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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: M 1 What Makes WAC Work: Reflections on Writing Across The Curriculum
Reviewed by: Heather de Maynadier, hdemaynadier@hotmail.com
Posted on: April 11, 2004
Updated on: April 18, 2004

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Timing is everything, or is it? The session began fairly early Saturday morning—9:30 a.m. for those of us who had stayed up late “rock’n and rolling.” For the rest of us, it was still early. The last day of the conference…would anyone even show up?

Toby Fulwiler opened the session by making us write. Here was the question: “What makes WAC work? Describe the most important element in a successful Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program.” Attendees wrote away for 3 minutes and then quickly shared responses with impromptu groups. I found that I was probably the only one in my group of three who had heard of WAC and knew some of its operating details. I’d thought everyone had heard of WAC. After all, hadn’t Time Magazine run a full-scale article on presenter Art Young and the success of his CAC/WAC program at Clemson University? Didn’t everyone at Clemson, from those hanging out in Death Valley football stadium to those sequestered in the English department’s Strode Tower, proudly wear a t-shirt stating “Time votes Clemson best bang for your buck” in support of the university, WAC, and the publicity from Time Magazine. Maybe my colleagues’ responses mean that the time of WAC is over; it’s not the latest buzz word/program—or is it? Should we, the academia, shelve WAC? After all, there are only so many “shelves” in a university and new programs often seem “sexier.” What is the value of WAC in the new millennium?

My thoughts were interrupted. Toby Fulwiler, University of Vermont, Burlington, was sharing the one most important aspect of a WAC program—you’ve got to get your university behind the program. How do you do this? How do you translate the principles of English into other classes? How do you convince colleges? “Definitely,” emphasized Fulwiler, “No speeches and ‘no, you do this.’ The key,” stated Fulwiler, “is to explore writing together.” Share with non-English teachers the idea that writing strengthens all other language modes and leads directly and indirectly to critical thinking. Writing groups also promote classroom community that is sharing writing itself makes all the difference. In essence, if properly communicated, The “Writing to Learn” principle strikes or resonates with other teachers.

Susan McLeod, University of California, Santa Barbara, next addressed the issue of “Assignment Design Across the Curriculum.” She asked, “How do we help faculty in the disciplines understand the need to make their tacit assumptions about what constitutes good writing more explicit in their writing assignments?” The answer—workshops. Her handout presented many of the “how tos” of designing a WAC workshop. Included in her handout was this quote:

***In all too many instances, at least in college, students write the wrong thing, for the wrong reason, to the wrong person, who evaluates in on the wrong basis. That is, they write about a subject they are not thoroughly informed upon, in order to exhibit knowledge rather than explain something the reader does not understand, and they write to a professor who already knows more than they do about the matter and who evaluates the papers not in terms of what he or she has derived, but in terms of what he or she thinks the writer knows. In every respect, this is the converse of what happens in professional life, where the writer is the authority; he or she writes to transmit new or unfamiliar information to someone who does not know but needs to, and who evaluates the paper in terms of what he derives and understands. (W. Earl Britton, “What is Technical Writing?” College Composition and Communication 16 (May 1965): 113-116 [revised for inclusive language])***

This was a session presented by seasoned professionals. No reading from notes, but rather a fluid, accessible sharing of knowledge and experiences, and yes, it was thought provoking. But, what had actually happened to WAC? Where was/is it going?

Carol Holder, California State University, Channel Islands, spoke next on “Instructional Innovation and the Evolution of WAC.” Ah, yes…”Figure out what is currently going on,” stated Holder. Where else does writing occur and how do we partner with them? Now, context has changed. That is, writing to learn is still new to other areas of study. Holder then shared the top ten corresponding issues identified by CSU faculty:
· Assessment
· Community Service Learning
· New Media and Web Course Tools
· Learning Communities
· Interdisciplinary Course
· Active (collaborative) Learning
· Information Competence
· Learning Styles/Multiple Modes

The discussion moved from Holder to Chris Anson, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, and his topic, “From Writing to Communication: WAC on the Move.” Anson focused on the impact of technology in the classroom. As we all know, our students are technologically advanced in the classroom. Laptops, PowerPoint presentations, instant messenger, etc., they’re often way ahead of us. Additionally, university deans are responding to business and industry leader concerns. In response to these issues, WAC specialists should embrace multiplicity or focus on primacy of writing in thinking, learning and communication. We need to learn more about multiple modes. Anson left us with the question, “Should we be moving more into the areas of multiple genres?”

Up next—Art Young, Clemson University, SC, walked off the podium and on to the main floor. He shared with us his thoughts on “Creative Response Across the Curriculum.” The attendees were mesmerized as Young spoke of his experiences with helping students to think outside of their usual boundaries and write against the curriculum. This meant, for example, to not write like a physicist. To illustrate his point, Young read a poem by a psychology student. The poem, written in free verse, displayed a certain engagement by the student with her projected career as a future therapist, and evidenced by her words was a creative and affectionate response to these projections. Clearly, this student, through this, perhaps unusual opportunity to express herself, had touched on an emotion that could not be accessed through writing clinical reports or research essays. Through the Communications Across the Curriculum (CAC), an expansion of WAC, Young and other teachers help students, from all disciplines, to engage by imagining content in a more “human” way, by bringing in writing forms and perhaps even visuals. Art Young’s connection with his audience was palpable—as he explained, argued and showed the results of CAC. For more information on Art young, CAC, and the above mentioned poem, the following website is available: http://people.clemson.edu/~apyoung/focus_on_creativity.html.

Donna Reiss, Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, VA, next discussed “WAC in a Wired World: Electronic Composing and Communicating throughout the Curriculum.” In light of new media and writing, she had two main suggestions to bring these areas together. The first is to appeal to faculty already involved with WAC. The second is to appeal to faculty who are interested in technology, but not particularly interested in WAC or writing, by discussing media-driven projects like digital portfolios. For further information, go to http://wordsworth2.net/projects/4Cs04/

As a wrap-up to the session, Randall Freisinger, Michigan Technological University, Hougthon, concluded that WAC is still generating interest. What we’ve talked about today is the evolution of the movement in rich and productive directions e.g. computer technologies. He cautioned us to beware of “workshop” high because there has to be a second part to make WAC work. This is the follow-up. Emphasized again was the fact that there has to be institutional support and there must be an administrative person to keep the “plates spinning” for a successful WAC program. As a side note, historically speaking, the first sponsor of WAC was General Motors which believed in the power of the written word.

In conclusion, a successful WAC program is all about building alliances. Thinking back on my earlier questions, I find myself believing in the enchantment, outcomes, and seductiveness of the evolving WAC program. If Art Young can have a group of conference weary teachers “sit up” on a last day, early Saturday morning program and generate heart-felt pedagogical interest over his students’ writings and the successes of WAC, then it appears the results speak in a distinct and eloquent voice. (And by the way, this presentation played to a full house.)

For further information on this program:

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