Why You Should Be Writing Across the Curriculum in College

As writing continues to rank as one of the high-priority skills employers are looking for in new graduates, colleges should be doing more to help students become stronger writers and critical thinkers. Are they?

In a word: yes.

Beyond the required first-year composition courses that all institutions of higher education are required to offer for accreditation, more schools are implementing Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs to help students learn about the practices of their professional communities through writing.

The first WAC programs were established during the 1970s, led by Carleton College and Michigan Tech, among others. Since then, more than half of all U.S. colleges and universities have implemented WAC programs, and the movement continues to grow. In Fall 2015, Emory University was the latest institution to adopt the framework, requiring students to take general education requirements with more substantial writing requirements, and providing resources for faculty to better understand writing instruction within the disciplines.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), sometimes also called Writing in the Disciplines (WID), programs are becoming the gold standard for teaching advanced writing, according to the National Census of Writing database, which found that about half of four-year colleges offer a WAC program or writing requirements for students in every major.

WAC programs were developed to address the fact that alumni of particular schools reported feeling unsatisfied with their writing experiences in college and under prepared for the writing required of them in their professional fields, as well as based on studies that revealed students demonstrated no improvement in their writing between the first and last year of college.

The WAC Philosophy

According to the Statement of WAC Principles and Practices published by Colorado State University, students learn through writing, especially in low-stakes writing assignments that give them the chance to experiment with new knowledge without having to worry about grammatical correctness. Summarizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating through writing all help students become stronger thinkers while also supporting their understanding of new ideas and information.

When students practice these approaches — low-stakes writing and writing to learn — within their disciplines, they benefit from working through the content they’re learning alongside the writing skills they need to communicate content to different audiences effectively. Instead of ending writing instruction with first-year composition, WAC philosophy maintains that writing is not a skill to be checked off a list; rather, writing is the predominant form of communication and therefore needs to be taught on an ongoing basis throughout college. WAC philosophy also maintains that faculty in the respective disciplines are most qualified to share their professional communities’ communication practices. To enable faculty members to bring more writing into their classrooms (or labs, or seminar rooms), WAC programs provide workshops, consultations, and other professional development opportunities.

WAC Programs

Strong WAC programs exist at a variety of institutions. Renowned schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford have top-tier writing programs, as do large state schools like Auburn University, University of California-Davis, and Iowa State University, and small liberal arts schools like Elon University, Bard College, and Carleton College.

These institutions are among those that foster a “culture of writing,” wherein writing is valued at all stages of a student’s development. The programs at these schools pioneer new ways of encouraging student writing, with comprehensive portfolio development and writing programs (as at Washington State University) as well as writing-intensive courses specific to disciplines within each major and opportunities for undergraduate research and publication (as at George Mason University). All of these resources provide occasions for students to practice writing in the style of their future profession, and to cultivate their professional (written) identities.

WAC Problems

Of course, WAC programs and other advanced writing requirements are not without their controversies and difficulties. It’s generally accepted that students benefit from more writing instruction than less, but colleges and universities may struggle to hire faculty with training in the instruction of writing in addition to subject expertise. Most graduate programs outside of English do not offer courses in teaching writing; the tacit — and problematic — assumption is that if someone is an expert, then that person outght to be able to teach disciplinary writing practices, as well.

Unfortunately, not all faculty know how best to communicate good writing practices to their students. Feedback to students may then rely upon a great deal of grammar correction rather than content development (a practice shown to be ineffective for multilingual students and native English writers alike), with an eye toward fixing errors rather than supporting revisions of the argument, research, or engagement with sources.

Furthermore, while there is a growing demand for university instructors, with “employment of postsecondary teachers ... projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “many jobs are expected to be for part-time or adjunct faculty.” For these faculty, teaching loads are higher with less compensation, and — sadly — there are few incentives to spend extensive amounts of time giving feedback. As a result, students may have greater difficulty understanding how to improve their writing, which is the goal of providing feedback in the first place. In advanced writing courses taught by disciplinary faculty, students can benefit from having conversations with the instructor both before and after a paper has been submitted, when it’s easier to get content-level feedback without focusing on grammatical errors.

WAC Solutions

To get the most out of a WAC-infused writing program, it’s advisable to take coursework in the necessary order — even if a college’s registration system doesn’t have prerequisites. Most WAC programs are built upon the expectation that students will continue to grow as writers from their first writing course in college until their last, when they are preparing to join their profession. In universities that offer what is known as a vertical writing curriculum, in which students are expected to build skills over a series of sequenced writing classes, instructors may expect that students have a particular foundation in writing before starting each subsequent course.

Taking courses out of sequence can lead to serious frustrations for students and their instructors. How can an instructor in an advanced course best respond to a student who never learned basic research skills? How can a student who completes an advanced writing course in the major go back to complete an introductory analytical writing course? Taking courses in order is important to get the most out of a WAC-informed writing curriculum, even for students who have substantial writing preparation.

Even with these potential difficulties, a robust writing education has the potential to have an enormous impact on students’ communication development. With a growing emphasis on writing skills in professional contexts, attending a college or university with Writing Across the Curriculum or disciplinary writing requirements beyond the first year is certainly to any student’s benefit. Not only will advanced writing courses help students learn the content taught in their disciplines, but these classes will also help them think and write about their discipline convincingly and well — and ultimately, make them competitive candidates in the workforce.

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