Friday, January 16, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Teaching Writing in the Social Sciences

A new correspondent writes:

I have a question to ask you and your "wise and worldly readers."  :)  I'm a PhD candidate in an evergreen social science, and I just taught for the first time last semester.  While I loved many things about teaching, the biggest surprise for me was how much I loved teaching writing.  I loved marking student papers, trying to teach them about how to structure an argument, working with them on how to craft a better piece of writing and thinking.  

I know most writing is taught in English Comp classes, which I'm obviously not properly placed, disciplinarily, to teach.  But, at different sorts of schools, what opportunities are there for social scientists to teach writing?  I know the elite SLAC my wife attended had "writing-intensive" courses across the disciplines; how common are those?  Is wanting to teach writing an asset in the job market?  How might I position myself (beyond saying "I love teaching writing!" in a cover letter) to show this interest? 

I'm pretty sure there's a law against social scientists teaching anybody how to write. I once had an article rejected because the reviewer found my prose too “breezy.” Compared to most of what gets published in my field, he had a point: you could actually discern my argument without Advil. If we started saying clearly what we meant, well, then how would we intimidate anybody?

Okay, now that I've cleared my throat...

Some colleges still have “Writing Across the Curriculum” programs, in which departments outside of English designate a couple of courses (or sections) as “writing-intensive, ” with assignments that are explicitly about both process and result. For example, a particular section of Intro to Sociology would use sociology as the fodder for what amounted to a writing class.

The WAC movement waned, I think, because it tried to do too much with too little. Faculty in the disciplines resisted the extra grading and the barrage of criticism from English departments that they were doing it wrong. English departments resisted it on the grounds that the departments were doing it wrong, and if they weren't doing it wrong, what was the expertise of the English department? Having tried to do this sort of thing myself in my teaching days, I can attest that teaching both process and content at the same time is harder than teaching either alone. When all that extra work comes with student complaints and no new resources, it's easy to predict the outcome.

That said, the WAC movement has held on in some places, and you'd be a natural candidate to pick up those sections that nobody else wants.

You also might want to look for schools with interdisciplinary freshman seminars. Most of the time, that means small liberal arts colleges. (Cc's usually don't do interdisciplinary freshman seminars, since they tend not to transfer cleanly.)

Less obviously, you might want to try your hand at teaching online. Since online teaching necessarily involves a great deal of written communication, you could ply your dual trades there and get credit on the hiring side for being ready to jump in wherever you're needed. At many teaching-oriented places, the candidate who is comfortable teaching both in class and online has an edge over the candidate who can only do one or the other.

At the interview stage, when the discussion turns to teaching, I'd recommend discussing the ways you structure some of your student assignments. At interviews for positions at teaching-intensive colleges, most candidates (not all, admittedly) are savvy enough to say that they like teaching. You can set yourself apart by actually showing it. Do you require students to turn in drafts of papers? Do you have them turn in separate narratives describing how they did what they did? (This works pretty well as a plagiarism deterrent, btw.) How, exactly, do you give feedback that manages to be neither too prescriptive nor too demoralizing? Thoughtful discussion of points like these are relatively rare (cough) on the social science side of the house.

Some will discount your interest as irrelevant, and some will probably view it as prima facie evidence that you aren't a hardcore social scientist. But some of us think that helping students learn to make arguments, clearly, with evidence, about actual goings-on in the world, is actually a good thing. It's a minority view, but a good one.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any hints you could offer would be appreciated.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

As a university communications officer who regularly 'translates' social scientific and scientific work for the general public, your 'throat clearing' comment and its preamble had me and my staff falling out of our chairs laughing.
23 yr tenured sociology prof here -- one ALWAYS teaches writing. In fact, I probably often give more writing feedback on papers than sociology, given the grammar knowledge of my students. Do they love that? Um, no, but on the other hand, I get more "post-graduation" notes about how they appreciate that I taught them grammar and how to write than about the sociology. So it is a part of EVERY social science job -- or it better be, in my opinion!
DD's recommendation about looking for LACs with inter-disciplinary first-year programs/seminars was spot on. Given that you love to teach writing, a program like that would be a natural. Many places with such programs also provide peer-to-peer faculty workshops with writing faculty that will take your natural inclinations and give you some good tools to do that work better.

Use your newfound desire to your advantage in the job market and look for LACs with those sorts of programs. Speaking as someone who ran one, any job candidate who wanted to teach writing in her discipline and work in an FYP went right to the top of the list.
MIT has communication-intensive classes, which replaced writing-intensive classes.
Get in touch with your campus's writing folks, too, while you're a grad student, and actually study some comp theory to learn what works, and get additional strategies!
I strongly believe that in order to become good writers, students need to be writing in all their classes, not just in English, and unfortunately I think the number of non-English instructors who assign a significant amount of writing is very low, so just by focusing on writing in a social science class, you are already doing a lot of good. It would be great if you found a way to teach writing more formally, but to be honest, it sounds to me like what you are doing now is already great.
According to my understanding, the WAC movement hasn't actually waned, though it has at most universities changed from what DD describes. Yes, many institutions realized that slapping a writing-intensive designator on certain classes or sections didn't effectively teach students to writing in the disciplines, but that doesn't mean that writing across the curriculum was abandoned. See _WAC for the New Millenium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs_, published by the NCTE, for more on how the WAC movement has grown and changed over the past 25 years.
Like Dr. Crazy says, I'm not sure WAC has waned. At my school we've replaced a designator system (for the reasons Dr. C mentions) with a WAC system where students take two writing courses from the English department, then an upper leve writing course in the major. The upper level course is designed more for major-specific writing styles than general grammar/structure issues, though.
I also recommend WAC for the New Millenium, if you want to read more about WAC today. The WAC clearinghouse is also a good website to check out.
At my college, WAC hasn't waned as much as morphed into more of a faculty development program. I teach in our English department and I co-chair the WAC committee with an economist. We run a colloquium for faculty across disciplines each year. In addition our WAC committee hosts brownbags, workshops, and outside speakers aimed at helping faculty across disciplines bring more writing into their classes. That said, we're the only community college in my geographical region who has managed to hang on to the release time and nominal funding for our program. To the original poster: when you're researching schools certainly find out if there's some sort of WAC or faculty development committee you can find, you may want to mention it during the interview process.
This may be a little out of left field, but I wonder if you could get a job in the English dept? At big R1s, English depts can struggle to fill their composition sections, or maybe you could teach comp at a local, smaller school or regional campus. It's not common, but it does happen that English depts hire grad students outside of English. When I was getting my PhD, I was one of those, and that experience has made a huge difference in the trajectory of my career--it validated what I might be doing in the classroom anyway and made it viable for me to teach in English depts, even though my degree is only tangentially related to English.
I'm in CC social sciences as well and I've used online resources to work writing into my classes. I run an online writing workshop every other semester or so. Students participate voluntarily and receive bonus points for working through elements of grammar, style, punctuation. It's a lot of fun but A LOT of work. And it really helps backup what the English Department is doing. Worked for me.
The University of Washington's Interdisciplinary Writing Program might be something to check out. It pairs disciplinary courses with a writing-intensive class. Most of the instructors for the writing courses come from English and rhetoric backgrounds, but I imagine a program like that would welcome someone from the social sciences:
At our community college we do have writing intensive courses in the women's studies classes. Solid articulation agreements mean they transfer pretty easily to specific universities.
Two notes - first, as an economics instructor I routinely include writing assignments in my courses - particularly the principles courses. And part of the grade of the essay or paper is attributed to writing, including grammar and spelling.

Also, here at Southern Oregon University, our required freshman seminar (all three quarters) is taught by a mixture of full-time "writing" instructors as well as faculty in other disciplines. So I get to do an economics/public policy themed seminar and help the frosh with their writing, analysis, and information literacy skills. Hard work!
The University of Minnesota has a great Center for Writing, and I highly recommend their website for all instructors looking for help in teaching writing across the curriculum.
I'm a grad student in a hard science department which has decided it will graduate no student who can't write or speak to an audience. Every major class has a significant paper (or poster)* and presentation. GE classes have shorter papers and presentations. Everybody writes and speaks.

*If you're not familiar with them, a good poster is MUCH harder to write text for than a good paper; space demands terseness in the extreme.
In order to achieve your goal of teaching writing in the social sciences, be sure to take a close look at the enrollment caps.

I teach philosophy and assign a lot of writing. I also have up to 50 studens per section and up to 5 sections per semester. Giving good feedback under those conditions is very difficult. Think about it this way, when 50 students turn in even a short (3-5 page) paper, the result is 150-250 pages of student writing to critique. That's just for one class -- now, multiply that by 5 and you get a headache.
I teach research methods and writing is a large part of it. My goal is to get students to understand how important it is to match the writing tone accepted by their target readers. Most research is written for other researchers, who want the facts and not the eloquence. Indeed, I encourage them not write in a breezy style, because it comes across as a mismatch to the reader, who is expecting a clinical and dry presentation, at least among APA journals, of theory, hypothesis, method, results, and discussion. Why? Because research is persuasion: The findings are not taken seriously if the presentation is informal. The reader starts to wonder how much rigor there was in a study set forth in casual and glib discourse. I tell my students that if they're writing a haiku or a limerick, then they must obey the format. Likewise, research journals expect a distance between the reader and the writer -- a distance damaged by being too chummy or breezy. If students want to be creative, then write something for another venue. If they want to persuade clinicians, then be clinical. On the other hand, I insist on active voice wherever possible and clarity over obfuscation. Again, think of the readers and what they expect. Finally, I demand that their writing pay heed to those little red and green underlinings in Microsoft Word, which usually point to some kind of problem. Lately I've been insisting on their using Google Docs, which makes the draft and comment process easier, as well as providing a great spell checker.
The only thing I'll add here is that there is a difference between "assigning" a lot of writing and "teaching" writing. In my experience, this is the difference between faculty who have the support of some sort of WAC/WID or related program and those who do not. Of course, as a composition and rhetoric specialist, I do have a particular bias here.
I'm always late to the game with your posts, because I just can't read every day.

Anyway, writing is a major piece of my courses, because...well, it just never occurred to me NOT to have the students writing in my courses (human services) -- beginning with my 101 intro course. Even the exams tend to be written, rather than true/false or multiple choice.

I try to combine formal and informal writing opportunities. I do grade partially on grammar and punctuation along with content, and I do edit student papers and provide feedback on the writing as well as the content. And yes, it's more work for me, but I couldn't not do it because in my field, I'd be doing the students an injustice as writing skills are crucial in the field. The students actually do understand why I include writing, and most are grateful for the help with their writing skills. Yes, they grumble while writing, but they thank me at the end of the semester.

WAC is strong on my campus/in our city system. Just last year, the college added a WI requirement for graduation. Students must take one designated WI course (other than English) to graduate, and that will soon go to a two-course requirement. The administration is committed to writing, and officially designated WI courses have a lower enrollment cap.

Now they are busy training faculty to include writing in their courses to keep up with the need for WI courses. In fact, I just took the required faculty development series so that I could teach 'officially designated' WI courses. We have to keep copies of our syllabi on file with the WAC office to demonstrate that the WI content is present.
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