WAC to Basics: A Preposterously Belated Introduction

As the spring semester ends, the WAC Fellows are preparing a new faculty cohort for Writing Intensive Certification. In the process of reviewing these teaching portfolios, the fellows and I have revisited some of the questions that we asked ourselves at the beginning of the year: what are the fundamentals of Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy? What makes a writing assignment effective? How can instructors across the disciplines employ writing in their courses? Though writing pedagogy is always evolving and adapting, consider these WAC basics as a starting point. If you are currently preparing for certification, use these notes as a handy guide. If you are new to WAC, read through these tenets and consider reaching out to us for certification next year.


  1. Writing is a shared responsibility across disciplines. The English department is not the sole arbiter of effective writing. Every discipline (including mathematics and the hard sciences) employs writing to some extent—think of lab reports and scholarly articles. Teach your students the conventions of writing in your field.


  1. Writing education is an ongoing process. No single course can transform a student’s writing. Be patient with your students and understand that it takes time and practice to master the conventions of academic prose. Your responsibility is to give your students the tools for effective writing and the occasion to practice.


  1. Writing is an effective tool for mastering course material. Use writing assignments to gauge your students’ knowledge of your course content. This can take the form of a formal assignment, such as a term paper or lab report, or an informal assignment, such as a blog post or an in-class freewrite. If you teach in a STEM field, ask your students to describe a particular concept in prose. A popular example of this assignment is the following: “Write a letter to your grandmother (or some other non-expert) describing the first law of thermodynamics.” WAC refers to this process as writing-to-learn.


  1. Don’t worry about grammar! In WAC, we call grammar a lower-order concern. While we want our students to write in effective, comprehensible prose, we encourage instructors to focus on higher order concerns: whether the student responds to the prompt, develops an argument, engages with course materials, employs critical thinking, accurately evaluates and cites sources, and produces a structurally sound paper. Except in the most egregious cases, grammatical errors are a cosmetic concern.


  1. Mark your students’ papers sparingly. This relates to the above point. When marking papers, focus on “higher-order” issues and not missing commas or misspelled words. In your written comments, describe what the paper does effectively and where it can be approved. If a paper has a glaring and widely repeated grammatical error, you may point this out; however, your goal should be teaching your student how to identify and correct these errors herself.


  1. Encourage your students to revise, revise, revise. Excellent papers are not written overnight. Encourage your students to view writing as an ongoing, multi-step process by scaffolding assignments, or breaking large projects into smaller, discrete tasks. For example, if you assign a term paper at the end of the semester, anticipate this with a topic proposal, a draft of a thesis statement, an annotated bibliography, and a rough draft or two. Similarly, you may assign informal writing that allows your students to engage with a topic that they will be writing about in more detail later in the course.

7. Foster an active learning environment. Yes, writing is an active learning strategy—ask your students to freewrite at the beginning or end of class, or during a quiet moment. These bits of informal writing (which you may collect, but need not grade for anything but completion) may be about their homework, the concept you are introducing, or an answer to the question, “What is confusing you at the moment?” These questions allow you to take your class’s temperature while encouraging your students to engage with your course material through writing. (For more information on using writing and games to make your classroom more active, see our helpful workshop, “The Creative Classroom.”)