Crowd-sourcing Across the Curriculum

The fall semester is approaching, and as that happens, I like to write entirely new writing assignments, or at least considerably revise those I’ve used before.  Because most of my job is reading and responding to student writing, I don’t like to repeat assignments semester after semester, if it can be helped.  It just makes my job a lot more interesting if I get to read not just new voices from new students, but also see how new assignments work.

Something I did recently is crowd-source an assignment.  One type of writing I always assign is strictly informative – that is, students report information without judgment, analysis, or any argument.  This, I believe, is an important stepping stone to then practicing judgment, analysis, and argument, but it is often skipped as we move on to those more complex strategies.  And, unfortunately, this assignment is sometimes written quite broadly, something like:

Choose a topic with which you have some familiarity.  Write an essay in which you report on that topic to an audience who is unfamiliar with it.

This assignment leaves students out to sea without a paddle, not to mention easily encourages plagiarism (why not just copy a Wikipedia entry?).

Although I think my own informative writing assignments are much more interesting than the above, I’ve nonetheless become bored with them, so I posted a status to Facebook asking for ideas.  Here’s what my friends and colleagues (click on their names to learn more about these impressive teachers) came up with in the span of about 12 hours:


You could do some kind of “ethnography” of facebook pages, or twitter feeds? as if it were a prospective employer putting together a report on a job candidate – here’s this person’s web presence, kind of thing?


Have you thought about an I-Search?


I like the idea of an ethnography, but my suggestion (preference) would be away from a digital ethnography and toward a place-based (material world) observational ethnography. I’ve used a similar assignment in fyc. You can have the students find an unfamiliar place on or off campus and sit for a specified period of time (1 hour, 90 minutes) and have them record observations and report those observations. This assignment may help first year students explore campus a bit. Also, if you want to tie it to their major, they can observe in an area connected to their major, even the department area of their major. The trick, as I see it, is getting them to focus on purpose–what is the point of the observation? But you can conceivably make the audience administrators or professors of the university who may be interested in what goes on around campus.


Social media is always a popular one. How about connecting the informative report topics to their major (even the undecided might have some leanings on what disciplinary areas they might want to pursue). So, the focus would be for each student to find out one piece of information about their prospective major at IUP. In order to obtain. This piece of information, they can use one of the possible sources, such as, department or program website, personnel such as faculty, upperclass(wo)men, or even a published literature.


In Eng 100 my students attend a campus event and report to other members of the class what they learned or did.


Is the focus the genre or the research experience? If the genre, then I vote for a current event or major or that thing you did at TD, learning more about the institution itself. I guess that last would require more types of research than reading, so maybe it would be a good one.


Another assignment I have been trying is to have them find three different recipes for making a Red Velvet cake and use them to write an informational report. It’s a fun way to teach them to quote, paraphrase, and synthesize information.


Another option could be a report on the most commonly used/provided sharing/aggregating sites such as redit, stumble upon, Pinterest, delicious, etc. An employer could ask for such a document when considering web presence options. Though the “about” links usually offer such information, students would be challenged to summarize, paraphrase, quote as needed, etc. I assume the goal of the assignment is to read, interpret, and explain in one’s own words.


I assigned a paper last year for which students picked a trend they noticed in public, observed it and took notes, then surveyed their friends/family about the trend and wrote up the results.

These are all fabulous ideas, each for their own reasons, but all because they are context-specific, audience-specific, and fulfill the purpose of learning to write informatively.  I can safely say I will use versions of all of these at some point in my teaching of writing, and they’ve definitely helped me to decide on a final version of what I’ll assign for informative writing this fall.

The takeaway is obvious regardless of the discipline in which you teach: if your students are struggling with the assignments you give them, if you’re bored with the assignments, if you just want a new perspective on something you’ve been teaching for a while — hit up social media!  Facebook is a gem in this way as is Twitter (lots of discipline-specific hashtags are out there as well as general #highered conversations).  If you’re not into social media, join listservs in your discipline and perhaps even consider the WAC listserv – the WAC list discusses writing in many disciplines – at this moment there’s a discussion of teaching writing in sociology courses.  There are many conversations going on about teaching writing in all disciplines.  And sometimes, if you start one (like I did), you get truly amazing results!

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.