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.