Writing is a complex activity, and writing researchers have long acknowledged that extensive practice in writing over time within a context that 1) allows for greater understanding of rhetorical conventions, 2) employs discipline-specific endeavors, and 3) invites extensive opportunities for generating and revising writing can offer success. TCU affirms and fosters its commitment to the import of writing as a mode of learning through the Core Curriculum in requiring two Writing Emphasis courses (WEM) as essential competencies for every student TCU. The competency for WEM courses states, “graduates will demonstrate the ability to use writing as a means for learning and communicating in a specific discipline.” Each WEM course seeks to meet one or more of the following outcomes:
- Students will demonstrate a working knowledge of the rhetorical conventions of the target discipline.
- Students will exhibit the ability to use writing as a means of gaining and expressing an understanding of discipline- specific content.
- Students will show the ability to employ writing strategies and rhetorical practices learned in lower division writing courses (i.e. Written Communication 1 and 2).
- Students will produce writing that demonstrates clarity and precision of thought.
The wide range of upper-level courses—190 sections were taught, for example, in over 40 subjects in fall 2015— provides students with opportunities to gain a foothold on the types of writing in particular fields, from accounting to nursing. And yet, because of writing’s complexity, writing instruction can be vexing, particularly when disciplinary training in fields outside of writing may not come with writing instruction themselves.
In fall of 2015, the Koehler Center hosted a workshop for faculty members who have proposed, taught, or were currently teaching a WEM course in their discipline. Over 20 faculty members participated in the workshop in which we discussed the important features of WEM courses as well as how to provide the best opportunities for student learning through writing in WEM courses. The workshop asked participants to reflect upon their goals in teaching a WEM course, and instructors discussed their desires and plans for students to produce writing within the conventions of the disciplines they hope to contribute to in the future. But how do we best design and foster a course to get the best results with student learning and writing?
Writing research confirms that the kind of feedback students receive is critical to the learning process, provided that students, of course, are equally invested in the process. During the workshop, I shared the results of a longitudinal study done within the past decade with 400 Harvard students about their insights on writing instruction they’ve received. Not surprisingly, they revealed that their best writing experiences included opportunities to 1) write about what matters to them and 2) engage with the instructor through feedback. Among their greatest frustrations? They wanted instructors to understand that they aren’t fully- formed writers in upper-level courses. The latter certainly matches writing research—and writers’ lived experiences— that suggests continued writing practice over time can lead to successful writing (think sports practice analogies rather than an end point of mastery). More significantly, 90 percent wanted more specific comments from faculty that are anchored to the specific text rather than vague directives (i.e.: awkward or unclear). In the best of circumstances, feedback “is a bridge to future writing assignments” and “is rooted in the partnership between student and teacher, and as in any relationship, it develops its own language and meaning” (Sommers 254-5).
As Sommers expressed, “Feedback doesn’t need to be monumental, but its influence often is” (255). Writing instruction, then, that focuses on the process across drafts, as students receive feedback and reconceive of how to satisfy conventions for a discipline-specific audience, allows instructors and students to be invested in the work and to affirm that writing is not merely transcribing thoughts onto a document but writing and thinking occurring recursively. For those who want to more fully integrate writing instruction into their courses, the workshop ended by generating ideas for assignment creation and enactment—such as structuring feedback and revision activities into a course—to work to achieve the greatest impact from the inclusion of writing.
Nancy Sommers, “Across the Drafts: Rethinking Nancy Sommers’s ‘Responding to Student Writing,’ 1982.” College Composition and Communication: 58.2 (December 2006): 246-66.