Writing Across the Curriculum: A Review of the Literature

Writing Across the Curriculum: A Review of the Literature

Writing Across the Curriculum: A Review of Literature

Beth Kemper

A Short History of WAC

After years of studying the classroom behavior and writing development of 11-18-year olds, James Britton and his fellow researchers at the University of London found that most classrooms fostered a teacher-centered environment, one in which students rarely wrote or even spoke except in a truncated version of question and answer, a kind of "fill in the blank."  Britton and his team hoped to initiate a pedagogical movement that would transform the typical classroom and would promote an environment in which writing serves as a means for students to explore alternatives and to engage in the process of knowledge formation.  In the early 1970s, Britton coined the phrase "writing across the curriculum" to promote to educators this language-driven, student-centered approach to learning and understanding (Stock 98-99).

            In the United States, WAC increased in popularity throughout the 1980s (Harris and Schaible 31), in part as a response to the literacy crisis highlighted in Newsweek's 1975 article "Why Johnny Can't Write."  By 1988, nearly 50% of all institutions of higher education had WAC programs (McLeod, "Writing" 1).  Today WAC flourishes at colleges and universities as the movement responds to the current emphasis on student learning outcomes assessment, as evidenced in Kathleen Blake Yancy and Brian Huot's Assessing Writing Across the Curriculum (1997), Susan McLeod, et. al.'s WAC for the New Millennium (2001), and Richard Haswell's Beyond Outcomes: Assessment and Instruction Within a University Writing Program (2001) (Rutz, Hardy, and Condon 8).

The Theoretical Foundations of WAC

The WAC movement rests on certain assumptions about how we come to know: is knowledge merely the acquisition of facts, as the "fill in the blank" classroom environment that Britton witnessed would suggest?  If so, then learning is the efficient transferal of facts from teacher to student in a teacher-centered, lecture-driven classroom.  The WAC movement, however, rejects this passive orientation in favor of models that highlight active learning, a process of discovery, and a student-centered classroom.

            One of these models is the “expressive” approach, in which the learner-writer does not merely reflect objective facts but filters them through his or her unique perception.  Writing, in this model, is a working platform for exploring perceptions, and writing techniques like freewriting and journaling are seen as clarifying the student’s understanding.  The writer/learner is an active participant in the discovery of knowledge.  This emphasis informs the "writing to learn" approach in WAC scholarship. Proponents of this expressive model include Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, and Peter Elbow.

            As the diagram below indicates, the transactional model occupies the middle ground between the objective and expressive models.

                                                   Transactional Model

 Objectivist Model                                                                         Expressive Model

            In this learning model, knowledge is seen as a social construct.  Writing is a meeting ground for negotiating various perspectives and reaching consensus.  The text is a vehicle for this "transaction" between writer and reader, through which knowledge is agreed upon.  Thus, WAC programs informed by the “writing-to-communicate” model emphasize disciplinary conventions, audience awareness, collaborative learning, and rhetorical development.1

            Although Judith Halden-Sullivan calls writing to learn and writing to communicate "a dichotomy that [has] divided WAC's concerns since its inception," she argues for a reconciliation of the two (25).  Susan McLeod explains that the expressive and transactional theories upon which most WAC programs are based "are not mutually exclusive but complementary" ("Writing" 2), and Anne Walker calls them the "virtuous circle" (Sorenson). 

From Theory to Best Practice 

Some of the earliest and most successful WAC programs emphasized expressive writing—which had often been ignored in classrooms before—as vital both to learning and, ultimately, to transactional writing.  Toby Fulwiler founded one such initiative at Michigan Technological University.  MTU's program rests on the premise that "language must be employed in classrooms as a tool for discovery, an aid to learning, not merely as an instrument for reporting" (Freisinger 4).  Language is not merely a means of expressing what has been learned but is integral to the process of learning.

            Programs with a write-to-learn emphasis rest on the following assumptions regarding the functions of expressive and transactional writing and how they engage students in learning:

1. Writing promotes academic engagement.
2. Writing to learn engages students in a process of discovery that enhances their command and ownership of what they have learned.
3. Writing to communicate further clarifies what has been learned and is itself a complex, recursive process that benefits when the writer engages in interactions with the teacher and with peers.

            When translated to classroom practice, these assumptions reinforce the seven principles of good practice outlined by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson.  Effective instructional practice

·         encourages contact between students and faculty;

·         develops reciprocity and cooperation among students;

·         encourages active learning;

·         provides prompt feedback;

·         emphasizes time on task;

·         communicates high expectations; and

·         respects diverse talents and ways of learning. (3-7)

            The "fill in the blank" passivity of the teacher-centered lecture classroom defies most of these principles of good practice, principles that WAC promotes.  By engaging students through a variety of writing tasks, teachers can incorporate each of these principles into their classrooms. As McLeod explains, WAC programs advocate writing as a catalyst for change in the classroom.  They "are not additive but transformative" ("Writing" 2): they strive to modify how teachers view the place, purpose, and practice of writing in the classroom. 

            The assumptions that underlie write-to-learn programs translate to good practice in myriad ways: the section that follows explores some of these.

            1.  Writing Promotes Academic Engagement.  Charles R. Greenwood, Betty T. Horton, and Cheryl A. Utley define academic engagement as "a composite of specific classroom behaviors: writing, participating in tasks, reading aloud, reading silently, talking about academics, and asking and answering questions."  One way in which writing enhances academic engagement is obvious: as Fulwiler explains, "It is hard to daydream, doze off, or fidget while one writes." Moreover, students who are writing are more likely to interact with the teacher and with one another because writing promotes other forms of engagement such as reading, discussing, questioning, etc. as the learner gets the subject matter "right with the self," a phrase James Britton uses to describe an "essential part of the writing process" (28), the learner's connection with what he or she has learned.  As one student put it, "When you are not writing papers in a course, you take more of a tourist's view of a subject, because you don't have to think in-depth about any of the material" (Riley 34).

            Research supports a strong correlation between writing and academic engagement.  After a Harvard study of 365 undergraduates, Richard J. Light recently found the "stunning" impact of writing on engagement: "The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students' level of engagement—whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students' level of interest in it—is stronger than the relationship between students' engagement and any other course characteristic" (28-29). 

            Teachers who recognize the link between writing, academic engagement, and learning will find opportunities for a variety of writing tasks, thus infusing their courses with the principles of good practice. 

            2.  Writing to learn engages students in a process of discovery that enhances their command and ownership of what they have learned.  In the traditional lecture classroom, the most common form of in-class writing, note-taking, involves a relatively passive act of transferal of information from the professor to the student.  Expressive writing, on the other hand, actively engages students in the process of learning and thus improves their understanding of what they have learned.  A number of studies indicate that students in writing-intensive programs improve their mastery of subject matter (Edgington). 

            Based on such findings, educators can employ strategies to use writing as a means of discovering and "owning" knowledge.  Journal writing, for example, engages students with class content and provides them with a place to explore and experiment, to question and challenge.  Fulwiler suggests beginning a class with a journal response to a question related to that day's topic, or ending a class by having students react to what they have learned.  If students appear disengaged during a class, a journal write can refocus their attention on the subject.  Journals aid in problem solving "since the act of writing out the problem is, itself, a clarifying experience."  They also provide professors with a means of gauging students' mastery of the material, concerns about the course, etc.  Moreover, journal writing is a technique that transfers well to learning in all disciplines ("Personal" 16-23). 

            For example, Tamar Levine and Zehava Geldman-Caspar report that in the sciences, journals and other forms of informal student writing serve two objectives: "(a) to encourage a shift in the focus of science learning—away from memorizing facts and toward helping students understand the relationships between ideas—and (b) to alter the perception of writing as a vehicle for 'knowledge telling' to a medium for the expression of innovative and interesting ideas and as a means of helping students make connections."  Rather than functioning merely as a means of "knowledge telling," writing in the sciences—and in all disciplines—can act as a source of "knowledge making," of giving learners a sense of ownership of what they have learned, and of "knowledge using," of integrating, associating, and building on what they have learned.

            While expressive writing is valuable for its own sake as a means of achieving this sense of ownership of knowledge, it also serves as the earliest stage of the transactional writing process.  Ken Macrorie refers to the journals in which students practice expressive writing as the "seedbeds" for audience-focused writing (158).  As students gain a command of what they have discovered, they may begin early drafts of a piece of writing.   

            Teachers who offer students opportunities for expressive writing integrate the principles of good practice into their classrooms in several ways.  According to Fulwiler, one purpose of journals is to release students to write in their own voices and to exercise their imaginations.  Thus, they personalize their connection with the subject matter—getting it "right with the self."  By giving the student the freedom to connect with the course content as he or she chooses, the teacher communicates respect for the student's unique ways of learning.

            3. Writing to communicate further clarifies what has been learned and is itself a complex, recursive process that benefits when the writer engages in interaction with the teacher and with peers.  Educators who accept this premise will not ignore the process that leads to the final product.  They acknowledge that the process is, as Freisinger puts it, "messy" (7); thus, they offer writers guidance throughout it.  Toby Fulwiler and Robert Jones outline ten steps in a writing process—although they stress that the steps are not "sequential and orderly": 

·define a purpose for the writing;
define one's audience;
choose an idea;
focus and develop the idea;
phrase the idea;
order and restructure the idea;
get feedback from peers, which often leads one to
rewrite or revise the idea;
edit; and

            As Fulwiler and Jones note, "Teachers aware of the composing process use this knowledge in making, intervening in, and evaluating writing assignments" (49).  Teachers whose practice is informed by studies of the composing process2 will offer opportunities and guidance for prewriting, a stage which Erika Lindemann says teachers too often "slight" (26).  Teachers can further engage students in the composing process by enhancing their knowledge and comprehension of the topic through readings and discussions, guest speakers, field trips, etc.; by guiding prewriting exercises such as brainstorming, clustering, freewriting, journaling, and the use of heuristics for generating or developing ideas; by applying problem-solving strategies to writing tasks (Berkentotter 33-44); and by offering opportunities for peer and/or teacher response to drafts for revision.  Peter Schiff suggests that instructors prepare "critique sheets" to guide students as they respond to one another's writing, and he explains time-saving strategies for professor-student conferences (153-165)—an invaluable form of teacher-student contact and a means of providing students with immediate feedback. 

            As teachers steer students through the composing process, they must also direct them toward participation in an unfamiliar world of discourse.  Most students have a vague understanding of audience and of the conventions of academic writing within various disciplines.  Though many students will not pursue careers in academia, this understanding of how audience expectations dictate a writer's choices will transfer to any writing they do in their professions because they will learn how to adapt their writing to their audience (Linton, Madigan, and Johnson 65).  To help students understand how audience awareness shapes writing, Jack Jobst recommends several strategies, including having students complete a questionnaire that demonstrates to them what they already know about audience—for example, that a letter to the editor is written differently than one to a relative, or that a school newspaper article is written differently than a book review for English class (60-61).  To extend this basic awareness of audience, Patricia Linton, Robert Madigan, and Susan Johnson argue that beginning with freshman composition professors can teach how context shapes a piece of writing by analyzing writing from different disciplines.  For example, professors could provide examples to illustrate that opening a literary essay with an anecdote or quotation can be effective, but opening an empirical report in the same way would be unconventional and distracting (64-67).  Moreover, professors in discipline-specific courses can highlight the conventions of writing within their fields as students complete their course readings.

            Teachers who guide the composing process apply many of the principles of good practice.  By showing students how to participate in academic discourse—how to add their voices to the conversations in that unfamiliar world—professors communicate high expectations for student achievement.  If professors foster a supportive, student- centered learning environment, they also communicate their assurance that students can meet those expectations.  Teachers can support such an environment by providing ample opportunities for faculty-student interaction and peer collaboration—both forms of active learning.  Conferences allow teachers to give a student immediate feedback and to communicate the utmost respect for him or her as an individual with unique talents and learning needs. 

How Successful WAC Programs Promote Best Practice

Clearly, WAC programs that advocate writing to learn promote good practice across the disciplines; thus, as Randall Freisinger emphasizes, all educators should incorporate writing into their classrooms (11).  However, Karen Spear notes that in some programs, ". . . resistance [to WAC] began to surface because faculty felt they were being asked— inappropriately and unfairly—to shoulder the burden of the English Department."  One challenge for WAC programs is to combat this perception.  If faculty accept that writing is central to learning and academic engagement and that writing is a complex process nurtured by guidance, then they cannot accept that teaching writing is the responsibility of the English Department alone or that freshman composition can entirely address students' writing needs.  Moreover, promoting writing across the curriculum is essential not only because of the reciprocal relationship between writing, engagement, and learning, but also because a successful WAC program can permeate a university with the principles of good practice. 

            How, then, does an institution develop a program that succeeds in promoting best practice in connecting writing, engagement, and learning in classrooms across the curriculum—from Math 111 to History 131 to Chemistry 111?

           Since WAC is dedicated to student learning outcomes, it must also be dedicated to certain faculty outcomes—in particular, to nurturing a sense of faculty ownership of the program and to promoting faculty development related to the program.  If WAC is to transform students' learning experiences, it must first transform the faculty's perception of how to initiate those experiences through writing.  One goal of WAC is student learning through engagement, but program administrators must remember that that goal requires what the WAC program at the University of Vermont calls "an engaged faculty" (Fulwiler and Young, Programs 46).

            Because WAC seeks to transform day-to-day classroom practice, WAC scholarship insists that successful programs must foster a sense of faculty ownership.  Education historian Larry Cuban calls WAC a "grassroots" movement that is unique "in that it seeks changes not only in the curriculum but also in pedagogy—in other words, it doesn't divorce content from teaching."  Thus, WAC programs like that at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst succeed because they are "faculty-initiated and faculty-run . . .  The specific components have not been imposed by administrators nor imported from elsewhere: the program arose as a particular academic community's attempt to address a perceived curricular problem.  Its continued success depends on the support and active participation of that community" (Fulwiler and Young, Programs 218).  

            Of course, a WAC program must also garner administrative support to succeed, but WAC programs that lose faculty support necessarily fail.  WAC was initially a faculty-driven movement, what Deborah Holdstein calls "a bottom-up phenomenon, with faculty initiating and sustaining quality efforts," but as WAC programs became more institutionalized, "By 1990 . . . leaders in the movement recognized and attempted to address . . . WAC's becoming a top-down phenomenon."  These "top-down" programs, in which faculty needs and concerns may not be heard, too often fall victim to what Eric V. Martin refers to as the "lip-service paradox": institutions may "make grand philosophical and/or budgetary commitments to WAC but then either forget or ignore the day-to-day challenges of helping students improve their writing."  Although the role of administrators in effective WAC programs is "crucial," according to Jonathon Monroe that role must not overshadow faculty ownership: "the most effective . . . administrators have understood [that] implementation of a WID-based 3 approach depends first and foremost on ongoing campus-wide faculty commitment and dialogue." 

            For a WAC program to succeed, WAC must be implemented in most classrooms across campus, a goal that challenges many faculty to rethink their classroom practice.  As Kate Ronald explains, "'Integrating writing' into the curriculum, for some professors, means attending more consciously to what they already do; for others, it requires a sea change in their conceptions of their courses and of themselves as teachers." 

            Because the impetus for this reform in classroom practice must come from the faculty, the "faculty-dialogue" model is the most successful way to initiate a WAC program. Barbara E. Walvoord explains that this model has the following characteristics:

·         Initiators move as quickly as possible to include, in a workshop setting that encourages dialogue, a range of faculty colleagues from various disciplines . . . [who] have a chance to shape and to own the program from the beginning . . . 

·         The dialogue starts from needs and concerns that the faculty perceives and to which the faculty is willing to dedicate time and effort.

·         Initiators, even if they have training in rhetoric or in English literature, do not view themselves as the only "experts" or as the teachers of the group but as colleagues in a mutual exchange, where everyone learns and everyone contributes.

·         Changes in such areas as curriculum, school-wide assessment, and writing centers arise from the dialogue. . . .

·         Administrators enter as participants in the dialogue, with their own kinds of insight. 

·         They also function as facilitators and as providers [of] resources for the program. They should not be seen as dictators who select WAC participants or decide the features of the program. (10-11)

            Walvoord advocates the faculty-dialogue model and warns against the "training," "conversion" and "problem-solving" models.  Both the "training" and "conversion" models condescend to faculty: the one implies that they are "untrained," the other that they are unversed in the "Right Way."  The problem-solution approach suggests that WAC is merely a "fix" for a particular problem rather than an ongoing educational initiative (11).  Through the faculty-dialogue model, WAC programs can achieve what the other models intend—to prepare and inspire faculty to participate in WAC and to enhance student learning through it—without alienating them.

            A natural extension of the faculty-dialogue model is what Margaret Soven calls the "mainstay" of WAC programs, faculty development workshops (13).  Joyce Neff Magnotto and Barbara R. Stout call faculty workshops a "critical ingredient" in WAC programs "Because the workshop dynamic models WAC values, encourages reflexive pedagogy, and fosters faculty dialogue" (23).  The goal of faculty development workshops sponsored through a WAC program is not to criticize or instruct "unenlightened" colleagues. Karen Wiley Sandler describes the "annoyance" she first felt when Toby Fulwiler invited her to a workshop.  Perhaps, she thought, he did not realize that she already taught writing, but he asked her to attend "with such a spirit of sharing and collegiality" that she agreed.  She found that Fulwiler did not approach the participants with "missionary zeal"; rather, he fostered an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration in a community of educators who shared common experiences, concerns, and goals (35-36).  In his assessment of the WAC program at the University of Vermont, Fulwiler contends that "the single most important dimension of our [workshops] was, in fact, faculty community and collegiality" ("Evaluating" 65).  In this environment, faculty are encouraged to share insights about their current practice and to consider measures to improve their classroom strategies.  This environment of pedagogical support and cooperation is essential to the success of WAC programs and to the promotion of their student learning aims, as decades of research and practice in WAC have proven.

End Notes

          1 For further discussion of objectivist, expressive (or subjective or phenomenological), and transactional pedagogical philosophies and inquiry paradigms, see James A. Berlin, Rhetoric  and Reality:  Writing Instruction in American Institutions, 1900-1985, James Britton, et al. The Development of Writing Abilities, (11-18), and Janet Emig, "Inquiry Paradigms and Writing." 

               2 Such studies include, among others, Britton's The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18) and John R. Hayes and Linda S. Flower, "Identifying the Organization of Writing Processes" and "The Dynamics of Composing: Making Plans and Juggling Constraints" in Cognitive Processes in Writing, edited by Lee W. Gregg and Erwin R. Steinberg.

               3 Monroe prefers the term “writing in the disciplines” to “writing across the curriculum.”

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