Writing to learn

As I read “The Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Movement: 1970-1990” by David Russell, one quote in particular struck me as particularly insightful: “The [American secondary school] system is organized on an industrial model, which uses writing primarily to assess students’ performance, not to improve it” (22). (And while Russell refers to secondary schools, I suggest that college writing may be even more oriented toward assessment.) I don’t know why I had never considered this, but this observation was a revelation to me, and it certainly is true to my experience. Dan Melzer’s research reported in “Writing Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing” seems to bear Russell’s observation out: nearly a quarter of the writing opportunities he surveyed were short-answer exam questions, and 64% of the assignments were written to the “instructor as examiner.”

Using writing to improve students’ performance rather than to assess it seems to be an apt description of the objective of the “writing to learn” aspect of writing across the curriculum. Susan McLeod identifies two “complementary, even synergistic” (55) branches of WAC—“writing to learn” and “writing to communicate”—the latter often understood to be writing in the disciplines. Even though we have (at least so far) spent more energy in our seminar on the theoretical basis for WID and technical writing, I find “writing to learn” to be equally interesting because of its ability to improve students’ understanding of subject matter and, perhaps even more importantly, to achieve what Russell identifies as WAC’s “ultimate goal: reforming American pedagogy” (36).

I wonder whether the “writing to learn” branch of WAC is weakening as more emphasis is given to WID. Russell details the challenges to the WAC movement in his section “Reform and Resistance” (30-34), and much of his assessment is concerning. WID, on the other hand, with its disciplinary emphasis, seems to be more amenable to institutional structure and more palatable to instructors, and thus is receiving more attention. I think that “writing to communicate”/WID is an important aspect of writing instruction—don’t get me wrong—but not at the expense of “writing to learn.” I’m concerned that an overemphasis on WID shortchanges students; let’s face it, most undergraduates will not become academics, and most writing in the disciplines is aimed at teaching the academic discourse patterns of the discipline, not professional writing. While there is significant overlap between academic discourse and professional discourse in some majors (engineering for example), in other disciplines (history for example), besides teaching students the ways of knowing within the discipline, academic discourse will not serve students in the long term unless they pursue a career in academia.  Furthermore, I think that most WID is used to “assess student performance” rather than to improve it; most of the typical WID assignments seem to be used as a means of evaluating whether students understand the material rather than as a means of helping them understand the material better.

Fluffy things

“They should just say what it is and nothing else, not their feelings or their impressions or sentences that doesn’t actually bring anything into the paper and contribute anything to the understanding of the reader. That should be all removed. If they can get away from this course with one thing, that is, ‘Oh, I should be very clear in my purpose, very clear about how I did it, and why I did it, my results and my interpretations, and nothing else, just what it is.’ That will be very useful for them in their following courses and in their jobs. Nobody wants fluffy things, they just want to the point what it is, except maybe in entertainment, in movies, in novels, in fiction. There could be a lot of other places, but not in the job we are doing here.”

—Cal Poly Physics professor

“The terms students used to characterize the kind of writing they did in FYC and other courses in the English Department included ‘fluff,’ ‘b.s.,’ and ‘flowery,’ whereas in talking about the writing they did in other classes, students used descriptors such as ‘concise,’ ‘to the point,’ and ‘not a lot of flowery adjectives.’”

—Bergmann and Zepernick, “Disciplinarity and Transfer”

I read Bergmann and Zepernick’s article “Disciplinarity and Transfer” while researching my seminar paper about transfer last quarter, and it had a significant impact on my understanding of that subject. When I reread this article this quarter, this time after having read Downs and Wardel’s “Teaching about Writing…”, I viewed Bergmann and Zepernick’s research as providing ample empirical justification for reworking FYC. And our interview with one of our physics professors, quoted above, confirmed that “fluffy things” are just not valued outside of the English department, not by students and not by faculty.

(Now, mind you, I do not believe that fluffy things are all that the English department has to offer. But that is the perception, and it must be addressed.)

So, what about Bergmann and Zepernick’s article provided support for the argument for WAW for me? First and foremost, students rejected the possibility of transfer from FYC to writing in their disciplines primarily because the perceived that FYC lacked any disciplinary content. But WAW provides the disciplinary content that would lend legitimacy to FYC. Second, this content would emphasize the rhetorical approach to FYC, rather than an expressivist pedagogy, that better lends itself to transfer. While I think there is definitely a place in the curriculum for expressivist writing, it doesn’t seem to be appropriate for a course that transitions students into writing in the disciplines. And finally, because although the empirical support is on the side of an apprenticeship model of teaching writing by expert in the discipline, the fact is that most faculty don’t think they have the time or expertise to teach writing, and WAW at least attempts to close the gap by “teaching students how to learn to write” (142). It is this learning how to learn how to write that I think is a strength of WAW.

Bonsai professors

I have been mulling over writing in the disciplines, and much of our reading and discussion has been centered around writing in the technical and scientific disciplines. Now that I have gotten a little more familiar with the type of writing done in these formerly mysterious disciplines, I have started to think how maybe rather than being more difficult (my previous assumption), the teaching of writing in the technical disciplines may have an advantage over teaching writing in the humanities because there is a fairly defined trajectory for its students from university course work to career.  For example, a student who is an engineering major becomes…an engineer. A student who is a chemistry major becomes…a chemist. I know I am simplifying the issue, but my point is that while there can a variety of careers for these majors, the type of writing taught in the discipline correlates closely with the type of writing the student will do in the workplace.

But now let’s consider the situation in the humanities. These are majors in which the career paths of its majors are not as clear cut. How do you complete these sentences? A history major becomes___________. A philosophy major becomes____________. And finally, the fill-in-the-blank question we are all hoping to answer—an English major becomes______________. This is not to imply that these disciplines are less valuable because they are less vocationally oriented (perhaps that is actually a strength), just to acknowledge the situation. With less of a one-to-one correspondence between major and career, writing in the disciplines of the humanities has many challenges to address. One that I’ve noticed is the tendency of faculty in these disciplines to conceive writing in the disciplines to consist of primarily academic genres. Carter in “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines” relates that faculty in “Research from Sources” metagenres (mainly humanities) identify “the historical narrative from sources, literary criticism, paper, research paper and research project” as the typical genres, and he continues to observe that “the first two are clearly disciplinary genres, but the last three terms, which were used most often, best capture the ambiguous nature of the genres that comprise this metagenre, particularly their lack of correspondence to disciplinary or professional genres in a field…These may be understood as quintessential academic genres, writing that is used to promote certain ways of knowing and doing without much pretense to practical application beyond the classroom” (224). Do instructors only envision their students writing in academic genres? Do they not foresee them in careers outside of academia? Or is the problem that there are SO MANY options for careers following undergraduate studies in humanities? Or that instructors believe that the ways of knowing, doing, and writing taught in the humanities disciplines will easily transfer to the workplace?

Here is where my phrase of the week comes in. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, in “Writing Political Science,” admits that perhaps professors fail to envision the breadth of career options available to political science majors and that “unwittingly perhaps, we set about cultivating our students to be bonsai…professors (diminutive replicas of ourselves)” (172). That phrase—“bonsai professors”—sums up all that I was thinking about writing in the disciplines of the humanities and writing in the workplace. It seems viewing the humanities through the lens of its disciplinary writing points to few career options outside of academia. “Writing in the disciplines” of the humanities translates to “writing in the academy.” Yet the writing in the other metagenres clearly points to a defined professional practice.

Daniel Ding, in “A Study of Four Engineering Documents,” observes that in contrast to scientists, who frequently produce reports on research that are published in scientific journals, “engineers do not usually publish as a career objective.” (298). This is a simple but profound observation. If publishing is not a career objective for most engineers, it follows that it should not receive focused attention in the education of engineers (and what we have read about the discipline of engineering suggests that it does not.) Similarly, unless a career in academia is the goal of students in the humanities, why should the primary genres humanities students write be such narrowly academic ones—unless the goal is to produce bonsai professors?

I realize that the value of writing in the humanities is to acculturate students into “a distinctive way of knowing that characterizes the discipline” (Carter 224), not just to teach students to write for a particular career. However Severino and Trachsel’s research, quoted in Rebecca Nowacek’s article “Why Is Being Interdisciplinary So Very Hard to Do?” questions whether this actually happens. They report that in a college of liberal arts and sciences, they “did not see disciplinary genres acculturating students to distinct patterns of thought” (388). The differences were found among individual teachers irrespective of disciplinary training. Consequently, I question why we should focus so intently on teaching disciplinary discourse—on producing “bonsai professors”—when this may not produce a distinctive way of thinking.