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.

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