WAC/WID Dilemma

Thaiss and McLeod claim that there are two big takeaways from our studies of writing in transnational contexts: “(1) that teachers in other disciplines care about writing and about student proficiency, though they are usually not trained in writing pedagogy, and (2) students want their writing education to be connected to their disciplinary learning goals” (293). Both of these claims are incredibly hopeful because they operate under the assumption that our colleagues in other disciplines find worth in our work and that our students find worth in our work as well. I think the claims may be a tad overly optimistic, however.

The first claim is pretty straightforward: most folks outside of Writing Studies don’t study writing pedagogy; those in writing studies do. This assumes, however, that knowledge of writing pedagogy is enough to teach writing in the disciplines. Given what Thaiss and McLeod tell us about the importance of Discourse and genres as social (a la Gee, Miller, and others), writing pedagogy knowledge may not be enough. Thaiss and McLeod note that WAC pedagogy becomes most effective, “Once teachers in the disciplines begin to see the teacher/student relationship as one of professional/apprentice, and once they also begin to view their classrooms as social systems that model […] the discourse of their particular disciplines” (288). For those of us teaching in WID classrooms who are “experts” in writing studies but “non-experts” in our students’ disciplines, this leaves us in a difficult spot, because we lack the disciplinary knowledge to truly enter into this “professional/apprentice” model (See Q1 below).

Similarly, Thaiss and McLeod’s second claim makes sense: students want their writing to be practical and to apply to their other coursework. I would argue that this is certainly true—with one large caveat: students want their writing experiences to be practical IF they understand that writing is actually part of the important work in their discipline. I use a forum analysis in my class to ask students to seek out journals in their field to show that people in their disciplines ARE actually writing and that Discourse conventions matter, but Q2 below reveals my biggest struggle in the writing in the sciences class.

Q1: Given the lack of disciplinary knowledge of some WID instructors, how do we best bridge knowledge of writing studies with students’ own knowledge of their disciplines to make the best of this situation and to get close to the “professional/apprentice” model Thaiss and McLeod advocate.

Q2: How do we help students value writing as PART OF their discipline?

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2 thoughts on “WAC/WID Dilemma

  1. Yes, English 324 Writing in the Sciences does indeed present challenges. In particular, the realization that if expertise or at least experience in every discipline of students enrolled in the class is simply impossible. During this semester, as the disciplinary writing consultant for the college of science and mathematics, I have had this realization in some form on a daily basis. However, I find what helps me interact with them is some familiarity with “lab life” (alluding to Latour…). It is an example of participant observation derived knowledge, and, incidentally, perhaps evidence that reading materials alone is insufficient to form the professional-apprentice relationship.

    Regarding your second question, I find real challenges. The faculty of the College of Science and Mathematics do care about writing. They write lots in several senses: many genres; frequently; lengthy documents. They also form strong connections (mentorships) with many of their students…who are in the research labs. The trouble becomes not all students have those opportunities. As a consequence, they do not see scientists as researchers who need to write many documents.

    Of course time is a problem. Writing is important, but writing is a time intensive skill (we know this). Time on writing means time not staring at organic chemistry textbooks (or reading about developmental biology or [insert science reference]). In the end, I argue as often as I have heard claims about the importance of writing, I have not observed as strong a commitment to encouraging students to write. I think given my current role and previous experiences, I have a valid argument. Lots of assertions; not much action.

    Now, I want to propose the forward / backward problem. It is a dangerous problem to pose as I think will become evident. Is it simpler to teach a composition scholar about science than it is to teach a science scholar about composition? That is, should we hire PhDs students from biology or biochemistry to teach UDW sections? The experiment is underway given we have recruited a PhD student from Criminal Justice to teach English 320 sections — but those sections also had restricted enrollment (I think criminal justice and sociology majors…could be wrong). The assumption is that content knowledge (disciplinary knowledge) is a better starting point. A student with content knowledge can learn pedagogy knowledge much easier than a student with pedagogy knowledge can learn content knowledge.

    I hope my enrollment in an English PhD reveals my actual inclinations on the topic, but the debate persists even for me. We return to the closing activity from last Thursday – is the composition / writing studies student in a position to offer students from another discipline insights akin to the “professional / apprentice” model. On the one hand, I would emphasize that in the “real world”, rarely are scientists only interacting with other scientists; or, more precisely in one instance, rarely are biologists only interacting with other biologists (re-formulate with whatever major you want including composition). At some point, the disciplinary boundary is crossed. On the other hand, I find we are taking for granted that students in the sciences are at a point where they are “ripe” to learn about their chosen discipline. Memory-serving, a large number of my English 324 students had no actual idea what they were going to do. They were competent in their discipline yet adrift in more, lets say, humanities-like experience. Some enrolled in STEM because that is where jobs are…right? I worry that WAC/WID often involves minimal compromise on the part of the disciplines and severe compromise on the part of the writing.

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  2. Is it simpler to teach a composition scholar about science than it is to teach a science scholar about composition?

    To this dichotomy, I would add the model of paired or linked courses. I am frequently a nay-sayer about these because of the labor issues I’ll describe in a second, but they are a positive model for getting the content disciplinary specialists and writing specialists in dialogue around shared tasks. In the abstract, sharing these related bodies of knowledge and the shared goal of making explicit and accessible the norms of the discourse communities could be a powerful learning environment not just for the students but for the teachers.

    About the labor issues: too often I’ve heard that what happens in these linked courses is that the writing teacher (who is rarely a fully fledged specialist but rather a graduate student or a contingent laborer, as writing classes are typically taught by these populations) becomes a servant of the disciplinary expert. That is, the paired teachers are rarely of the same status and it is hard to maintain a truly collaborative relationship under those conditions. Also, even if they were of the same status in terms of say, faculty rank, the disciplines would tend to take precedence because the goal is to teach students to write in that discipline.

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