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CCCC 2006 in Review

G11 Barbarians at the Gate: Four Non-English Professors Reflect on Teaching Writing

Chair Paul Hanstedt of Roanoke College (Salem, VA) introduced the session by describing how he requested institutional funding for modest stipends for non-writing teachers to teach first-year writing. For a $2,000 stipend, the "barbarians" worked with composition faculty to study composition theory, did a year-long observation of experienced first-year writing teachers, developed their syllabi, and taught (or will teach) the course ENG 101 3 times over a 2-3 year period.

At the session, which was very well attended, each of the four faculty members who received "Writing Initiative" grants described his/her experience teaching first-year writing.

Gary Hollis's rationale for responding to the RFP was that he knew it was "a challenge I would enjoy." A chemist who teaches organic chemistry every term (Fall, Spring, and Summer), he leapt at the chance to learn and to broaden himself as a teacher. He further feels in principle that in a Liberal Arts institution faculty should participate in teaching general studies courses, and that writing is so basic to students' education that all faculty should teach it. Gary's appreciation for his training was deep; he praised the quality of the preparation he got in theory and in practical matters such as designing assignments and grading papers. He also called his colleagues, especially those whom he observed, "a wonderful resource." He spoke of his results realistically: students' writing improved, but not as much as he'd hoped. His conclusions about teaching writing included the following observations: "it is all about the process"; "the students took their roles as peer responders seriously but didn't make effective use of the feedback," and they did "too much last minute writing."

Mathemetician Rachelle Ankney's explanation of why she volunteered drew a chuckle from the crowd: "I wanted to teach something students were not totally reluctant to take." She spoke insightfully about how teaching ENG 101 had changed her mathematics instructional practices: she no longer simply "assigns" writing proofs, but also teaches writing directly as "a path to learning"; above all, the draft-revision process has improved her students' mathematics writing. Rachelle now encourages students to use math as a source, as evidence for conclusions. She concluded her talk by saying, "I'm a better math professor because I learned about teaching writing."

Hans Zorn approached the teaching of writing as a way to teach better reasoning skills. A philosopher, he shaped his ENG 101 around argument and intelligent design. He had found that students can master techniques of argument but often don't use argument well, apparently because they don't trust it. They connect it with advertising and manipulation. Despite-or perhaps because of--his frustrations, he theorized that "the humble task of getting clear on concepts might go a long way toward improving students' understanding of inference and argument." He acknowledged students' naiveté about evidence and spoke of their need to learn to carefully define terms (such as religion, faith, and science). Broadly, his goal became to enable the students to appreciate the value of arguments as a way to show respect for other people and their opinions.

Gordon E. Marsh, coming from music theory and composition, was interested in exploring "the chasm between how he conceptualizes music and how students understand it." Like Rachelle, Gordon learned much from teaching ENG 101 that will inform his music teaching. (The audience chucked as he spoke with amused enthusiasm about his "rip-roaring class distinguishing the colon from the semicolon.") Focusing assignments on "the power of music" and asking students to explore how a particular piece of music had affected their lives, he said, "opened his eyes to how music means to/is experienced by students, especially general studies students." Music, for them, provides anchors and ties to family and friends. His conclusion: "for this [knowledge] I am grateful."

The following Q & A period focused on practical matters of how to accomplish such a program, with chair Paul Hanstedt averring that the best way to improve the first-year program is to improve writing in the three years after students' first year of college. An additional value expressed by the faculty from the other disciplines was how much teaching first-year writing helped them understand how eighteen-year-old students think and learn.

—Wallis May Andersen

CCCC ConventionFor more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.