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CCCC 2006 in Review

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

Everyone on this panel was from Roanoke College, Virginia. The chair, Paul Hanstedt, is director of general education there. His colleagues were, as the session title indicates, from fields other than English. All were reporting on their experience as first-time composition instructors in the fall semester of 2005.

Hanstedt set the context for what his colleagues had done and were about to say. There is no formal WAC program at Roanoke, but there is a cross-disciplinary first-year composition sequence with themed courses. Faculty are invited to apply to develop and teach a section, which they repeat twice after the initial offering. They are given a one-time $2,000 grant for professional/course development and undergo a year-long development period before launching the course. This consists of a summer workshop with Hanstedt that focuses on theory and observation of a section of first-year comp. Also, there is another summer workshop, which focuses on course development.

Gary Hollis, "Writing, Chemistry, and Faculty Development: Theory vs. Practice"

Hollis used "forensic chemistry" as its theme, and I noted that he had devised rhetorically rich writing assignments, such as having students sort through "crime-scene" residue, identify what the separate elements of it were, and write a report to their superior in the police department. Hollis said he applied for the grant and entered the program because he wanted the challenge of teaching outside his discipline and because he wanted to broaden himself as a teacher. He said he didn't want to claim too much for the improvement of student writing in his course; he observed that his students were willing peer reviewers, but they were not so willing to use the feedback from peer review sessions to revise their writing. He also said that he had come to understand that "it's all about process," which he counted as a valuable reorientation of his thinking about student writing.

Rachelle Ankney, "Writing and Mathematics: Using First-year Writing to Teach Logic and Argument"

Ankney expressed appreciation for how, relative to Mathematics, students approached their required writing course with an open mind and wouldn't "shut down" as they would in her required math courses. She claimed that the biggest positive of her experience was the effect it had on her teaching in her own discipline. She said she'd assigned a lot of writing in math courses in the past, but now, she said, she assigns more of it and that this pedagogy had improved her teaching of math. She said she'd seen the value of writing-to-learn and had applied that in her math teaching, and that she had enacted process pedagogy in math because what had been final drafts of proofs for her students before now were treated as first drafts. She said she found that students "used" math better and "dug deeper" into it as the result of her applying writing pedagogy to her disciplinary courses.

Next a philosopher, Hans Zorn, spoke. He said he had wanted to find a better way to teach reasoning in his own discipline, and so he applied for the grant and developed a first-year writing course. He developed a course that focused on analyzing and writing argument, looking especially at the creationism vs. evolution debate. He dryly observed that his first semester "was not a complete disaster" and was generally self-effacing. However, as his talk went on, he revealed that whereas his students entered the course with the opinion that argument was "just someone's opinion," by the end of it they had developed a more sophisticated sense of claims, inferences, and evidence.

Gordon E. Marsh, "Writing and Music: Opening Ears and Minds through Writing about Music"

Marsh's course is called "Music into Words," and he stressed "what his students had taught him" about how important music was in their lives.

During the question portion of the session, someone observed to the panel in general that they had learned a good deal about how students think and asked if or how this had affected their disciplinary teaching. The consensus of the Roanoke professors was that they had indeed learned a greater appreciation for students as thinkers, not to mention as writers, and that they had applied writing-to-learn approaches in their disciplinary courses and had seen how they could give students guided practice in writing for their disciplines.

For me, this was a wonderful session. I direct a similar cross-disciplinary first-year writing course to the one at Roanoke, although without the year-long development period, the application of faculty to be involved, and the development grants. I very much admire Roanoke's system and will at least try to get something similar done at my own institution. But it was thrilling to hear faculty from other disciplines talk so positively about what they had learned—about students and about teaching, not just teaching writing but teaching in their own disciplines—from their experience teaching first-year writing. Hearing that confirmed for me so much of what theories of composition pedagogy argue, and it inspired me with possibilities for my own school's program. I wished that I could have bottled all four presenters and brought their words home to my own faculty!

As a final note, I will observe that the room was packed, including standees, that most in attendance stayed through the question period (in fact, the session chair had to call a halt to the discussion so that the room could be cleared for the next session), and that several of the questioners identified themselves as being from schools other than private four-year liberal arts colleges. My congratulations go out to Paul Hanstedt and his committed, articulate colleagues!

— Joel Wingard

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