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.