task of teaching writing is one assigned to all professors, not just those who teach English or composition, is an important academic concept. If we had a WAC playbook, it would sound something like this: students need to write clear, organized, persuasive prose, not only in the liberal arts, but in the sciences and professional disciplines as well. Conventional wisdom and practical experience tell us that students’ ability to secure jobs and advance in their careers depends, to a great extent, on their communication skills, including polished, professional writing.
Writing is thinking made manifest. If students cannot think clearly, they will not write well. So in this respect, writing is tangible evidence of critical thinking — or the lack of it -- and is a helpful indicator of how students construct knowledge out of information.
The WAC playbook recognizes that writing can take many forms: research papers, journals, in-class papers, reports, reviews, reflections, summaries, essay exams, creative writing, business plans, letters, etc. It also affirms that writing is not separate from content in our courses, but can be used as a practical tool to apply and reinforce learning.
More controversial — and not in everyone’s playbook -- is the idea that teaching writing skills cannot be delegated to a few courses, e.g., first-year composition courses, literature courses, and designated “W” (writing-intensive) courses. Many faculty agree with the proposition that writing should be embedded throughout the curriculum in order to broaden, deepen and reinforce writing skills, but many also take the “not in my back yard” approach to WAC.
We often hear the following refrains when faculty discuss students and writing. Together they compose a familiar song (sung as the blues):
1. “I’m not an English teacher; I can’t be expected to correct spelling and grammar.”
2. “I don’t have time in class to teach writing — I barely have enough time to teach content.”
3. “Why should students be penalized for bad writing if they get the correct answer?”
4. “Mine isn’t supposed to be a ‘W’ course, so I’ll leave the writing to others.”
5. “There is no way to work writing into the subject matter of my course.”
6. “They hate to read and write and won’t take the time to revise their work.”
7. “I don’t have a teaching assistant and don’t want to do a lot of extra correcting—I have enough to do.”
8. “Our students come to college with such poor writing skills that we can’t make up for years of bad writing.”
9. “They never make the corrections I suggest; I see the same mistakes over and over again, so why bother?”
10. “They’re seniors, and they still can’t write!”
Much has been written about WAC, and I add my voice to the multitudes because I recently came to a realization, watching my students texting before class began: students spend hours every day reading and practicing writing — bad writing. How many hours are spent sending and reading tweets, texts and other messages in fractured language? It made me wonder: is it even possible to swim against this unstoppable tide of bad writing? One of my colleagues argues that students cannot write well because they don’t read. I think that students do read, but what they spend their time reading is not helpful in learning how to write. (That, however, is a discussion for another day.)
I’m not sure that all students can be taught to improve their writing, but I am sure that it is one of the most important things we can attempt to teach. What difference does it make if students know their subject matter and have excellent ideas if no one can get past their sloppy and disorganized writing?
Let us consider (with annoying optimism) those sad faculty refrains.
“I’m not an English teacher; I can’t be expected to correct spelling and grammar.”
But we are college professors; we know more about writing than our students do. What you could do, if you don’t want to make corrections yourself or are stymied by the magnitude of a particular writing problem (where to begin?), is circle areas for revision and require the student to submit the work to the tutoring or writing center before a grade will be given. (You can even allow several opportunities for revision, depending on your tolerance for pain.) You can designate a certain number of points in your rubric to writing mechanics, letting students know that their grades will be affected by their writing; human nature being what it is, students pay more attention when they know they will be graded.
Most important, we can all emphasize that writing is important in our disciplines and that students will be judged in the workplace on the basis of their writing skills. We can all convey the message that polished prose matters to us and to professionals in our field — so much so that we are taking points off for sloppy work.
“I don’t have time in class to teach writing — I barely have enough time to teach content.”
Do you have time to assign minute papers at the beginning or end of each class, asking students to summarize three things they learned, or pose a question related to the day’s work, or answer one question based on the previous reading assignment? These papers are short and easily graded; they help students internalize and reinforce content.. They each can be worth a few points, based on quality. If assigned on a regular or irregular basis (like a pop quiz), you may even get students to keep up with the reading and pay more attention in class. Minute papers encourage students to organize their thoughts; I discovered that students who could not speak coherently in class sometimes produced thoughtful short essays. Writing can be used in many ways to learn content and improve fluency and writing proficiency.
“Why should students be penalized for bad writing if they get the correct answer?”
Bcuz omg in the workplace they will be penalized for it. Ignoring student errors is like ignoring the piece of spinach in someone’s teeth; it may seem kind not to say anything, but no one really benefits. We can assign more writing in our courses, but if it is never graded, it may improve fluency but not accuracy — and confirm bad writing habits. Take a guess: over four years, what percentage of written assignments at your institution is graded for writing mechanics as well as content?
“Mine isn’t supposed to be a ‘W’ course, so I’ll leave the writing to others.”
Leaving WAC to others is like leaving voting to others. If WAC is viewed as an institutional playbook, it implies that everyone is part of the team and plays a position. All courses should be writing courses with a small w if not a big W; that is the only way to convey the message that what students learn in Composition 101 is relevant to success in their upper-level psychology course or business minor. Furthermore, since each discipline has its own rhetoric, it is particularly important for students to practice the specific types of writing they will be asked to produce in their careers. They will not be exposed to professional writing in their first-year seminars and English composition courses.
“There is no way to work writing into the subject matter of my course.”
Physicists, pathologists, geologists, mathematicians, dentists, lab technicians, engineers, architects, web designers, curators, forensic anthropologists and others have to explain things in writing; in an algebra course, for example, students could explain their reasoning on a given problem. No matter what the field, the ability to organize information in writing is a key professional asset, whether writing is used in a patient history, business contract or gallery brochure. We can invent ways to bring theory into practice by creating opportunities for students to write in the language of their careers.
“They hate to read and write and won’t take the time to revise their work.”
Yes, for many of our students, academic reading and writing seem to be unnatural acts. Some students, for example, seem much more themselves, much more authentic and engaged, on the soccer or football field.
One day in late autumn, on a perfect, still, golden afternoon, I stopped to watch the football team practice. The camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the sheer joy were poignant, as I pictured these young men paying mortgages and sitting in cubicles. Our job is to coach them safely into their futures, into different green pastures. Part of the playbook for that is to insist that they improve their writing skills so that their writing does not undercut their potential — even if they are not there yet, not fully ready to commit to academic work.
My other thought that afternoon was, can we make learning as engaging and authentic as sport? We each have to answer this question in our own way. In my law classes, for example, I ask students to write legal memorandums using the IRAC method: “You are a junior associate in the firm of Flake, Moss and Marbles, and your senior partner wants you to research and write a memo on the case of Madame X, who… .” The IRAC method not only structures the memo for students (they summarize the facts of the case, Identify the legal issues, cite the relevant Rules of law, Analyze the problem based on the facts and law, and draw a Conclusion on the likely outcome of the case), but allows them to role-play a real-world situation. They complete a series of these short writing exercises, with a rubric to guide them, and have several opportunities to revise their work.
For a formal or high-stakes writing assignment, scaffolding is essential; students will perform better when the structure of the writing assignment is broken down into components, which, when assembled, produce a coherent whole. The IRAC method has a built-in scaffold, but other writing assignments can be structured into a series of elements or steps. It is a mistake to assume that students know how to organize a paper or report; let them know what you are looking for, break down the structure into elements, and if you have a good sample of what you expect, hand it out. (Save your students’ work for this purpose.)
In my mediation class, students are asked to draft an agreement based on a mediation role-play they have participated in. The agreements follow a structured blueprint. They are peer-edited, revised by the student (with a writing tutor, if necessary) and then corrected by me. Students are given model agreements from past years and have three opportunities to revise their work prior to grading. Last semester, 18 of 19 students revised their work and received As on the agreements. The agreements were polished and professional and reinforced the content taught in the course.
I believe that we can devise meaningful and engaging ways for students to write in all courses; the challenge is to explain to students why they are doing it. Writing should be like driver’s ed in students’ minds -- a practical skill that is essential to their future success. Without that connection, writing will seem more like juggling: nice if you can do it, but not an essential life skill.
“I don’t have a teaching assistant and don’t want to do a lot of extra correcting — I have enough to do.”
Most of us don’t have teaching assistants, but we do have students for peer editing, and writing or tutoring centers with support staff. Some degree programs have upper-class peer mentors who can help students with writing in the discipline. Consider ways to form a writing partnership, using the resources available to you. Personally, I prefer that students take responsibility for their revisions by seeking out support services. Somehow, it doesn’t seem kosher to make all these corrections, have students incorporate them into their next draft, and then grade my own language, saying “good word choice,” “nicely written,” or “well organized!” I like to circle areas for improvement, making general comments, not specific corrections.
“Our students come to college with such poor writing skills that we can’t make up for years of bad writing.” Some students will make little progress in improving their writing, for a variety of reasons. But if we accept students into our institutions, we should provide opportunities for them to improve their writing skills, even if some students are the proverbial horses who won’t drink. If students practice and are graded on their writing in only a few courses, they learn: 1) that in most courses they can get a decent grade without decent writing, and 2) that writing is relevant only in a few contexts. If we insist that career preparation includes the process of writing and revision, and we all assign meaningful writing exercises that students can revise and improve, the rest is up to them.
“They never make the corrections I suggest; I see the same mistakes over and over again, so why bother?”
When students start losing points, they tend to sit up and take notice. I’ve found that many mistakes are careless ones — what I call a document dump, turning in a first draft with no proofreading. If you hand back a draft and deduct points for writing errors, you will see more effort to correct those mistakes. Why should students devote time to an ungraded exercise when they can spend their time on something that will affect their grades? If sloppy writing has no impact on their grades, it makes sense for students not to internalize your corrections or prioritize revisions.
“They’re seniors, and they still can’t write!”
If we can agree about the value of a WAC playbook, not just in theory but in our daily practice; find ways to weave writing into all of our courses, not as busywork but as a meaningful part of the content we teach; assess student writing and promote it as an essential career skill; and allow students to revise their work, since revision is the heart and soul of the writing process, we are less likely to encounter seniors who have not practiced or improved their writing skills over four years. Our playbook should read that all courses, from now on, are writing courses with a small w.
Ellen Goldberger is director of the Honor Scholars Program and teaches law, leadership and conflict resolution courses at Mount Ida College.
A Duke professor recently used the magic word in an op-ed article she published, resulting in an invitation to visit a U.S. Senate office to discuss legislation affecting millions of children.
The magic word was "I." It's a word academics should include more often when writing op-ed articles for audiences beyond their campuses.
The professor wrote about her research showing orphanages in developing countries to be better than many Americans believe. She argued that well-intentioned legislation now before Congress would close too many orphanages and harm children unlikely to be adopted by nurturing families. The senator, one of the legislation's sponsors, was among those who saw the article.
That's impressive impact for a 750-word op-ed article, which requires far less time to write than a scholarly journal article or book. A well-written op-ed can change minds, sway hearts and affect policy. It can advance the author's career and the university's reputation. It also can serve the public interest, bringing faculty expertise to debates about everything from national security to the arts.
For faculty to play this role, however, they need to become more willing to use the word "I."
In the case of the orphanage op-ed, which our office edited and placed in several papers around the country, the author had the advantage of making an interesting point about a timely issue affecting children. What made her article compelling, however, was how she opened with a story about a Cambodian teenager who was forced to leave an orphanage and ended up becoming a "karaoke girl" who has sex with customers. The author wrote that this teenager illustrates the problem she has seen in several countries.
She maintained her first-person voice through her final paragraph, where she expressed satisfaction that Congress is addressing this issue and hopes the bill will be modified to continue supporting orphanages. To describe what she did in movie terms: She started with a "tight shot," pulled the camera back to show the "long shot" and used a character throughout to propel the narrative.
This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn't work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.
Academic articles also eschew the use of "I" or "me." Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they're told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.
That's true, of course, but also self-defeating when it comes to placing an article with the editors of op-ed pages, where competition can be intense. This reluctance of academics to come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories is one of the biggest reasons why so many of them are disappointed when editors reject their articles. It's certainly possible to address an issue effectively with a third-person "voice of the expert," but academics should not consider this their only option.
My colleague Keith Lawrence and I have helped Duke faculty members and students place dozens of op-ed articles every year, something I also did while running an op-ed service for a decade at the National Academy of Sciences. We've learned that, all things being equal, articles fare better when authors share their own experience along with their professional analysis. If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can't afford the medication you prescribed. If you are concerned about fracking, describe the homeowners who told you their water tastes strange.
You shouldn't violate anyone's confidentiality and you don't want to sound like a reality TV star. When you share your own humanity, however, your words ring truer. Readers care more about what you are saying. This is why presidents of the United States, regardless of party, place "real Americans" next to the First Lady when they deliver their State of the Union speeches. They know viewers will pay more attention to Lieutenant Smith, the brave soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, than to an abstract discussion about military policy.
Why do we have the Ryan White CARE Act and other laws named for individuals? Why do politicians on the campaign trail inevitably tell us about the family they met yesterday? For better or worse, human beings make sense of the world through examples. Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.
Americans who read op-ed pages are not stupid. They are more educated and engaged than the public as a whole. Many have expertise of their own. But they're also busy and, like all people, are wondering how an issue affects them personally. As they gulp a cup of coffee and race through the morning paper before heading to work, they want to hear real stories and voices.
They also want to feel a connection with the author. If you are a professor at Penn hoping to place an op-ed with The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, look for a way to mention something that makes clear you're a neighbor.
Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- known in the trade as "thumb suckers" -- and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from popular culture as well as from Eminent Authorities.
Most of all they want to see the magic word "I." More academics should use it.
David Jarmul is the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University.