Waterloo Journal: Building WAC Support Where There Is No WAC

By Stephanie White

Stephanie White is an Instructional Developer at the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence. She consults with instructors about teaching writing and communication and assists with teaching development programs for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Stephanie holds a PhD in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she taught composition, tutored in the Writing Center, and served as TA Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum.

Stephanie White, back when she would spend hours writing and taking selfies to procrastinate in the Wisconsin Historical Society library.

I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s ageless Paris to the Moon off and on over the last year, savouring it in small portions like a bottle of good Scotch. Gopnik’s descriptions of life in Paris for a non-Parisian family, originally published as a series of New Yorker essays called “Paris Journals,” are warm and acute. They’ve made me think again about the “outsider” perspective, about why travel writing is so powerful and why anthropologists rarely study their home cultures. And they’ve made me consider my own perspective as a Canadian returning home to Ontario after spending twelve years in the U.S. So I thought I’d invite you to read my own journal entry here about life as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) consultant in a university culture where WAC is rarely mentioned.

Going Alt-Ac

I just celebrated my one-year anniversary as “Instructional Developer, TA Training and Writing Support” at the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. My manager took me to lunch to celebrate, and we marveled that it had only been and had already been a year since I left a teaching position in the English department here at UWaterloo to take on this role. The shift to an alt-ac career wasn’t something I saw coming, but when I read the job description for a newly created position with a focus on writing instruction, I couldn’t resist applying and was thrilled to be offered the job.

I now spend my days helping run two different graduate student teaching development programs, supervising graduate-student workshop facilitators, and facilitating TA training in departments across campus. At the same time, I teach workshops and consult with instructors, departments, and even whole faculties (what you’d call colleges in the U.S.) about designing, teaching, and responding to written assignments.

A New Initiative

It’s an exciting time to be the designated resource when it comes to writing instruction here because UWaterloo, which has about 30,000 undergraduates, has recently begun implementing required small-section communication courses for the first time. At universities in Canada, there are often few distribution requirements for students, and communication courses aren’t typically required. But at UWaterloo, each of the six faculties (Arts, Applied Health Sciences, Engineering, Environment, Math, and Science) must now decide in the next year how they will use designated funding to provide communication instruction to all of their students, with specific communication outcomes in mind. My current position was created to support this shift.

Starting from scratch to create UWaterloo-specific online WAC resources.

In response to this initiative, some faculties are working with the English and Speech Communication departments and the non-disciplinary English for Multilingual Speakers suite of courses to offer more sections of existing courses designated for students from those faculties. Some are designing new faculty-specific courses that highlight communication instruction. One faculty, after analyzing their existing courses, found that they were already offering courses that meet the required communication outcomes and are simply shifting requirements for students. Other faculties are still deciding, and some are leaving the details up to individual departments within the faculty. It gets complicated, but this is the typical decentralized Canadian way.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time networking with people on campus, getting my name out there, letting folks know I’m available to help with the implementation of this new communication initiative as well as with any writing and communication assignments. As a result, I’ve consulted with individuals, offered workshops, and begun creating online resources. I’ve also attended department- and faculty-wide meetings about communication courses and consulted with the steering committee for this initiative.

Yes, I too still consistently rely on John Bean’s Engaging Ideas.

Everything I Know About WAC…

Sometimes my role seems overwhelming, and the impostor phenomenon rears its head. But I’ve been encouraged by how well my experiences in graduate school prepared me for this challenging position. I almost titled this post “Everything I know about WAC, I learned from Brad Hughes,” but I knew the always-humble Brad wouldn’t appreciate the flattery. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that the approaches I take when consulting with faculty across the UWaterloo campus find their roots in my work with Brad in the Writing Across the Curriculum program and the Writing Centre at UW–Madison.

While co-consulting along with Brad with faculty members and committees and in our many hours of conversations about writing in the disciplines, I learned to see the rich connections between disciplinary content and writing (highlighted so well on this very blog last week by Kathleen Daly), and I learned fruitful ways of responding to instructors’ struggles with student writing (check out my CTE blog post on this topic from earlier this year).

Of most importance to my current work, I learned what kinds of questions to ask to draw out instructors’ own writing expertise and experiences. Here are some of the questions I often ask when talking with disciplinary instructors:

  • What are your goals for your students with this assignment? In this course?
  • What has worked well about this assignment in the past?
  • What do you notice your students struggle with the most in their written assignments?
  • How can you build process into this assignment by scaffolding it for students?
  • What genres and types of writing will your students need to write in their future careers?
  • What communication skills will your students use most in their future careers?
  • What kinds of student writing do you find most rewarding to read?
  • What kinds of written assignments did you invest in most as a student?
  • What kind of time or support do you have for providing feedback on these assignments?

Answers to questions like these shape conversations so that instructors engage in self-reflection about their own teaching and even their own learning. Such questions also put the emphasis on instructors’ personal preferences to remind them that its vital to teach in ways that give them energy so they won’t be drained by their assignments.

As I consult with more and more instructors, I’m invigorated by the valuable and creative written assignments they’re already using to teach History, Biology, Mechanical Engineering, International Development, Computer Science, Systems Engineering, Actuarial Science, and other subjects. I’m finding that, though it may not be called WAC on this campus, the culture of writing exists across this curriculum. I can’t wait to make its presence more vivid in the years to come.

Featured image by Shu Wu, Creative Commons

5 thoughts on “Waterloo Journal: Building WAC Support Where There Is No WAC

  1. I think the list of questions you ask is very revealing. Have you noticed any marked trends across disciplines around, for instance, the types of communications skills students will use most in the future?

  2. Thank you for this post, Stephanie! It’s such a treat to hear from two WAC specialists back to back like this, to be thinking across universities (and nations!) as well as across the curriculum.

    Thinking about the questions you pose to disciplinary instructors as they work on designing writing assignments for their students, I find myself wondering about *reading assignments* and how they anticipate, inform, or potentially complicate the learning these instructors aim to catalyze with their new writing assignments? Does reading come up in your conversations with faculty often? In what ways is it helpful to pair the two considerations in the training and presentations you provide? (I’ll be sure to visit Bean regarding these questions, too!)

  3. A year already! We are really fortunate to have you on board at CTE. I try to tell folks in new alt-ac jobs to write down everything they can in their first couple of months about the weird things they see us doing. It’s helpful later to look back once you’re fully socialized, to try to regain that critical (anthropological?) distance. I forget whether I suggested this to you last year, but I’d love to hear what you wrote some time if so! #demythologizing #facdev

  4. Love this post, Stephanie. I wish I had more opportunity to pick your brain about writing. Here’s a question I always want to ask instructors (my experience in this area, though, is working with students): How do you approach this form of disciplinary writing? How do you conceptualize the process? How do you think it might differ from students’ processes? That was three questions, not one, but I’m curious about the convergences and divergences in how students and experts approach similar writing projects/genres, and how scaffolding can, or can’t, be leveraged to address gaps in how writing is taught to novices and how expert writers approach a writing task.

  5. As a current grad, it’s great to get a glimpse of how a WAC program grows from the ground-up (and from abroad). As a former coordinator of the UW outreach program, I loved seeing your approach to conversations with instructors. I remember that I always found your third question, “What do you notice your students struggle with the most in their written assignments?” particularly telling. It says so much about writing priorities for a discipline and for the given instructor. Thank you for a fascinating post! I’m sure I’ll be rereading this one (and Kathleen’s) in the future, as I continue working with faculty members who are new to the fellows program.

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