Teaching Writing Across the Disciplines: Voices from The Summer Seminar for the Teaching of Writing (SSTW) at RIC
Who is a writing teacher?
Most who teach and work in higher education don't think of themselves as writing teachers. Teaching writing, we tell ourselves, is someone else's job. At the college-level, it is perceived to be the work of a cadre of contingent faculty who teach required first-year composition courses. Or, it's the work of those folks over in the English Department–they're the writing teachers, the ones who know how to diagram sentences and take a special kind of pleasure in splattering student's papers with red ink.
And yet, writing is assigned by faculty across campus, in all different departments and in all different disciplines. And those who assign writing must eventually sit down to (sigh) evaluate it. Those who assign and evaluate writing eventually--reluctantly, perhaps--find themselves teaching writing, as students inevitably want to know "Should I...?" "Can it be...?" "Is this...?" Each time we answer these questions, we are teaching writing.
The Summer Seminar on the Teaching of Writing (SSTW) was created to help RIC faculty recognize that those who assign and evaluate writing are also teaching it--and to help them learn how to teach it more effectively. During our week-long seminar in June 2011, we learned from those who participated that they had received little prior training in writing pedagogy, but that they had many questions about writing and writing instruction, derived from years of experience,. Seminar participants wanted to know, for example, why do students continue to struggle with writing, even into their upper-level classes? Are faculty in the disciplines supposed to correct students' grammar? What do you do when a writing assignment fails to materialize as you expected? And how do you respond to student writing without it taking over your life?
During the Seminar week, we tried to tackle these questions and more, forming, along the way, a new professional community of practice focused on teaching and learning. From our conversations, we learned that context matters when you talk about writing instruction at the post-secondary level--that writing in, say, biology, looks very different from writing in English or sociology (and, importantly, that these difference are just that--differences, based on the values and epistemologies of individual disciplines). We learned that in order to have meaningful writing instruction, departments must think about where, when, and how that instruction can take place (and that high faculty teaching loads and large courses do not create environments where meaningful writing instruction can occur). We learned that the genre of writing called the writing assignment is both challenging to write well and incredibly important in the sense that what we get from students hinges on both the clarity of our words and the sequencing of our writing-related activities (research proposals, student conferences, peer-group workshops, etc.). And we learned that, in each new classroom environment, students must "learn how to write" again for each new professor, each of whom has her own inevitable quirks and idiosyncrasies but who also, in her language and communication, conveys the goals and values--the "ways of knowing"--of her academic discipline. In sum, we covered a good deal of ground.
Once the seminar was over, we all headed back to our lives, only to reconvene in the fall to continue our conversations about writing and writing instruction. It was at this point that I asked three SSTW participants, Bonnie MacDonald (BM), Communication; Harriet Magen (HM), Communication; and Holly Dygert (HD), Anthropology to reflect on their experiences with the seminar. In what follows, I share excerpts from their responses and then conclude with a thought or two of my own on facilitating the seminar.
MM: What caused you to enroll in the Summer Seminar on Teaching Writing and what were your expectations?
BM: Over the years, I have realized that I cannot ignore students' writing abilities and that I have not done enough to coach them through the writing process. I needed to learn some methods that would help me help them.
HM: I needed to learn how to respond to student papers. Previously, I had found that I was so distracted by grammar and spelling that it got in the way of my being able to respond to content as well as organization. Feeling that I was not able to assess written student work, I found that I had begun to shy away from writing assignments altogether. This seemed to me to be irresponsible.
HD: I was already convinced of the importance of having students write, because so much of my own intellectual heavy lifting has taken place through writing. But I did not have any formal training in how to craft effective writing assignments. Additionally, though I was taught during my undergraduate studies that people become better writers just by writing, I have found that my students at RIC do not necessarily improve in this way. I wanted to learn ways to help them improve.
MM: How would you characterize your thinking about the role of writing instruction in undergraduate (or graduate) education and in your own teaching prior to your participation in the SSTW?
BM: Previously, I did not really see writing instruction as one of my teaching objectives. I suppose I thought someone else was "supposed" to take care of it. Now, I realize that my students are at the beginning of a life-long process of learning how to write (in college, in the workplace) and that it is my job to play a role in that process.
HM: Like Bonnie, I thought that teaching writing was someone else's responsibility, and I dreaded taking it on. Over the last few years, though, I started to increase the amount of structure in my writing assignments, so rather than having one big assignment due at the end of the semester, I started inserting stopping points. This allowed me to break down the assignment, find out where students were struggling, and decrease their anxiety level. I still wasn't sure I was getting better products, though, and I didn't know whether I was doing something pedagogically sound.
HD: I did regard writing as a crucial part of the learning process, so I always included a significant amount of writing in my courses. But, I didn't have specific goals that I wanted students to achieve through these assignments. Without these concrete goals, I didn't have a plan for how to coach students so they could improve their writing.
MM: What are 2-3 things you were able to take away from the SSTW that are of value to you?
BM: The first is low-stakes writing assignments. Second, peer-review for the low-stakes assignments. Third, making it very clear about the form or format I want students to follow and providing examples/models of successful papers prior to assigning the writing assignments.
HM: One really important lesson I learned is that part of the reason I was receiving papers with lots of distracting errors is that I had not given students opportunities to revise. Moreover, I learned that students write more carefully when they know that other students will see their work. Allowing revision, coupled with peer review, has cut down on the distraction factor. Also, for the first time, I am using a detailed rubric, which helps me do what I found so difficult (evaluate student writing) and I hope it helps the students.
HD: I think that the most useful thing that I took away from the SSTW was the emphasis on teaching the writing conventions that are particular to each field. What is the nature of knowledge? How do you go about composing an argument? What kinds of genres are you using? These kinds of questions have been so useful for me in structuring my assignments so that I can establish goals, provide the information the students need for success, and focus my evaluations.
MM: Thus far, how do you see your participation in the SSTW affecting your teaching or outlook on the role of writing in the classroom?
BM: I think I now find the possibilities of really teaching writing both challenging and exciting. It is as if I have a new puzzle to solve. It will be trial and error and I realize that what works with one class may not work with the next one. So, instead of avoiding or ignoring an obvious problem for our students, I am now going to take it on.
HM: I was inspired to take the SSTW by the struggles of one student who really wanted to work on her writing. I felt frustrated, unable to help her, and now I feel a little more confident that I can offer help.
HD: I never considered writing and learning anthropology to be separate--I always saw the connection between learning the discipline and learning how to communicate in the discipline. What has changed is that I now feel much more confident that I can help students achieve learning goals through writing assignments.
The perspectives of these faculty capture a good deal of what I have found to be true when it comes to faculty attitudes and orientations towards student writing. What I have learned from listening to my colleagues is that faculty often feel a great deal of anxiety around student writing. This anxiety stems from a number of places, one of which, frequently, has to do with faculty member's own experiences as academic writers. After all, behind every writing teacher there is a human being with a history as a writer. Academic writing may have come easy to a faculty member, in which case he/she may struggle to understand the challenges that students who don't find writing easy or straightforward face (and to help them through their difficulties). Or, academic writing may been a struggle for a faculty member, in which case he/she may dread being forced into a role where he/she is asked to be an authority on something about which he/she does not necessarily feel authorized to speak. We know our teaching is influenced, in many ways, by our own experiences as students. This is also the case with writing and writing instruction, and yet, it is rarely discussed among faculty. And so, in addition to talking about the nuts and bolts of writing instruction, the SSTW also provides a forum for faculty to continue their development as teachers and writers.
I'd like to close by sharing an excerpt from an email I received from an SSTW participant in the days after the seminar concluded. In sharing reflections on her own experience and development as a writer, this faculty member wrote:
I am intrigued by the fact that writing is a life-long process. I recently found and read one of my first research papers from many years ago. I was struck by how much my writing has changed and found myself editing the document. I am still editing that document...
*** I would like to thank Joe Zornado for helping to turn a vision of an SSTW into a reality, Becky Caouette for helping plan and facilitate the first SSTW, and Ron Pitt for providing the resources and funds to make the SSTW possible. Also, I'd like to thank all of those who participated in the SSTW for their time, energy, enthusiasm, questions, and good-will.