Does Writing Need a Curriculum?

A perennial complaint leveled against college graduates is that they enter the professional world without even rudimentary writing skills.

One program many colleges and universities employ to improve literacy is Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC). Unlike traditional freshman composition taught in the English department, WAC involves college faculty from many disciplines, who incorporate numerous writing assignments in the courses they teach throughout the four-year experience of undergraduates. Colleges and universities from Penn State to M.I.T. to UNC-Chapel Hill use a form of the program today.

But there is limited evidence of the program’s success or effectiveness. First, there is no uniform test to evaluate how well graduates of WAC programs write—nothing like a discipline-specific examination in which professors can evaluate how a student’s knowledge has improved over time. Second, the program means “different things on different campuses,” according to WAC expert Charles Bauzerman and his colleagues. Each school with a WAC program tends to implement it differently.

Speaking not for attribution, one professor called WAC “a confusing and conflicted field of composition, and I totally understand why you’re having problems trying to define it from the outside.”

Writing Across the Curriculum got its start in the 1970s, amid growing concern that undergraduate students weren’t developing sufficient writing skills. Higher education had become more specialized and compartmentalized, and some felt that the writing skills taught in freshman composition weren’t suited to the needs of specific disciplines as students moved into their major fields. Also, increased pressures from the private sector for better professional skills helped build momentum for addressing this “Crisis in the English Department,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education labeled it in a 1974 article.

At about the same time, some theorists were beginning to view writing as a way of teaching students to think about ideas. Judith Langer, chair of the Educational Theory and Practice Department at SUNY-Albany, wrote in Writing, Teaching, and Learning in the Disciplines (1992) that “the overwhelming focus of instruction” in specialized classes was on “course content,” while the “ways to think about” the content were “neglected.” Similarly, Virginia Cooke wrote in a 1991 handbook on WAC that writing enables students to “see patterns, connect ideas, make meanings—in other words, learn.”

English departments began searching for a new pedagogical approach—one that would expand the discipline of composition and meet the demands of potential employers. One program that had emerged in the 1960s was Writing Across the Curriculum, initiated by the work of James Britton, James Kinneavy, Edward P.J. Corbett, and others. They argued that “learning to write” is strongly linked to “writing to learn.” That is, students learn to write by continually preparing arguments and writing papers about the content of the course. The theory gained momentum as professors such as Barbara Walvoord, professor emerita of Notre Dame, became proponents of the theory.

In its practical form, Writing Across the Curriculum appears to be grounded in three major presumptions: 1.) Writing is a process. WAC creators believe that writing cannot be limited to first-year courses but should be taught in every class and by nearly every professor. Students themselves will discover how to write over time simply by writing a great deal. 2.) Writing improves learning. Writing, it is thought, can be an effective vehicle for content retention and analytical thinking. 3.) Each discipline has specific, even unique, conventions. WAC can expose students to the characteristics of writing within that discipline, including its style, syntax, structure, audience, etc.

Beyond these tenets, WAC programs vary tremendously among colleges and within colleges, departments and programs, and professors and instructors. Some schools employ writing centers and/or labs. Others use faculty development offices to assist faculty with writing assignment design, assessment strategies, and other topics. Others emphasize writing-intensive courses in various disciplines—examining subjects ranging from ancient rhetoric to gender identity.

But Writing Across the Curriculum is falling out of favor in some circles.

One reason is that it requires full faculty participation to succeed. Yet most faculty “want to focus on the content of their own discipline,” says Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University. He adds that many find it burdensome to grade papers on the basis of writing quality rather than the content that they have taught. Furthermore, some faculty don’t have much respect for writing instruction, he said. Nancy Sommers, director of expository writing at Harvard University, seconded this sentiment in a 2003 interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “There’s this image that [writing instruction] is janitorial cleanup or service work.”

Instead, some colleges and universities are turning to a select group of writing-intensive courses. This new approach is different because writing instruction is the specific focus of the course rather than an ancillary aim. Professors from various disciplines provide students instruction in writing and also expose them to writing in the particular field from where they came. Also, the courses are often centered in more traditional subjects like biology or history.

Duke University is one such school. In addition to a first-year composition course, all students at Duke take two writing intensive courses. These are taught by a trained writing instructor—typically a tenured faculty member who chooses to teach a writing-intensive course in his or her discipline. That faculty member applies to be a writing instructor, and if accepted, constructs a course, which is reviewed by faculty. The Thompson Writing Program, as it’s called, also teaches students specific conventions of that field.

City University of New York (CUNY) now requires freshmen to take the topic-specific Freshman Inquiry Writing Seminar. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, students in this six-credit seminar spend half their time with a full-time faculty member of a specific topic and half their time with a writing instructor—often a graduate student. For example, one seminar is entitled “What Is a Gene?” Shylaja Akkaraju, a biology professor, teaches the topic, while Evelyn Reid, an English graduate student, teaches composition. The two collaborate on making and assessing assignments. Robert Melara, chair of CUNY’s psychology department and head of the seminar oversight committee says that, so far, data suggest the program is improving student writing. Steve Horwitz wrote about a similar program at St. Lawrence University in this Clarion Call.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has implemented an intensive writing program that also combines discipline-specific faculty with writing specialists. In a required first-year course, “Critical and Analytical Thinking,” students write papers that construct arguments. The content and logic are evaluated by the professor and the writing by writing advisers.

JD Schramm, senior lecturer and head of the communications program at Stanford, explained in an interview that each section of the course uses a team of professional writing coaches. They serve as advisers to the students while a tenured faculty member teaches each course. Advisers are paid a flat fee; they typically have other jobs and most live locally. “We have seen an increase in writing sophistication and quality from students,” said Schramm.

The capacity of undergraduates to write upon leaving college has been an issue for not decades, but centuries. While Writing Across the Curriculum attempts to address the complexities of writing, it is far from clear that it has improved students’ writing skills. Perhaps a new generation of writing programs—relying on both faculty in specific disciplines and specialists in writing—will have greater success.