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.