WACing Researched Writing

Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s chapter, “Researched Writing,” explores the various benefits and challenges of assigning research papers in first-year writing courses. Like most forms of teaching and learning, the authors begin by suggesting the standard research paper can be approached poorly. Study after study have shown many of us do just that, supporting students’ patchwriting (whether intended or not) and assigning a research paper because, well, that’s what instructors do. After all, it’s tradition. Thankfully, Howard and Jamieson argue, “The alternative is not to cease teaching research but to teach it differently” (235, note also, 235 is not the first page of the chapter!).

Last fall, I was lucky enough to teach what Concordia calls an “Inquiry Seminar,” a course for first-year students that, along with Introduction to Written Communication and Introduction to Oral Communication rounds out our required first-year student curriculum. My course was titled Vocation and the Quest for Life’s Purpose (a research interest of mine) and was paired with a written communication course, meaning that my cohort of 18 students all had the same writing class together. Two things strike me from the experience of teaching Inquiry.

First, part of the requirement for all inquiry seminars at Concordia is that students complete an 8-12 page research paper. Faced with this teaching task, I had no idea what I was doing. None.

Looking back, the “Recommendations from the Faculty Implementation Group,” a 2007 document on Concordia’s website that, I think, was developed when the inquiry seminars were first imagined and made part of our curriculum aligns with Howard and Jamieson’s approach. From the document:

Inquiry Seminar

  1. Writing-Intensive Inquiry Seminar is one in which students
  2. Write a research paper
  3. Develop information literacy and research competencies
  4. Produce at least 15 pages of polished writing spread across multiple writing assignments
  5. Practice generative writing as a way of learning
  6. Practice a writing process, either 1) using a draft-revision cycle; or 2) breaking a large assignment into graded stages

I particularly appreciate how points 2 and 5 connect with the Howard and Jamieson’s best practices. As described above, I think the Inquiry Seminar research paper could certainly satisfy most of the authors’ hopes for researched writing. But, did I mention…I had no idea what I was doing!

And, dare I say, I was not alone. Inquiry Seminars at Concordia, generally, are taught by faculty members outside of the English department. My guess is that Concordia is not alone is such a practice. Not surprisingly, despite the development of WAC and WID, very few humanities PhD programs teach faculty how to teach researched writing to first-year students. I trust my gifted colleagues to use their sound teaching instincts to employ some of the practices Howard and Jamieson suggest, but I’m afraid at the moment there’s no real institutional requirement that we become aware of the researched writing field. But, fear not my Comp Theory comrades, despite my lack of academic preparation my class was not a complete disaster, which leads me to point two.

As mentioned above, Concordia Inquiry Seminars can be paired with Introduction to Written Communication (IWC) courses. In my case, thank goodness, I’m close friends with an IWC instructor and we requested our courses be paired together. Then, using mainly my colleagues expertise (she has a PhD in rhetoric and writing) we developed a scaffolded research paper assignment shared by both our courses. For the curious, the Assignment Sheet is here.

Thanks to my colleague’s wisdom and experience, the research paper assignment included multiple library sessions, individual conferences, a proposal stage, working and annotated bibliography documents, a detailed proposal, a rough draft, peer conferences, and a genre shift presentation before students turned in their final 10-page research paper on the last day of class. In short, I believe Howard and Jamieson would be proud. And, did I mention, this was all thanks to my wise colleague because I had no idea what I was doing?

So, I’m led back to the WAC/WID discussion, wondering how cash-strapped institutions can combine the lessons of WAC/WID and researched writing. If we expect first-year—and students in other years, as well—to write significant research papers, we can certainly do more to spread the lessons of Howard and Jamieson to faculty beyond our English departments. But how?

  1.  Beyond workshops (which we’ve discussed before), are there ways to educate instructors beyond English about the lessons of researched writing? 
  2. Have you had experience teaching courses for which you may not have been ideally prepared or qualified? How did you navigate this (delightful) challenge?
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One thought on “WACing Researched Writing

  1. In response to question 2, absolutely. My writing in the sciences class was (and still is sometimes) absolutely terrifying, and your question gets at the primary reason. All of the broader courses I’ve taught–public speaking, basic composition, and a history of rhetoric and writing studies–have been things that I’ve at least had some grounding in. For Writing in the Sciences, I just had the teaching WID course here (you were in that as well, were you not?). All of my other preparation simply came from reading a little bit within the discipline itself and reading other WAC/WID instructors’ takes on things… Come to think of it, I still don’t know if I’m qualified/prepared to teach the course; I’m still asking others a lot of questions in an attempt to learn from their experiences. To turn the question back around, what about you, sir? Your experience in this area?

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