Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Making a Class Writing-Intensive

A returning correspondent writes:

I've been fortunate enough to be hired as a visiting instructor for one year at a small liberal-arts college, and I'm very excited to teach there. I will be teaching a class that I've taught several times before (basically an intro survey of my primary field of study), but the head of the department and I have agreed to make it a writing intensive class. This is throwing me for a loop.
I have checked in with the writing center, and so I know what is required to make the class qualify as writing intensive in terms of "x number of papers" and "peer review", etc. But I am worried about the logistics of 1.) carving out enough time from the substance of the class to accommodate the writing process, and 2.) how to guide my students to be better writers. Are there any pitfalls to avoid at all costs? Are there any secret paths to managing the work of being both a professor of my subject and a writing guru?  Do you (and your worldly and wise readers) have any advice on this subject?

I used to have these discussions all the time.  Proprietary U’s Gen Ed department was dominated by English professors, and they used to insist on the “process” approach to teaching writing which, they insisted, had to be done across the curriculum.  

That worked fine in composition courses, since all that process wasn’t competing with anything.  It even worked pretty well in “Debate” classes, which I thought of as essentially similar.  Since the course was about skills, rather than content, the process approach was a natural fit.

But when it came to my own discipline -- a social science -- making the intro class fit the parameters of a composition class didn’t leave much time for the actual social science.  

Back in the 90’s, when grunge bands ruled the earth and our biggest political worry was what to do with the budget surplus, “writing across the curriculum” briefly gained traction.  The idea was that it was unreasonable to expect one or two English composition classes to bring students to fluency on their own; they needed backup from other fields.  If students had to write papers in sociology and chemistry and business, the argument went, then they’d improve through repetition and they couldn’t shrug off criticism of poor writing with “this isn’t an English class!”  

The theory made sense, as far as it went, but it failed to account for the workload in the other disciplines.  Turning Psych 101 into English 101b didn’t leave much room for Psych.

The best answers I was able to find involved adaptation.  While it just wasn’t reasonable to assign as many papers in social science 101 as they did in composition -- class size alone made that impossible, let alone coverage of course material -- it still made sense to draw on the lessons of process instruction.  

A former professor of mine used to say that every teacher has to make a choice: you can cover, or you can uncover.  It’s overdrawn, obviously, but there’s something to it.  Given how little students remember of actual content when it’s simply “covered,” there’s an argument for picking a few of the most important things and focusing more intently on those.  Process can be a way to do that.

It takes some serious advance planning, but if you can design assignments so they build on each other, incorporating new information as they go, you’ve got something.  Having a series of mini-deadlines can help keep students on target, since it makes the inevitable procrastination that much harder.  (If nothing else, it at least reduces the stakes of procrastination.)  

I also carried over a few tricks.  For exams, I’d write six essay questions and hand them out a week in advance.  I’d tell them that four of them would appear on the test, and they could choose any two to answer.  That meant that they had to prepare for four of the six.  Then I let them bring in a single index card, no larger than 4 x 6, with anything handwritten on it that they wanted.  

They cackled, thinking they had found a loophole.  They’d bring in their index cards, chockablock with notes.  Then, as they were beavering away, a few of them would figure out what had just happened: I had tricked them into studying.  Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

(Admittedly, this was in the era before smartphones.)

The following week, I’d hand out copies of the single best essay (with the name removed), and would go over it briefly with the class, calling attention to what made it work.  Some of the weaker writers were shocked at how good it was, which had a salutary effect on their studying for the next exam.  

Out-of-class writing was much tougher, since plagiarism was rampant.  Some of it was painfully obvious, and would turn up with a quick Google search.  But some of it was the “my girlfriend wrote it for me,” which was harder to catch.  Multiple drafts could help, theoretically, but the girlfriend could always write multiple drafts.  Some level of in-class writing made a helpful plagiarism check.  If the kid who always turns in brilliant papers can’t write See Spot Run in class, you have a clue.

Of course, these are just a few first thoughts.  I’m certain that my wise and worldly readers have found other ways to square this particular circle, so I’ll just ask.  Wise and worldly readers, have you found good ways to incorporate intensive writing into classes in other disciplines?

Good luck!

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

"It takes some serious advance planning, but if you can design assignments so they build on each other, incorporating new information as they go, you’ve got something. Having a series of mini-deadlines can help keep students on target, since it makes the inevitable procrastination that much harder. (If nothing else, it at least reduces the stakes of procrastination.)"

I've been helping in a writing across the curriculum program at my university, and this was the first step to just adding writing to courses. I'd also add that class size makes as much of a difference as subject. If you're teaching a chem class with 100 students, you're not likely to work in much writing just for the time it would take grading.

In those cases, we worked the writing into the labs (which capped at about 20 students). For classes without labs, it's obviously much more difficult.
I'd suggest keeping the writing -- and your responses to and evaluations of it -- focused on the types of writing that are most often done and the skills that are most valued in your discipline.

That may both make you feel more comfortable in knowing you can identify when student writing misses the mark, and can help give the students confidence that they're doing the types of writing that they'd have to do more of if they continued in that field (rather that writing for the sake of writing).
I've made a math class into a writing intensive class...

The kind of skills that we'd need are solving problems, true, but also communicating why your solution to the proposed problem is appropriate to non-math folks who might have hired you as a brilliant consultant.

It's true that this does "cut down" the "content" of the course, but if you think of proficiency with your discipline as including more than just facts and algorithms, but also communicative competency, then you're changing the distribution of the content, not decreasing it.
A couple of thoughts...

DD's comment about covering and uncovering is apt here. If there is an over-riding/important concept in your intro course, use a written assignment to focus on it.

Then, also consider a writing assignment as part of a different approach to helping the students learn that/those concepts. Rather than a "sharing" lecture or two develop a discovery style exercise where they learn about the concept while attacking a written assignment.

I do this with my principles of economics courses. There is a small group project in the first half of the term that leads to a paper. Yes, it takes up some class time, but that topic is one I've decided is important, and the work they do in support of the paper is very effective at helping them understand the topic.

There's no alternative to taking more time grading and evaluating written products than other assessment techniques. I whine to myself when I sit down to read 45 papers on the economic recovery of Sudan, but I just remind myself that this is a better learning experience.
We have a requirement that students complete two "writing intensive" courses in order to graduate. One of those is fairly easy for business (my home) students, because we already required a course in business and professional writing, and it counts.

For the second one, we have relied on Our capstone course. We have assumed that there's less necessity of teaching the writing skills, allowing more time to be spent working on how to write effectively about the subject of the course. It's still been difficult for the instructors, who have had to focus somewhat more on the mechanics of writing and on the writing/re-writing process, but it's worked fairly well.
This is something we've tried to do, but although we have official support actual resources to do it have been lacking. Administration hasn't lowered our class sizes to allow for the extra marking — it's like our dean heard the department chair say "this is what we think we can do if we have these resources" and stopped listening after the word "do".
I've made both my intro courses "writing intensive" without the designation this semester, because of how poor my students' writing skills were last semester. (New institution for me.) Basically, they write a 2-page paper every 2 weeks, and after 3 of them, they revise all three and give me the revisions to be marked again. (They get graded on both versions, so it's not an "ungraded draft" situation.) When I return papers, I generally also distribute writing handouts or take a few minutes to talk about consistent grammar, style, or argumentative errors across the class.

This is time-intensive for me, as a grader, but it takes very little time away from the content of the course; I'd be assessing them regularly anyway, so having that all be in a very specific form of writing assignment that allows them to build and grow is not a bad thing.

I have seen improvement in the writing, and I've also seen students realize that writing is something they need to work at, which is not something they seem to have expected.
Please please please for the sake of your students, include the library wherever it is that you're teaching. They can help. They'd probably love to help. Go, email them, let them know what you're teaching and ask for suggestions and ideas. Ask if they'll do a session or two during your class on finding and evaluating sources. Ask if they have LibGuides and can help you set up one for your class.
Require a term paper.

That's what faculty did back in the Dark Ages, when I went to school by gaslight. Never once did I take an undergraduate course, including those in the hard sciences, anthropology, and languages, that did not require a research paper.

Writing is thinking. Writing is learning. Leave it out of your courses, and you rob your students of a key learning tool.
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