Writing Across the Curriculum’s Head Start

A typical scene at Comm-B training

A typical scene at Comm-B TA training

Every semester, our Writing Across the Curriculum program gets a head start. The week before classes have even begun, we have the privilege of spending two mornings training up to 75 new Teaching Assistants. These TAs will be teaching writing-intensive courses across the disciplines—courses that fulfill an intermediate communication requirement for undergraduates. In our UW-Madison parlance, we call these Communication-B (or Comm-B) courses. During Comm-B training, then, we get to provide TAs with skills, theories, and practices they need for teaching with writing. As the TA Assistant Director of our WAC program, I get to help plan and facilitate the training. I’m always energized by the buzz of conversation about teaching with writing and by the “aha” moments as TAs consider—some for the first time—the challenges and opportunities that come with teaching writing in the disciplines.

In addition to this training, Comm-B TAs participate in trainings in their own departments. This often entails weekly meetings with staff, where they discuss teaching the writing process, giving feedback, conferencing with students, and much more, in addition to the disciplinary concepts they’re teaching.

Brad Hughes, our fearless leader, gets participants involved in a group discussion

Brad Hughes, our fearless leader, gets participants involved in a group discussion

This fall, the departments represented at Comm-B training included:

⋅    Biology
⋅    Botany
⋅    Classics
⋅    Communication Arts
⋅    Counseling Psychology
⋅    Curriculum and Instruction
⋅    Folklore
⋅    Geography
⋅    History
⋅    Journalism
⋅    Library and Information Sciences
⋅    Literature in Translation
⋅    Psychology
⋅    Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education
⋅    Scandinavian Languages and Literatures
⋅    Sociology
⋅    Theatre and Drama
⋅    Zoology

Another typical scene at Comm-B training

There's a lot to talk about at Comm-B TA training

All undergraduates at UW-Madison need to take at least one of these Comm-B course, and many take multiple ones. It’s so important, given the range of disciplines that offer these courses, that we can add to what new TAs are learning about how to teach with writing. We want to influence their priorities and approaches so that their students will learn how to write in the new disciplines they’re entering. We also want to show new TAs how powerful writing can be as a pedagogical approach.

To these ends, we ask participants to do a number of activities to get them thinking about writing pedagogy. They do a freewrite at the beginning of the first day, in which they describe what they will hope to see in their students’ final writing assignments. Using the concept of reverse engineering, we then ask TAs to consider how they can help their students arrive at these goals.

The registration table at Comm-B training this fall, replete with new Sourcebooks

The registration table, replete with new Sourcebooks

We also use an activity to get new TAs thinking about what students might struggle with in an assignment—especially if it’s one designed by the course professor rather than the TA. And we begin conversations that often continue throughout the semester as we build relationships with many TAs. We talk about what it means to write in a specific discipline or how to use writing as an effective teaching strategy. We also introduce TAs to the WAC Sourcebook, edited every other summer (see this post for more about the Sourcebook, and to learn what else the WAC program has been up to this summer!). Every participant receives a copy of this resource, and we constantly point out relevant practices and examples from it.

To accomplish all of this, we’ve partnered with multiple people across campus over the years. Every semester, library instruction coordinators and course coordinators from different courses join us to offer breakout sessions or talk about resources.

Participants also have three opportunities to attend different TA-led breakout sessions during the training. These are facilitated by Comm-B TA Fellows—experienced TAs who have demonstrated innovation and passion in their Comm-B teaching. This fall, four TA Fellows worked with us to design and facilitate breakout sessions on in-class activities to teach writing, conferencing with students about writing in progress, helping students get back to basics in scientific writing, and teaching revision. These skilled TA Fellows also answer questions on a panel about what it’s like to TA a Comm-B course.

Some of our recent Comm-B TA Fellows, from Biology, Journalism, Sociology, Theatre and Drama, English, Curriculum and Instruction, and Slavic Languages and Literatures

Some of our recent Comm-B TA Fellows, from Biology, Journalism, Psychology, Sociology, Theatre and Drama, English, Library and Information Science, and Slavic Languages and Literatures

In addition, our talented and thoughtful TA Fellows lead informal conversations about topics as various as teaching with technology, peer review, writing about controversial topics, plagiarism, teaching multilingual writers, and more. What’s especially exciting about these informal conversations is that they not only are optional, but also happen very early in the morning—before we even get started on day two. While we do provide bagels and coffee for these early arrivers, we know that the main draw is these new TAs’ desire to learn more about teaching with writing.

In the final component of Comm-B training, we have participants return to our haunts for a 90-minute workshop on responding to and evaluating student writing. Participants practice different modes of feedback and discuss the affordances and constraints of each. And they engage in a discussion, based on research and on examples, about what feedback is meant to do and how students respond to it.

The best evaluation we ever received

The best evaluation we ever received

It’s been a challenge for our WAC program to develop this training since the first training in 1997, because participants come from such a vast range of disciplines, levels of experience, and perspectives on writing. Over the years, however, the two mornings of training have become chock-full with carefully designed components. The evaluations we receive every year show us again and again that new TAs take away concrete, specific strategies and concepts for their teaching. We always benefit, too, from the thoughtful conversations we have with these TAs, who are so committed to teaching. And we’re thrilled that we can have this impact on the next generation of faculty members across the curriculum.

21 thoughts on “Writing Across the Curriculum’s Head Start

  1. Great post, Stephanie.

    Other than in passing conversation, I hadn’t heard about the Comm B Fellows before, and I love the notion of folks coming together from across the disciplines to talk about writing. This seems very in the spirit of WAC.

    Sometime I’d love to hear more about multidisciplinary takes on things like technology, multilingual writers, etc.

    Thanks for sharing! Great pictures!

  2. Thanks, Stephanie, this post brought back fond memories of the TA training and the session we co-facilitate about information literacy and research in Comm-B. Nothing could be more enjoyable than the activity and conversation we have with the TAs about making research work in these courses to help students deepen their research skills in the context of a particular discipline. It is energizing to hear ideas from a number of different disciplines and perspectives. It’s clear that the orientation has existed for many years, and I love that WAC staff (including you) are always collaborating with others to improve it for the next time around. One of my favorite parts of my librarian job, because this work has a huge impact across campus.

    Sarah McDaniel
    Coordinator, Library and Information Literacy Instruction
    UW-Madison

  3. I have really fond memories of the Comm-B workshops, which I participated in around 1999-2000.

    Amazingly, while I was visiting the University of Puget Sound this summer I ran into a former Comm-B fellow, Sara Freeman. Now, as then, Sara teaches in the theatre department. We hadn’t seen each other in 10+ years, but we remembered each other right away and exchanged fond memories of our time together in Comm-B training. I know that I draw on things I learned from the Comm-B workshops all the time and Sara said she does as well.

    Thanks for helping us to build our knowledge (and friendships!) that continue all these many years later.

    Rebecca Nowacek
    Associate Professor of English
    Director, Ott Memorial Writing Center
    Marquette University
    Milwaukee, WI

  4. I can’t believe the training has been going for 15 years now! So exciting. To this day, I still reference the Comm-B manual for all kinds of reasons: my own teaching, my TAs’ teaching, and examples to share with colleagues across the university. I am so proud that I was trained by the very best there at UW. That program is unique and I wish we had it here at the largest writing program in the country (Arizona State). Congratulations on leading such a wonderful group this year and I hope it’s a productive one for all of you!

    Alice Daer
    Assistant Professor of English
    Arizona State University

  5. Stephanie,

    Thanks for sharing this great model for professional development. I met one of my best friends at my first comm-b training, and I remember the importance of the program as many graduate students’ first experience on campus as well.

    Beth Godbee
    Assistant Professor of English
    Marquette University
    Milwaukee, WI

  6. Great post, Stephanie! The training is a wonderful opportunity for people to exchange ideas and explore new ways of teaching writing. Thanks for all you and Brad do!!

    David Houston
    Comm-B TA Fellow, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature
    UW-Madison

  7. Great summary of a great program! I’ve attended CommB workshops for the past 6 or 7 years, as an academic staff member working in a CommB course. I always enjoy the thoughtful conversations and ideas put forth by the TAs – I come away each time having learned something new. What a great way to get energized for the beginning of the semester!

    Thanks for the hard work you and Brad do each semester to make this training great! And the brownies!!!

    Cindee Giffen
    Course Coordinator, Biology/Botany/Zoology 151-152
    UW-Madison

  8. I really enjoyed your blog post describing the terrific Comm-B training program that you and Brad provide!

    For many years now your Commn B workshops have been an excellent way for our Biocore TAs to begin reflecting on their role as evaluators of scientific writing. As our semesters progress, we often our TAs referring back to ideas, concepts, and approaches they first heard about at your workshop. How cool is that?

    Many, many thanks from all of us here in Biocore!

    Michelle Harris
    Biology Core Curriculum

  9. What strikes me is the extraordinary level of engagement in this REQUIRED training. I love the pic of the hands in the air, and the one with the two instructors having an animated conversation. Stephanie, you and Brad make a powerful case for writing during this training–that writing is not the property of the English Department, but belongs to everyone.

    Kate Vieira
    Assistant Professor of English
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  10. Thanks for this lovely post, Stephanie, bringing me back to the very first COMM-B training Brad and I did back in 1997! I think we expected about 15 people to come on that cold January morning, but more and more folks (TAs and faculty mentors) just kept coming in!

    I’m thrilled to hear the Comm-B Fellows tradition continues, since such distributed and collaborative leadership is precisely what transforms required training into a genuine professional development community. Love too your reverse engineering prompt, and I can’t wait to use it with a group of faculty next month!

    Kirsten Jamsen
    Diirector, Center for Writing
    University of Minnesota

  11. Thanks, Stephanie, for this post. My favorite thing about the Writing Center is how it situates writing across the university, and I love hearing about teachers across disciplines thinking and sharing experiences about writing pedagogy. It’s also my first semester teaching a Comm-B course in the literature department, so I’m thinking a lot about these same issues. This post definitely encourages me to think about my teaching in the context of all the great writing instruction going on across campus. Great work!

  12. We just started a program in the mechanical engineering department at Michigan Tech whereby all GTAs who teach three of our required undergraduate labs are trained in how to provide effective feedback on student lab reports. These lab reports are the first technical writing experience in our department so we wanted to make these learning opportunities as effective as possible for all involved. As part of the program, we also developed a set of guidelines and corresponding rubrics that will apply (with minor differences) to all three of those labs so students will see more consistency as they progress through the curriculum.

    We have a detailed plan for evaluation in place over the next few semesters, but the response from the lab faculty and the GTAs has been quite positive. As most of our GTAs are non-native English speakers, the extra guidance on methods of evaluation for content helps them be more efficient and effective graders (and maybe better writers).

  13. Thanks for the post Stephanie!

    I had a great time at this training, both as a fellow this year and a trainee in the past!

    Robin Forbes-Lorman
    Comm-B TA Fellow, Department of Psychology
    UW-Madison

  14. Thanks for bringing back some great memories of Comm-B TA training! 12 years ago (!!!) , I was the AD of the WAC program, and now, I am still proudly using the Comm-B TA manual and website. In fact, I am making reference of the WAC website next week at a regional conference in Nashville. My presentation is a collaboration with an IB English teacher at a local high school– a collaboration that reminds me a great deal of the inspiring work that goes on in the WAC program at UW-Madison. Thanks so much for this post and for the great work you and Brad do!

    Bonnie Smith
    Associate Professor of English
    Belmont University
    Nashville, TN

  15. Was a pleasure training and being trained in the past. It is the most helpful TA training workshop that the university provides.

    Zach Baumgart
    Comm-B TA Fellow, Department of Sociology
    UW-Madison

  16. Thank you for writing this post Stephanie–you do a fantastic job of capturing the breadth and depth of this program. As one of the TA Fellows this year, I was deeply impressed by how thoughtful, and useful, the materials and presentations were, as well as by how enthusiastically the participants responded to the different sessions. There was an atmosphere of genuine engagement and collaboration, which can be rare in two-day training programs at the end of the summer, and it led to really productive discussions.

    So thanks for allowing me to be a part of this event, and I know I will model any future training work on the what I saw there. Hats off to you and Brad, as well as to the other speakers and TA Fellows–all of the planning you put into this really paid off!

    Kevin Mullen
    Comm-B TA Fellow, Department of English
    UW-Madison

  17. Wisconsin is truly a model for good writing pedagogy–not only for students, but for teachers. I’m so glad this tradition continues. It certainly does with me–I still use some of the techniques I learned in the WAC sourcebook!

    Also, that evaluation/illustration is fab-u-lous!!

    Annette Vee
    Assistant Professor of English
    University of Pittsburgh

  18. Thanks for the post, Stephanie! The Comm-B training remains one of the most useful I’ve participated in here at UW-Madison!

  19. Thank you for sharing this post, Stephanie. I wrote my dissertation on WAC TA training and recently published an article about it in Across the Disciplines. I wish I had known about your program in 2009 when I was writing the diss! I’m so pleased to see this kind of work happening at Wisconsin-Madison. I’m very eager to read your WAC Sourcebook. Thank you again for sending me a copy!
    Tanya K. Rodrigue
    Assistant Professor of English
    Salem State University

  20. Great post, Stephanie! Even though we encounter non-English department writing every day in the writing center, it is often easy to forget how many non-English department people are out there teaching writing all across campus. Thanks for reminding us of all the hard work going on all over campus towards the common goal of writing!

  21. I was a Comm-B TA in the early and mid-2000s and a Comm-B TA Fellow in 2006, and the trainings provided some of the best teacher education I’ve received in my entire career path. From Brad and the other WAC folks I learned how to make writing a central part of achieving course learning objectives. The WAC sourcebook remains a frequent companion, and my colleagues now consult my copy as we work to improve writing instruction in our department. The comments here show that the WAC folks have positive, lasting impacts not only for UW-Madison students, but also for the universities where Comm-B TAs go on to teach.

    Congratulations on your continued successes, and thanks for a great post.

    Dawn Biehler
    Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies
    Affiliate Faculty, Gender and Women’s Studies
    University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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