WAC at Beaver College

Edward Corbett Photo

Edward P. J. Corbett talks with Elaine Maimon and Beaver College (Arcadia) literature Professor Pradyumna Chauhan about writing and rhetoric in the late 1970s.

On July 14, 1977, a Bastille Day to remember, Beaver College received word that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had awarded $207,726, the largest federal grant in the College's history, for "A program to strengthen the humanities at Beaver College through an emphasis on instruction in writing and reading by all faculty" (EI-27873-77-752). The grant award marked a major change for NEH in recognizing writing and rhetoric as essential disciplines within the humanities. Previously, writing had been regarded as a superficial skill inappropriate for humanities funding. It is noteworthy that the Bay Area Writing Project's (BAWP) metamorphosis into the National Writing Project received NEH funding in the same grant cycle.1

That summer day in suburban Philadelphia was a focal point of joy and accomplishment for the Beaver College team. They had understood that the only way relatively unknown Beaver College could be recognized by NEH would be to submit an early proposal for the January 2, 1977 deadline. That had meant a serious end-of-semester scramble to write a comprehensive and meaningful proposal. The members of the team knew it was important to reference the already planned January workshop scheduled to be led by Carleton Acting President Harriet Sheridan. Faculty leaders, including department chairs, had signed up for that workshop, even though no compensation was offered. But they proposed in the NEH grant that those attending in January 1977 would be eligible for summer workshops potentially funded by NEH.

The grant support allowed Beaver College to bring about a culture change in the teaching of writing. Uncompensated January workshops were prerequisite to stipends for participation in five-week summer workshops that took place over the next three years. The team invited top scholars in rhetoric and composition to work with faculty for four of five days each week. The fifth day was set aside for the faculty group to think through how to apply the scholar's perspective to writing across the curriculum at Beaver. On the Wednesday evening of each scholar's week, the college hosted a lecture for the general public, inviting colleagues from universities, colleges, and high schools. The workshop attracted a wide range of participants from inside and outside the college, including leading scholars in rhetoric and composition Edward P. J. Corbett, Donald McQuade, Harvey Weiner, John R. Hayes, Linda Flower, Lynn Bloom, Richard E. Young, and Nancy Sommers.

NEH Seminar Photo

Elaine Maimon and Beaver College (Arcadia University) colleagues Jerry Belcher, Barbara Nodine, Helene Cohan, and JoAnn Bomze participate in a faculty writing workshop in the late 1970s.

The essential principle underlying the writing workshops was that curriculum change depends on scholarly exchange among faculty members. That principle pertains far beyond writing across the curriculum and is the sine qua non for deep, conceptual change in any area. Not only faculty members but most intelligent people resist change that is based on "how-to" or other superficial approaches. Real, lasting change results from what Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle (2015) describe as engaging with "threshold concepts of writing studies" in ways that allow us to understand critical disciplinary concepts.

During the three years of the NEH grant, Beaver College faculty and students learned to see writing in new ways, resulting in a process approach to teaching writing and to unprecedented connections across disciplines. At the conclusion of the first NEH grant, Beaver College received another NEH grant to disseminate writing across the curriculum nationally, culminating in hosting a 1983 national conference on writing in the humanities. After that, Beaver College received a third NEH grant to reach out to Philadelphia-area high schools to establish WAC. Additionally, Beaver obtained funding from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) to incorporate problem-solving and critical thinking across the curriculum. That was the first instance of expanding the infusion model from writing to other important cross-curriculum capacities, a trend that continues today.

1. While Merill Sheils made a number of dubious points in "Why Johnny Can't Write," he did report favorably on the Bay Area Writing Project.