Three RIC Faculty and Their Continually Improving Writing Pedagogy
By Karen Surman Paley
As part of a panel presentation with Pierre Morenon on fifteen years of writing across the curriculum (WAC) work at Rhode Island College at a national conference on composition, I wanted to present some examples of writing pedagogy in various disciplines. I was new to RIC at the time and so I relied on my composition colleagues, Marjorie Roemer and Meg Carroll, for initial suggestions of whom to interview. The research question was how did the writing pedagogy of these faculty change over the years in part due to training and seminars offered by the college wide Writing Board.
Some time after the interviews and conference presentation, I was pleased to discover a study of faculty in three other WAC programs (Walvoord, Hunt, Dowling, Jr., & McMahon, 1997). Walvoord and et al. were not looking for what they call "match-to-sample" studies that document "whether faculty, after WAC workshops, adhere to WAC beliefs or use WAC strategies" (p. 3). In these studies, "the researcher decided what was good practice and the focus of the study was to discover why that good practice was not implemented (p. 13). My WAC philosophy is not to judge my disciplinary colleagues' work by its conformity to principles outlined by foundational keynote speakers in the field, but rather to see what experienced teachers discover through engaged and self-reflective practice over many years at the same institution. For example, the survey of a random sample faculty at the University of Cincinnati, including those who had attended WAC workshops, showed a widespread "sense of constant change" (Walvoord, p. 55). As one faculty member put it, "'My classroom has become the never-ending draft'" (p. 58). When Walvoord et al. did look specifically at how WAC had affected theories about teaching, they found many faculty reported "changes in their theories, habits of mind, confidence and enthusiasm, and relation to students" all of which they were continuing to build upon (p. 78).
Let me backtrack to my own prior WAC experience and how it compared to what I found at RIC. For my first job out of graduate school, I was hired to administer a freshman writing program that served over 1000 students in California. When I arrived, I was shocked to learn I was also expected to develop a WAC program. Either one of the tasks would have been overwhelming for a solo untenured administrator.
I plunged into the WAC project with a needs assessment survey, interviewing several people in each of the university's departments. I have detailed notes on my findings somewhere, but my sharpest memory is of a conversation with the chair of the theology department. He said that faculty in his department often teach two sections per semester of a core course with 35 students in each and an expectation that they will write at least two substantial papers. He then informed me that the style manual written by my department chair was "completely worthless," and all they needed from me was "a code sheet." Because it takes so long to write out whole words for errors like "sentence fragments," he wanted a list of abbreviations he could use and distribute to his students. This would not be such a bad idea if the students actually knew what the whole words meant and how to repair the coded errors.
After only a few weeks of needs assessment, the Dean asked me to present a plan for writing intensive courses to "the Council of Chairs." A disproportionate amount of yelling followed the very short talk I gave. My experience as a novice writing program administrator netted evidence to support John Bean's (1996) assertion that many teachers resist integrating writing and critical thinking into their courses because of negative beliefs or misconceptions, such as
- "Emphasizing writing and critical thinking in my courses will take time away from content"
- "Writing assignments are unsuitable in my course"
- "Adding more writing to my course will bury me in paper grading"
- "I am not knowledgeable enough about writing and grammar to help students with their own writing" (p. 9-11).
Of course, the most common response to the proposal for writing intensive course employed my persona as metonymic for "The Freshman Writing Program," asking why "I" was not doing a better job, a question that astounded me even after I had unpacked.
So, when I arrived at RIC two years ago, you can imagine my delight in finding that there had been a college-wide Writing Board in place for many years, that it was chaired by a professor in Management and peopled with faculty who actually were from across the curriculum, and further that about 70 faculty members attended the annual faculty development workshop held each year in the middle of winter break.
To get a sense of the impact of this ongoing work, I interviewed three faculty members at RIC who have participated in a variety of workshops over their years here and who have used some of the ideas to confirm and build on their own healthy instincts regarding working with student writing. As sociologist Sandra Enos put it after reading a draft of this paper, "[All three of us] are very involved in campus business, such as sitting on recruitment panels and standing college committees." At the time, Enos and Management professor Randy DeSimone were co-editing the campus e-journal, Issues in Teaching and Learning. Enos and DeSimone and my third subject, Carol Shelton, are more experimental than rule-embracing; they are risk-takers.
Based on interviews and a look at some writing assignments, I will tell you something of the writing pedagogy of: Carol Shelton, Professor of Nursing; Randy DeSimone, Associate Professor of Management; and Sandra Enos, Associate Professor of Sociology. I did invite other RIC faculty to participate but because of time constraints or other reasons, they declined. Each of these three faculty members has attended many writing workshops held on campus. Shelton delights in reading and working with texts and faculty across the curriculum. Her interdisciplinary tendencies are apparent from the bookshelves in her office, which include psychologist Shari Thurer's Myths of Motherhood, anthropologist Bridgette Jordan's Birth in Four Cultures, sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman's Recreating Motherhood, and a collection of short stories by Alice Walker. She served on the original committee to develop Core Four classes at the college. These courses involve critical inquiry into cultural issues. DeSimone was chair of the Writing Board for many years.
My research questions developed from an awareness that many of us come into the professoriate with little or no training in pedagogy. Bruce Speck (2003) calls for a revamping of graduate education. Simply knowing one's field does not guarantee that one "will be able to provide others with his or her wealth of information and insights into the subject" (p. 42). He finds "the increasing number of teaching and learning centers instituted by campuses - as a remedial measure" to be one piece of evidence pointing to "the fallacy of adequate preparation" (p. 42). Since research by Bean (1996) and my own needs assessment survey at a prior institution show that faculty outside Composition and English feel inadequate to help students improve their writing, I asked each interview subject:
- How did you feel upon learning that there was an expectation that faculty across the curriculum would assign writing?
- How did you prepare yourself to assign and evaluate student writing?
- How did you handle any frustration with helping students to improve?
Additionally, I asked them for samples of pre- and post WAC training writing assignments. All of them expressed an initial and often lingering discomfort with assigning grades to writing and occasionally a frustration with not knowing how to help students improve. All are adept at revising their own pedagogy and are pleased with the current assignments they are developing. Both Shelton and DeSimone reported an early reliance upon and frustration with multiple-choice exams. While they continue to use some version of these, much more writing takes the form of what Shelton calls critical inquiry papers, which invite students to write short essays based on multiple perspectives.
For the last several years I have been conducting ethnographic studies of the classes of various disciplinary faculty at four different institutions whose writing pedagogy demonstrates something akin to the Jesuit educational philosophy of cura personalis, or caring for the whole person. Each time I walk away from their classes with the makings of another chapter for a book on the subject, and I always manage to lift something for my own classroom antics. These short interviews at RIC prompted a longing to be an undergraduate with the time to take such courses as Enos' "Changing the World" or Shelton's "Cross Cultural Perspectives on Childbearing and Mothering" or DeSimone's "Organizational Behavior."
What we have at RIC is what John Bean (1996) and Martha Townsend (2001) call an "infusion" program. Outside of explicit writing courses in the English Department, there are no designated "writing intensive" courses, only a commitment to integrating some writing into many courses (Townsend, p. 237). Shelton, a full time RIC faculty member for more than 25 years, is a big infuser, and she believes she has attended every single writing across the curriculum meeting offered by the college.
She describes an interdisciplinary course she began teaching early in her career at RIC, "Public and Community Health Nursing," and says "the way in which you evaluated students was multiple choice examinations." This course and these exams are an important part of preparing students to take the state exams and RIC has had the highest passage rate of the other nursing programs in Rhode Island over the past few years. There were 60 questions on the exam for this course in the spring of 2002. It began with the type of question one might expect to see in a multiple-choice exam. "The approximate percentage of each health care dollar spent on public health services is," and the choices are 3, 10, 25, or 50%.
Shelton also told me, "I always try to find out what people are thinking rather than can they pull off the right answer." So, embedded in the exam are reflective questions that pose a problem and the examinee has to select the best solution. For example, one question presents a community health nurse who cares for a large number of immigrants from Southeast Asia. The nurse learns that one of her clients is near term and that she plans to breastfeed her child but, following the common practice in her culture, she does not plan to do so in the first two days. The public health nurse is caught in a quandary because she knows the immunizing effect of the colostrum present in breast milk right after birth, and yet she wants to support cultural practices. The exam offers four possible choices for the nurse to make: explain the importance of colostrum; explain that most American women breastfeed from birth; find a Western trained Cambodian caregiver to talk with her; or simply respect the woman's beliefs and be satisfied that she is breastfeeding. Shelton tells me that, according to the test bank, the correct answer is #3.
Because some students argue that there may not be a Cambodian health provider available and the most important thing is that the mother is nursing, she gives credit for other answers, too. "It's the reason why I detest multiple choice questions, especially in Community Health" (6 March 2005). I think a question such as this one prompts the students to think like real nurses in a real situation.
As Shelton's tenure at RIC proceeded, she began to teach general education courses such as "Issues in Women's Health" and then she developed a Core 4 General Education class entitled, "Critical Inquiry into Cultural Issues: Cross Cultural Perspectives on Childbearing and Mothering." As she puts it, "Whenever you teach in General Education, the emphasis is on writing and critical thinking."
In their critical review of various types of WAC studies, Barbara Walvoord et al. (1997) refer to a group of participants some researchers have called "early adopters." Such faculty are drawn to WAC because they are open to new pedagogies, and they have a lot of "horizontal networks" across disciplines and are likely to explore other pedagogical avenues. WAC proponents should not "assume we have a corner on all the good ideas about teaching that they would ever want to try" (p. 6). Shelton is a perfect example of a horizontal networker, frequently consorting with and gleaning ideas from other departments. She served on the General Education Committee and was part of the original group creating courses for the Core Four curriculum; she loves to talk to faculty across campus. "I have changed some of what I've done based on what I heard" from other people. Shelton attended a WAC workshop where I spoke about my Holocaust literature class; I produced weekly journal entries along with the students and shared them with the class. In the workshop, I read particularly powerful examples and Shelton told me, "What you did in that workshop and that course you taught, I thought was really colorful and really interesting." She mentioned how people in philosophy are particularly good about using critical thinking, having students "look at an idea from more than one point of view." Her writing assignments changed as it became clear that "students seemed to be able to write more effortlessly for a journal; when they had to do a major paper [at the end of the semester] it felt flat." She eliminated this major end of the semester project in favor of shorter critical inquiry papers. Her understanding of these papers grew out of discussions of COGE.
In an effort for students to develop critical thinking skills, faculty attempted to organize assignments in which the students would take a position on a particular topic that was controversial and provide evidence to support the position taken and to refute the counter position. The argument had to be based on a search of the literature and had to go beyond personal opinion. In recent years, [Shelton has] organized the assignment in the following way. Students have to write three essays. She emphasizes the fact that although essays are opinion pieces, they are understood to be informed opinion. They must be based on substantial reading and thus have a basis in the literature. (16 March 2005)
For example, when roaming around the Brown Bookstore, Shelton came across an article in the magazine Tikkun about the American Cancer Society that pointed out how many people on its board of directors are CEO's in the chemical industry. "So there's this dilemma: the cancer rate is rising because of our overexposure to chemicals, and these chemical plants are producing pesticides on the one hand and chemotherapy drugs on the other." She gave the article to her students who had always looked at the American Cancer Society as this wonderful altruistic organization and it made them rethink that. Another provocative essay she gave her students is from a book entitled The Commercialization of Intimate Life (2003) by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which argues, "Like older religions, capitalism partly creates the anxieties to which it poses itself as a necessary answer," and that capitalism "competes with the family" (p. 145). When students receive these clusters of provocative essays, she asks them "to weave a response from all of them."
Shelton also informed me that while she had heard our writing program director, Marjorie Roemer, speak many times about the value of group work, she resisted attempting the pedagogy until the summer the Core Four classes were capped at 20, instead of the usual 30. On the first day of the course on motherhood, she put her students in a circle. The third person to speak identified herself as a pregnant lesbian and Shelton reports, "That really helped the whole group open up." Clearly the infusion model works well for someone like Shelton who is always willing to move outside the confines of narrow disciplinary specialties in order to improve her teaching. In fact, after reading this paper, she told me she got another idea from seeing what DeSimone does. Her work represents exactly the kind of collaboration and sharing we might like to see taking place on any campus.
Randy DeSimone is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management and Technology at RIC where he has been teaching for 18 years. Having had no training in pedagogy in graduate school, as is true of many faculty everywhere, he struggled in his first semester at RIC. He is very grateful both for what he has learned from the WAC community and the collegiality it has provided. Like Shelton, DeSimone went from giving primarily multiple-choice exams to assigning other types of writing such as a collaborative semester-long project in MGT 322, Organizational Behavior, an assignment that carries with it the traces of much process pedagogy. (This is the idea that any piece of writing begins as a draft and develops through multiple revisions and finally editing.)
As a graduate student in industrial organizational psychology, DeSimone was explicitly "encouraged not to give writing assignments because we had our own damned writing to do . . . and consequently, to 'do the minimum you can to make the classes go.'" In fact, the precaution was almost a threat. "'The more you put into [teaching], the less you put into your own program, and what's going to be the difference between staying [in graduate school] and leaving is what you do within your own program.' We were encouraged to do straight lecture and multiple choice tests." Later he would come to believe, as Carol Shelton did, that multiple-choice exams are only about "recognition memory" and don't require "the level of processing that you want [students] to do."
However, even as a new teacher, DeSimone understood that the positions for which he was training people, whether in management or human resources, would require critical speaking, writing, and thinking. Thus, he began assigning writing his very first semester but was not prepared for what he received. "I was of the opinion, like a lot of people, that when you grade an assignment, you actually corrected it." He put in a lot of time "correcting" in the hope that the writing would improve but "it had zero affect." He didn't assign drafts, so his comments were entered onto final papers, to which students did not pay any attention. DeSimone's other early frustration had to do with reading exams written in bluebooks where the writing would bleed from one side to another, and he spent a lot of time trying to decipher the words. However, by his second semester, he found WAC workshops and shortly after he participated in a retreat for people who were interested in developing writing intensive courses. Soon he was named to a Writing Center Advisory Committee. "These ideas hit me like a bulb and it wasn't about learning how to teach writing, but about learning how to teach."
DeSimone describes his behavior as that of a religious convert. For example, if he learned that journaling was a good thing, he jumped into it whole hog even with classes of 30 students. "[With journaling] I was able to connect to my students better and people attended classes more regularly, but I felt I had to read every page and every word," and write long and serious comments. I didn't want the students to think I was insincere." Eventually he began assigning a semester long group project in his Organizational Behavior class around the topic of motivation in the workplace. With ABI Info, an Internet data source in business, students had access to research that was presented as equally good. "My benchmark for bad research was when one group cited some findings on motivation from Captain Bob's Website. Captain Bob put up this horrible website with his own musings about what it means to motivate people in the workplace . . . And one of the statements on the website was that 'If you don't like my grammar and punctuation, then go to hell. It's my website; go read something else.'"
Another stage in DeSimone's early development came when he learned from Marjorie Roemer and Meg Carroll, our Writing Center director, that he didn't have to point out everything that was wrong in papers. Now he tells his students that surface errors "carry attributions in the real world" about how much you care and they know that he will take off a portion of a grade for inattention to these details.
DeSimone gives wonderful directions with the group project, which is a strong example of writing process pedagogy. Students receive very clear handouts about how to run the group smoothly, how to guarantee that the work is collaborative and not simply conducted by one or two dominant members, and how to stage the writing process. Based on their schedules, DeSimone puts groups together and they meet extensively outside of class. I think it is a good thing that there is quite a bit of structure imposed on their independent work, as I have seen collaborative projects disintegrate or essentially become the work of one or two highly motivated participants with credit going to those who do little. The paper is to have three sections: an interview report, an analysis, and recommendations. Two members are to write the initial draft of each section only AFTER holding a meeting where everyone shares ideas about what the section ought to contain. Students are advised to bring a list of ideas to this preliminary meeting. After the meeting, the assigned writers for that section produce the first draft and distribute a copy to each member of the group before the next meeting. Each one is to review the copy and get the comments to the drafters before or during that meeting. The writers can then revise and members can have another chance at commentary, if they desire. To ensure that this group process actually happens, it is a requirement that minutes be kept. The minutes include time, place, attendance, length of meeting, and, most importantly, "the key issues discussed and activities performed, decisions made, and tasks accomplished." This project also serves as training on how to run a well-motivated workplace where accountability is a big factor.
WAC at RIC has not only provided DeSimone with many good ideas about writing pedagogy, but it has provided him with a community. He told me that the danger with a commuter campus can be that faculty more or less punch the clock and then attend to their side businesses. Through WAC "I've been able to hook up with people, find methods that really supported me, and become part of a community of people who think about the way they teach, and who can share their struggles with each other." This is different from the more cynical teacher talk we hear in faculty lunchrooms; it is talk about change, what can we as faculty do to change the way students go about writing serious and meaningful papers. As DeSimone put it, "It has been very rewarding to see movement from people who initially appeared to be the biggest knuckle-draggers, the ones coming only to complain about how badly students write. Over time they begin to see a different way of doing things and the light comes on for them when they learn they are getting the writing they ask for." One of DeSimone's own pedagogical changes came about when he realized he could "ask students to write on topics that he was interested in reading."
Lastly, I would like to discuss Sandra Enos, Associate Professor of Sociology at RIC. I met Enos through our work on the Oral History Steering Committee, a group of interdisciplinary faculty who have been interviewing former residents and staff of an orphanage and school once located on the campus. Enos has been a full time faculty member at RIC for 7 years and before that she taught as an adjunct for several years. Prior to teaching at RIC, she was involved with Campus Compact, a national organization of now 900 colleges and universities all dedicated to the ideas of service learning and community service, for which she had given about 40 faculty development workshops around the country. By the time Enos began teaching, she fully expected to assign writing. However, despite her own personal interest in writing (with publications in humor journals), she never had extensive training in evaluating student writing. She began to change her pedagogy by simply trying to make her own expectations more lucent for the students. Later on she broke assignments up into stages; for example, the proposal for the term paper would be due in the third week and they already needed to have five citations. This particular idea was her own, and she describes herself as someone good at coming up with ideas as well as "bumming off of others," but not always sure where some of her ideas came from.
She recalls her very first WAC meeting at RIC where she learned about the notion of freewriting, which was like "a firecracker" for her. "It created another way of warming students up to a particular topic and a way of sparking discussion in the classroom." One exercise she now uses in her Introduction to Sociology and in her Core Four class, "Changing the World," is called "the better deed" and involves a parable proposition. Students do it at the beginning of the semester and return to it at the end. A hungry man approaches two people of equal wealth for money to buy food for his family. One person is very moved by his condition and gives him $5 and the other gives him $100, as his religion commands that he give 10% of his income. Students write about and then debate, who has done the better deed. "They are given their responses back at the end of the semester to see if they have learned anything about sociology and the public good." Some are impressed that they had been so "developed" in their thinking and others feel ashamed at their pre-course limitations. Enos had used the exercise with adults before attending faculty development training, but the WAC workshop gave her "a green light" to use it with students. She saw "that this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do academically, even though the students weren't adding footnotes and I wasn't going to grade it."
Enos gave me a copy of a "special report assignment" for her "Law and Society" class. One change from a version used in 1999 seems to parallel DeSimone's process of giving himself permission to exclude topics in which he is not interested. The recent version of Enos's assignment includes: "Papers that. . . review topics that can be considered general knowledge are not acceptable. Also, do not submit a paper on the death penalty, on the legalization of marijuana, hate crimes, or on the pros or cons of abortion. These controversies have been the subject of extensive writing and investigation and I would prefer that you take up an issue that is just surfacing in our society."
As a junior faculty member at RIC, I am constantly seeking as role models, faculty who are successful in engaging without overwhelming our student population. The three people I feature here strike me as always on the look-out for ways to energize their own practice and to motivate students who put in long hours working as well as going to college. In addition to honing our pedagogy, we are also busy with service and writing responsibilities.
I want to close by thanking these faculty members for taking the time to talk with me, for providing me feedback on an earlier draft of this paper, and for allowing me to make public elements of their past and present writing pedagogy. I feel very lucky to be working with colleagues in many disciplines who concern themselves with helping their students to write better and with changing their own teaching practices.
Bean, J. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Speck, B.W. (2003). The role of doctoral programs in preparing faculty for multiple roles in the academy. New Directions for Higher Education, 124, 41-55.
Townsend, M. (2001). "Writing intensive courses and WAC." In S. McLeod et al (Eds.)
WAC for the new millennium: strategies for continuing writing-across-the curriculum programs. (pp. 233-258). Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.
Walvoord, B.E., Hunt, L.L., Dowling, H.F., & McMahon, J.D.. (1997). In the long run: A study of faculty in three writing-across-the curriculum programs. Urbana: NCTE.