by Stephanie White
Stephanie White just completed her two-year term as Assistant Director of the program in Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Last semester, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program here at UW–Madison was thrilled to continue building our partnership with the university’s Delta program. Delta’s mission is to encourage and support graduate students’ and faculty’s development as teachers in STEM and Social and Behavioral Science fields, and so, this past spring, the WAC program offered a new semester-long class on teaching with writing in a range of disciplines. As the Assistant Director of our WAC program at the time, I had the privilege of designing and teaching this non-credit course. And as I got to know the smart, critical, thoughtful graduate students who enrolled, I was thrilled to watch these future faculty members make deep connections between teaching and writing.
We all struggle when we teach with writing. It can seem impossible to put this proven pedagogical practice into action, especially as we work to teach students course content as well. Yet in the WAC program, we see writing and content as thoroughly related. When you teach someone to write about a movement in history, or about a psychological experiment, or about an astronomical system, you’re not just teaching paragraph structure, organization, or citation methods. You’re also teaching students about that movement in history or psychological experiment or astronomical system, because you’re helping students put those ideas into their own words while also taking on the conventions and epistemologies of that field of study. Whenever we WAC consultants explain to faculty, staff, and TAs that teaching with writing is a proven way to engage students, we also end up explaining that teaching with writing is inevitable in any course that includes a writing assignment.
Yet rarely does a group of future faculty get to witness those connections in action. Through our first WAC/Delta course, seven graduate students got to do just that. Hailing from disciplines as diverse as Astronomy, Political Science, Biomedical Engineering, Second Language Acquisition, Neuroscience, and Curriculum and Instruction, these graduate student participants invested their time in understanding how writing and teaching fit together.
To further their emphasis on collaboration and community, Delta structures many of its non-credit courses to include “expeditions.” In this set-up, participants don’t merely read about and discuss aspects of teaching in universities; they also observe these concepts in action to see how practices and theories work on the ground. And so, in addition to reading scholarship on teaching with writing, participants in this course also went on expeditions across our campus. They sat in on Communication-B TA meetings; observed Writing Center sessions at a number of locations; joined writing-intensive class sessions in Biocore, History, Journalism and Mass Communication, and Engineering Communication; and watched videotaped one-on-one conferences between faculty and students in Sociology and Experimental Psychology. While these expeditions didn’t take us far geographically, they certainly got participants thinking. And through the learning community of our course, these graduate students were able to think through their observations in a collaborative environment.
For example, when we met together after our first expedition—observing class sessions in a writing-intensive course—a graduate student from Biomedical Engineering explained how impressed he was to see the ideas we’d seen in the reading being put into practice in the class. He explained, in some amazement, “They didn’t use the same words as the reading, but they were actually talking about global and local concerns in writing.” In the peer review session he’d observed in a Biocore class here on campus, this graduate student had seen the instructors push their students to give each other feedback on the big-picture issues they noticed, instead of simply proofreading. He was visibly impressed that this concept we had discussed from a removed stance was really productive for the students in the class.
Another graduate student found the excerpts we were reading from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas so useful to her teaching that, after borrowing my copy for a week, she went out and bought her own so she could have it on hand. While WAC scholars affectionately call this book the “WAC Bible” because of its thorough and specific suggestions for designing engaging writing assignments and giving specific feedback to students, it was a pleasure to see a TA practice what the book preaches. After reading much more of the book than I’d required for the class, and then implementing Bean’s suggestions, this graduate student sent me an email with the subject line “It’s working!” Her enthusiasm naturally led to many more conversations between the two of us about how to productively teach with writing.
Of course, not all of the participants geeked out like she and I did. As we grappled with the complexities of never having enough time to teach writing the way we want to, or struggled with the fact that writing and content aren’t always as intertwined as they can be, some graduate students walked away with more questions than answers. Ultimately, though, I hope that the main takeaway for these participants was not that there are simple answers to teaching with writing in the disciplines, but that there will always be colleagues at their institutions with whom they can work through these issues.