Fifty Years of WAC: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?

Mike Palmquist, Colorado State University
Pam Childers, The McCallie School
Elaine Maimon, Governors State University
Joan Mullin, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Rich Rice, Texas Tech University
Alisa Russell, Wake Forest University
David R. Russell, Iowa State University



Where Have We Been?

Where Are We Going?

Are We There Yet?


Note: This article is also available as a PDF file. This html version of the article is the preferred version.

In their history of the writing across the curriculum (WAC) movement, Charles Bazerman et al. (2005) observed, "As far as has been documented, the earliest Writing Across the Curriculum faculty seminar was led by Barbara Walvoord in 1969-70 at Central College (a four-year liberal arts college in Pella, Iowa)" (p. 26). The 2019-2020 academic year marks the 50th anniversary of Walvoord's early seminar. With this in mind, it is both a time for celebration and a time to take stock. In this article, we draw on our understanding of our historical roots to challenge and question not only where WAC as a field is going but also to interrogate its present and future roles in the research and practices of key areas in writing studies, including first-year writing instruction, technical and professional communication, writing assessment, inclusiveness and access, and global collaboration.

As David R. Russell (1991, 2001, 2020) and others, including Bazerman and his colleagues (2005), have reported, the use of writing in courses outside English and communications departments has a long and rich history. When it finally gained the sense of identity that characterizes the WAC movement today, we were able to begin thinking about it as a set of practices that could be assessed and improved. The active and ongoing examination of what makes WAC work has been a central part of what has led to its success. It has brought about significant changes in our understanding of its goals, characteristic practices, and relationship to other educational emphases and practices, such as critical thinking, student success, educational assessment, civic engagement, and career preparation. It has given rise to an awareness of the need to implement WAC differently in small colleges, community colleges, K-12 institutions, research universities, and online institutions. And it has informed the development of important innovations, including the use of instructional and communication technologies to support writing instruction and new approaches to WAC program design, such as the Writing-Enriched Curriculum approach developed at the University of Minnesota (Flash, 2016), WAC programs that involve partnerships with writing centers and writing fellows initiatives, and numerous communication-across-the-curriculum programs that combine writing, speaking, and critical thinking processes.

Yet, as with most educational movements, WAC is far from a completed project. If it is to continue to grow and flourish, it must continue to welcome change and growth. As Vershawn Ashanti Young (2018) wrote in his call for proposals for the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication, we need to "open possibilities, many of them yet unknown." Continuing to open possibilities in WAC begins, at least in our experience, with invitations to discussion, with opportunities to perform, with creating spaces to collaborate, with a willingness to reflect on the ideas that shaped past and current practices, and with a welcoming attitude toward new ideas. Opening possibilities might also begin with something other than the standard scholarly documents with which many academics are familiar. Our exploration of WAC practices and possibilities has led to the creation of a multimodal, multi-vocal reflection on where we have been and where we might be heading. Key issues considered in this essay include:

  • WAC's origins and history, including both the many adaptations it has made as it has been applied in diverse educational contexts and its relationship to other educational movements, such as service-learning, undergraduate research, and problem-based learning, among other high-impact practices. We trace the formation of communities of scholars who championed WAC over the past five decades, consider efforts made to adapt WAC to varying institutional contexts, and reflect on efforts to establish WAC as a recognized area of specialization within writing studies.
  • The impacts of larger social, economic, political, and cultural contexts on our work as teachers, learners, scholars, and leaders. We discuss the effects on the careers of those involved in WAC (such as the uncertain recognition of WAC work in evaluations), the implications for WAC of the growing numbers of faculty in contingent positions, the impact of gender-based and other forms of discrimination, and the effects of uncertain institutional budgets on WAC programs and, by extension, on the WAC movement as a whole.
  • The growing sense of WAC as an identifiable disciplinary subfield, which has led to the rise of formal and informal organizations within WAC, such as AWAC, the WAC Standing Group, the WAC Graduate Organization, the International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference, and the WAC Clearinghouse.

What follows reflects our attempts to remember and reflect on a formative movement in higher education. Given the complexity of work in WAC over the past five decades, as well as the potential for growth and change over coming decades, it is necessarily incomplete. We offer this polyvocal text as an attempt to historicize, reflect on, and explore ways in which WAC might continue to serve as a force for change in writing studies and, more generally, within secondary and post-secondary education.

Across the Disciplines
ISSN 554-8244
A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing

Across the Disciplines is an open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal published on the WAC Clearinghouse and supported by Colorado State University. Articles are published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs). ISSN 1554-8244. Copyright © 1997-2020 The WAC Clearinghouse and/or the site's authors, developers, and contributors. Some material is used with permission.