WAC Pedagogy in the Time of COVID-19

As we all try to adjust to and make sense of these unprecedented circumstances, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss how we can best serve our students in spite of the unusual challenges we’re all facing. Rather than add on to the wealth of resources already available on using technology for long distance instruction, I’d like to focus instead on how WAC pedagogy can be implemented conceptually in our (makeshift) digital classrooms:



Scaffolding larger assignments is an excellent strategy to both monitor students’ progress as well as help students manage their workload during this stressful time. Break a larger assignment such as a research paper, presentation, or group project into several discrete tasks, ranging from simple to complex, that build upon each other. Each week, ask students to work on and submit a different assignment or task. By sequencing the assignment into smaller, more manageable building blocks, students will find the assignment less time-consuming and easier to accomplish.



Lecturing and delivering course material long-distance is an especially challenging task. There are merits to both asynchronous and synchronous lectures, but regardless of which approach you take, an excellent way to compensate for the lack of in-person lecture/discussion, as well as to evaluate students’ comprehension of material, is to incorporate writing-to-learn principles—that is, to use writing as a tool to help student think through key concepts or ideas central to the class. If delivering course material asynchronously, ask students to write a brief reflection after reviewing the material that summarizes the lesson and identifies the areas they found most confusing or challenging. If students were supposed to read an assigned text for class, ask them to write a short summary and/or identify its key themes or features.


Peer Review

Students can continue to participate in peer review remotely, either as a class or in small groups or pairs. For pairs or small groups, students can exchange assignments and drafts via email and fill out a guided worksheet or cover survey about their peers’ work. For larger groups or class peer review, students can upload drafts on Google Docs and edit or comment directly on the document. Peer review helps students improve their writing and critical analysis skills by providing them with real readers who must make sense of their assignment. Encouraging students to communicate and collaborate with each other—and to maintain a sense of community and support—is especially critical now as we practice social distancing and self-quarantine.



WAC pedagogy has always promoted assessment that prioritizes higher-order concerns over lower-order concerns, and now is an especially worthwhile time to adopt this grading method. When grading students’ assignments, look first to the “higher-order concerns” such as thesis/focus, audience, purpose, organization, development, or mastery of course concepts. “Lower-order concerns,” such as grammar, mechanics, style, and formatting should only be considered afterwards, and should factor minimally in assessing and grading student work. We should, I feel, be generous in our grading at this time: just like us, students are trying to navigate these unfamiliar circumstances, in addition to juggling several other classes as well as their own personal issues.


For additional resources, the CUNY Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center has provided a comprehensive website: https://continuity.commons.gc.cuny.edu/


And the following GoogleDoc is a shared aggregate list of all university responses to the crisis, with many helpful tips and strategies: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1VT9oiNYPyiEsGHBoDKlwLlWAsWP58sGV7A3oIuEUG3k/htmlview?usp=sharing

Designing a Writing Intensive (WI) Syllabus

As instructors, we understand the importance of the syllabus: it is the course “contract” where students can find objectives, expectations, policies, assignments, and more. We want to ensure that our syllabus communicates clearly what will be expected of students over the course of the semester, both to better prepare them for the work ahead as well as to avoid any future confusion or disagreement over course policies or grades. Designing a clear, comprehensive syllabus can be challenging enough as is, but for the instructor of a Writing Intensive course there is the additional challenge of communicating WI-specific goals. Below are just a few strategies for integrating WI requirements with individual course content:

  1. Clearly identify your syllabus as ‘Writing Intensive’ and explain what it means to you as an instructor.

Note clearly and early on in your syllabus that your course has been designated Writing Intensive, and that students should therefore expect to write frequently, both in and out of class. Beyond this, we encourage you to make this section your own: how exactly do you envision your students using writing? Do you want students to write responses to the assigned readings? Blog posts? Lab reports? Thesis-based research papers? Will students be writing every week? Every class? This can and should be tailored to your unique discipline, in whatever way you feel best suits your course.

  1. Include course objectives that are WI specific.

Again, this will look different depending on your individual discipline and course. Ask yourself what your overall course outcomes are and how you can utilize writing to help your students achieve those goals—perhaps you might ask students to define important course terms and concepts in writing; compose a lab report using discipline-specific vocabulary and formatting; write an argumentative paper on a controversial topic in the field; or explain a complicated theorem in layman’s terms. However you choose to incorporate writing in your course, make it clear to your students that they will be writing in order to engage with and better understand the course material.

  1. Include a comprehensive course calendar that indicates assignment due dates and the steps of the scaffolding process.

Including a course calendar in your syllabus helps to orient your students and communicate your expectations and their responsibilities: what deadlines must students be aware of? When can they expect quizzes, exams, or paper due dates? What do they need to do in preparation for a particular class? For WI courses incorporating WAC pedagogy, this is especially important: all major assignments should be scaffolded (i.e., broken up into smaller assignments that are completed gradually over a period of days/weeks), and students must be made aware of when each individual assignment/component is due.

These are just a few of the elements of a well-designed WI syllabus. For more strategies, techniques, and examples, attend our  faculty workshop on Creating a Writing Intensive Syllabus.

Digital Tools In the Classroom: A Low, Low-Tech Approach

As citizens of the twenty-first century, we are no strangers to technology: From smart phones to social media to texting, we are thoroughly immersed in technology and navigate it daily. In spite of this, the thought of incorporating “technology” into my classroom originally filled me dread. I struggled to think of how exactly I could meaningfully transfer those daily digital experiences into the writing classroom. I assumed that I needed either specialist technical knowledge or a willingness to completely and utterly rewrite my pedagogy in order to successfully incorporate digital tools in my classroom.

Thankfully, I was wrong in both of my assumptions — incorporating technology requires neither specialist knowledge nor a complete overhaul of our teaching methods. Here are a couple of very low-tech strategies that even the most resistant luddite would find approachable:

Multimedia Texts: One of the most effective ways of incorporating technology into the writing classroom is to present students with multimedia texts. This can be as simple as showing a video clip in class and asking students to respond in writing before opening up to a class discussion. I’ve found that students are especially interested in dissecting and discussing these texts, in part because they feel more comfortable with them and therefore more confident; students may not feel like they are qualified to comment on a piece of literature, but they do feel proficient enough to discuss a music video or clip from a TV show.

Course Blogs: Course blogs are another great, low-tech method of engaging with a technological platform in the classroom. Students are already familiar with utilizing technology like social media and messaging apps in their personal lives, so the introduction of a course blog should be fairly natural. One great advantage of class blogs is that they can serve as an opportunity for low-stakes, informal writing that can be easily shared with the rest of the class. If class discussion begins to lag, an easy way to revive it is to ask students to share what they wrote for their blog post. The fact that they’ve written it already and are not being forced to think of a response on the spot makes students more willing to share and discuss (likewise, this strategy works to elicit discussion from shyer, less talkative students). There are countless ways to incorporate and utilize blogs, but some of the methods I’ve had the most success with are:

  • Require students to write a short blog post every week (or have them sign up for particular days) responding to the assigned reading
  • Provide prompts related to the course material that students must respond to on the blog before coming into class that day
  • Ask students to select and post a multimedia text (a song, music video, clip from a film, etc.) and analyze it in a blog post.
  • Require every student to comment on at least one post a week (this is an especially useful strategy, as it forces students to read and engage with each other’s writing)

This sort of digital interaction inside and outside the classroom can promote active learning, a core WAC principle that refers to teaching methods that encourage students to participate in their learning experience through non-traditional, multimodal activities. Active learning seeks to move away from (or at the very least, supplement) traditional “passive” learning methods like lecturing with more hands-on activities—like the low-tech suggestions mentioned above. Responding to multimedia texts or participating in a discussion on a course blog can enhance students’ learning experience and promote a deeper understanding of the course material. By incorporating even a small amount of technology in our classrooms, we can enliven the learning process and get students more involved with course content.

Strategies for Designing Assignments: Scaffolding

“Scaffolding” is an essential concept of WAC pedagogy and a good way to ensure higher quality, plagiarism-free writing from our students. Simply put, scaffolding refers to the concept of breaking up large formal assignments into multiple smaller, more manageable assignments. For example, rather than presenting students with one massive, daunting final paper, we might consider scaffolding the assignment as follows:

Week 2: Introduce the “big” assignment to students/Brainstorm topics in class
Week 3: Select a topic
Week 4: Draft a working thesis statement
Week 5: Draft a body paragraph
Week 6: Rough draft due; in-class peer review
Week 7: Revising and editing rough draft
Week 8: Final paper due

Of course, scaffolding will look different depending on the class, assignment, and instructor, but the key takeaway here is that students are building up to the final assignment via multiple smaller assignments, which allows them to work through course content and practice the skills they need to successfully complete the final project.

By scaffolding big assignments in this way, students are less intimated or discouraged by the writing process. This has the benefit not only of putting our students at ease, but of also providing them with low-stakes opportunities to practice their writing (or researching, or critical thinking, or annotating, or whatever the specific assignment may call for—scaffolding is remarkably non-discipline-specific).

Additionally, scaffolding is an especially useful strategy for deterring plagiarism: by breaking the assignment into smaller tasks, students find the work more manageable and therefore are less tempted to plagiarize. Furthermore, by the time the final formal assignment is due, students will discover that more than half of it is already written, and consequently have no need to plagiarize. As an additional safety measure, scaffolding gives the instructor the ability to more regularly monitor student progress and to familiarize themselves with students’ writing “voices,” thus making plagiarism detection easier.

Scaffolding may not be a panacea for all classroom-related troubles, but it certainly addresses issues of students’ anxiety over the writing process, confusion over course content, and tendency to plagiarize. To learn more about scaffolding and other ways to design successful assignments, attend our upcoming workshop on Effective Assignment Design on Thursday, September 19 at 1:00pm

Broadening Formal Writing Assignments

As the semester draws to a close, most of us are busy wrapping up our courses and guiding our students through their final papers and exams. Reflecting on my own experience as an instructor and how my teaching style has evolved over the years, I realized that no greater change has occurred than in the final formal paper I assign my students.

As a new instructor, I originally believed it best to give my students highly regimented assignments with defined topics (e.g., perform a close reading on text A; compose a comparative analysis on text B and text C; etc.). My reasoning was that my students, as freshmen and novice writers, would flounder and ultimately fail at more open-ended assignments. There was also some sense in my mind that these assignments would level the playing field in the classroom and allow me to more quickly assess and grade essays.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my plan had the opposite effect I intended: grading was actually far more laborious and monotonous than I could have imagined, as I had to read through 20+ papers on identical topics. Furthermore, my belief that my students would produce better quality writing on predetermined topics proved to be untrue, as I realized that not all of my students necessarily enjoyed or connected with the assigned texts. If grading these papers was a chore, I could only imagine what it was like for my students to write them.

I knew I had to alter my assignment design in some way so as to allow my students to write on topics they truly enjoyed, but I was still concerned about overwhelming them with unlimited choices. How then could I offer students a solid framework for their writing assignments while still permitting them room to express their individuality?

Through trial and error, I discovered that the most effective method was to gradually give students more and more freedom in their writing assignments as the semester progresses. Just as one begins riding a bike with training wheels and eventually learns to successfully ride without them, I see the trajectory of my formal writing assignments as gradually taking the “training wheels” off so that my students may confidently ride on their own.

For their first formal assignment, I still provide my students with the kind of tightly constrained assignments I used to—usually a close reading or rhetorical analysis of one of our assigned texts. I do this so as to ease my students into the writing process and the conventions of academic discourse. Additionally, since this first assignment is on a text that we have read and discussed as a class, students are somewhat more comfortable and confident writing about the topic.

For their second formal assignment, I remove one of the training wheels by opening up the topic options: I instruct my students to compose a comparative analysis on one of our course readings and on another “text” of their choosing—an essay, story, poem, or book we have not read together in class; a movie, TV show, or music video; song lyrics, album covers, or really whatever they like (so long as they run it by me first).

For the final formal assignment, the training wheels come off completely: I allow my students to compose an argumentative research paper on any topic they’re interested in. I’ve found that assigning a more open-ended final writing assignment with an undefined topic produces much more exciting and higher quality essays. Whereas the earlier, more defined formal assignments are used to gauge my students’ understanding of the course content, this final undefined-topic assignment is a way for students to demonstrate the skills they’ve learned over the semester: the ability to formulate a strong, coherent argument, synthesize ideas, and perform academic research. Additionally, allowing students to choose their own topic makes the assignment more interesting and relevant to their lives. Students have actually told me that they find the research and writing process exciting because they are writing about something they truly care about. Lastly, from the perspective of the instructor, these open-topic essays eliminate the monotony of grading 20+ identical papers. I’ve read well-researched and well-argued student papers on a multitude of interesting topics ranging from the rehabilitation of convicted felons to the evolution of Kanye West’s musical style. A prospect that I originally feared—broadening the topic options and guidelines for my formal assignments—has actually proved to be an exciting and effective way to get students writing.

The Importance of Ungraded Informal Assignments

A fundamental principle of WAC pedagogy is “writing to learn”—promoting writing as not just the ability to produce a polished final essay, but as a tool in itself that helps students understand course material and complex concepts. A key method of practicing this principle is to incorporate short, informal writing assignments in the classroom. Informal writing assignments can be immensely beneficial to students as an opportunity to clarify their ideas about the course concepts as well as to practice their writing abilities. By scaffolding major assignments with several shorter informal assignments, students gain confidence in their writing and ultimately produce a better end product.

A common misconception about informal writing assignments is that they must be graded lest students view the assignments as mere busy work and not take them seriously. Incorporating informal assignments, then, just means more grading and more work for the instructor. While it is true that feedback is essential to the writing process, students also need an opportunity to practice writing without the fear of receiving a poor grade. I believe it is far more beneficial to students to not grade these assignments. By omitting grades on informal assignments, we encourage students to practice their writing and work through their ideas freely, without worrying about evaluation. Students will appreciate the opportunity to express their thoughts in a low-risk setting, and instructors will appreciate receiving higher quality final essays.

Ungraded informal assignments can be incorporated in a variety of ways. In my own classroom, I have had the most success with the following assignments:

Focused Freewriting: Most of us are familiar with “freewriting,” an exercise in which students write continuously for a set amount of time without any regard for spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. In a focused freewrite, I simply narrow the focus of the assignment by instructing my students to freewrite on a specific topic or assigned reading. The goal of this exercise is to get students to think critically about course material and to increase their comfort level and familiarity with writing. I usually find this exercise works best right before class discussion of the day’s assigned text (especially if it’s a particularly dense or complicated text). In this way, students are given some time to collect their thoughts and prepare to engage in discussion.

Response Papers: I often will assign as homework a one-page response paper in which students informally respond to some aspect of the assigned reading. I emphasize that these responses should be exploratory in nature and, as with the focused freewrites, that grammar, spelling, and mechanics are not important here. I’ve found this exercise especially useful for encouraging some of the shyer and less vocal students to participate in class discussion—rather than asking an introverted student to formulate a comment/response on the spot, I will instead ask them to share what they wrote in their response paper.

Metacognitive/Reflective Writing: In these informal assignments, I ask students to reflect on their reading, writing, or research process as a way to stimulate critical thinking about revision and improvement. Prompts such as, “What were the challenges you faced while drafting this paper?”, “In what ways did you revise your draft?” and “How has your understanding of the writing process changed over the course of the semester?” force students to analyze their own thinking and writing.

Weighing In On The Grammar Debate

As graduate students, writing instructors, and WAC fellows, we’re well aware of the distinction between “higher order” and “lower order” concerns in writing. We have been told (rightly so) to prioritize those higher order concerns in our grades and comments, especially when dealing with students who struggle with writing or are non-native speakers. In this way, writing becomes less about adhering to the rules of standardized English, and more about demonstrating critical thinking, understanding of course content, and synthesis of ideas.

Still, we all know that this is often easier said than done—some papers are so riddled with grammatical errors as to make comprehension nearly impossible, regardless of how good the student’s idea may be. More importantly, no matter how fervently we may defend a descriptive view of grammar, the reality is that our students will encounter other classes and scenarios in which there is no leniency for non-standardized English, which can create the fear that we may actually be doing our students a disservice by not correcting grammar.

So what do we do with grammar in our writing courses?  Although I am not suggesting there is one readymade solution, my approach has been to maintain grammar as a lower order concern without minimizing its importance both inside and outside the writing classroom. While I do not comment on every single grammatical error I encounter in my students’ papers, I will identify the two most pressing issues and mention them in my end comments. I attempt to offer brief explanations of the grammatical rules when possible, or include links to grammar sites addressing that particular concern. I do encourage these students to visit the writing center and to inform the tutor of the specific issue (e.g., “my instructor said I need help with subject-verb agreement,” rather than a vague “I need help with grammar”). Very rarely do I penalize students for grammar issues, unless it’s abundantly apparent that I’m dealing with a student whose grammatical errors rise out of lack of proofreading rather than a genuine struggle with the conventions of formal written English.

I’ve also found it productive to discuss this issue of grammar with my students, not just within the context of my grading policies but also within the larger context of social power and linguistic discrimination. At the beginning of the semester, as I’m going over the grading rubric for their first formal essay, I explain to my students that I will always prioritize their ideas over grammar in their papers. At the same time, I tell them, grammar is not not important—purposeful and informed grammatical choices can strengthen an argument and invigorate prose. Beyond its use as a rhetorical tool, however, grammatical standardized English—like whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, etc.—serves as a gatekeeper to cultural power, and deviation from the standard is often interpreted as low intelligence or competence. While I in no way seek to perpetuate this literacy gatekeeping (and actively attempt to push back against it in my own grading policies), I nevertheless want my students to at least understand the reality of the academic, professional, and political world into which they’re entering. I’ve found that having this conversation with my students not only stimulates a lively class discussion about language, privilege, and power, but it also has the long-term effect of alleviating some of their insecurities about writing and encouraging freer, more expressive prose.