Listen and Learn (from other Faculty)

Last summer, in preparation for beginning my job as the director of WAC at IUP, I read pretty much every book or article I could get my hands on that described how to start a WAC program.  If you read these materials, you will without a doubt come away with the following message: if you’re starting a program or even coming into an existing one, your first job is to listen and learn.  This is probably good advice for any job, but in this position, it’s crucial.  Universities have cultures and politics that surround most everything.  You’d think it would be easy enough to say, “Students need to write more.  Teach writing in all classes from now on if you want your students to get jobs.  Now go off!”  But, it’s surprisingly difficult to get support for such a mandate (or, really, any mandate).  And, it’s important to remember: things happen slowly at educational institutions, and no one is expecting (or wanting) you to jump in and start changing things! (I should really tape that statement to the top of my computer monitor)

So, if one wants to implement a program that will make a more coordinated effort at spreading writing across the curriculum, one really needs to understand the culture and politics.  And there’s no better way to do that than to listen and learn from the students and the faculty.

I began by sending out a survey to faculty asking their perceptions of the students’ writing, their own teaching of writing, and the university’s support for faculty and student writers.  At the same time, I sent out a survey to graduating seniors to find out how they perceived their education as writers throughout their career at the university.  The faculty survey ended with a request for an email address where they could be reached if they were willing to be interviewed (next year I will be doing focus groups with the students).

I selected one faculty member volunteer from as many departments as I had offers, then contacted them to set up appointments.  For the last few weeks, I have been meeting with these faculty members to discuss their teaching of writing in their discipline.   I learned a lot about the writing culture here at IUP.  But even more importantly, I have learned some things from this process that I think are good take-aways for anyone seeking to implement more writing in their courses in any discipline.

Reasons why faculty should talk to other faculty about how they teach writing:

1) Faculty love to talk about their teaching methods.  If you ask, they will tell you.  They’ll also admit when they’re not happy with the way they do something, when they feel an area of their teaching needs strengthened.  These challenging areas provide great opportunity for collaboration.  Maybe you can help this teacher address the challenge.  Maybe you’re helping just by listening to the teacher describe the challenge!

2) You will learn about how writing happens in other places in the university.  This is useful information.  It can be illuminating when you wonder to yourself, “Why are my students writing this way?” – well, it’s because in their major field of study, that’s what they’re taught to do.  Becoming aware of the genres and criteria for writing in other disciplines can help you to help your students gain rhetorical flexibility – the ability to move between genres in different disciplines for different audiences and purposes.

3) You will get some great ideas!  This is the obvious take-away.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had a conversation with another teacher that didn’t result in gaining at least one smidgen of an idea that I could use in my own classroom.  But knowing what’s happening outside of the classrooms in my own department is even more interesting.  Even though we all have complete academic freedom to do what we wish in our courses, within the department you begin to see repetition of the same ideas and materials.  Getting outside of your own department can bring a fresh perspective!

No one is arguing that helping students to write effectively is getting harder and harder.  But we do often argue about who’s responsible.  My advice – walk across the quad.  Talk to your colleagues in other fields.  If you have a more well-rounded picture of what writing looks like as a whole at your institution, you will be better prepared to help your students  see how writing in your class fits into that whole picture.

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