An attendee of several of our workshops, Mariam Tumeo, connected us with Professor Larry Feth, who invited me to speak to his graduate pro-seminar about Writing Across the Curriculum and technology.
As far as I can tell, we’ve never worked with the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, so it was exciting to learn about a discipline we’ve not heard from yet. The group was very thoughtful and insightful, and I learned a lot.
I began by asking the participants to tell me how they learned to write in their discipline. A few noted journal articles and style conventions set by the APA and the Chicago Style manual. An international student noted what she learned from her courses preparing her for TOEFL and GRE exams, as well as courses she took in the American Language Program in the School of Education after she arrived at Ohio State.
As often happens in a discussion like this, we began to talk about many of the difficulties writing in the discipline. Several noted that it took a while to learn how to be succinct, scientifically objective, and address the different audiences as the discipline required. Another graduate student noted that it was difficult learning how to synthesize material from her research/theory based courses with her clinical courses. The modes of writing, while they drew on a similar body of knowledge, were very different (this reminded me of a conversation I had with nursing instructors last year). Clinicians, she noted, had a very particular way of recording and coding information, and it took her a while to learn the conventions.
I then moved on to give a general overview of basic WAC principles:
Writing plays a central part in the work we do in our disciplines. Thinking about how writing fits in to the “other” work we do (research, teaching, administration) brings us to new understandings of a discipline and our place in it. As an example, I told them of the fascinating conversation we had with Biomedical Engineering during fall quarter about writing and ethics. During that session, the more we talked about how writing fit into different ethical contexts, the more we found ourselves talking about the fundamental values of the discipline, and about the challenges the discipline (and science in general) was facing as a result of institutional, political, and technological developments.
When we think about it, what we ask of our students when we ask them to write in our disciplines is really complex. As they move from course to course and discipline to discipline, students have to write in sophisticated ways in very diverse contexts–contexts that often are not explained to them. When we step back and think about how we articulate our expectations for writing and how they are shaped, we can come to an understanding of how crucial a broad view of writing instruction needs to be across the curriculum.
WAC proponents often tackle the complexities of disciplinary writing instruction by distinguishing between two modes of writing that can occur in classes, “writing to communicate” and “writing to learn.”
Writing to communicate exercises
Writing to learn exercises
These modes of writing can manifest themselves in the classroom over a spectrum of “low stakes” to “high stakes” assignments. “Low stakes” assignments are not often graded (apart from participation), don’t require as detailed feedback from instructors, are more informal, and are more focused on process than on a final , polished product. Low stakes assignments could include journals, free writing, reflections, reading logs, or responses to study questions. “Middle stakes” assignments might be more formal, require more feedback, and might require more of a focus on a final product than low stakes assignment. Such assignments could include microthemes, response papers, summaries, mini-cases, or problem analyses. “High stakes” assignments require a bit more feedback, as students are preparing a polished product that will be graded and weighted heavily toward their overall evaluation in the class. Such assignments would include term papers, reports, formal essays, documented papers, and literature reviews.
We had such a fascinating conversation about WAC in general, I barely got to discuss how technologies like wikis and blogs might fit into these principles. Once again, I talked about Isaac’s three uses for wikis (I’m getting a lot of mileage out of them these days). I also talked a bit about the possibilities of blogs, rehashing a bit of what I said in my recent post on history:
Blogs can be spaces where students can make the sorts of thesis-driven arguments some of the participants in the workshop said was valuable to them. They can also be spaces where students do the kinds of reflective exploratory writing WAC proponents like me often promote. In addition, they allow for dialogue, as readers can comment on posts, and authors respond to comments.
Another characteristic that many blog writers are taking advantage of is tagging, that is, categorizing posts under important themes, allowing readers to organize posts on the blog according to variables besides time. A simple (but unimaginative) example is how Iâ€™ve categorized the tagging for this blog according to discipline and topic. Readers can thus find out what work theyâ€™ve done in their field (by OSU college, anyway), or what weâ€™ve done on various topics related to teaching writing. A favorite blog of mine, if:book, uses a common tagging plug-in (down the page on the right hand column) that increases the font-size of the tags as posts under that tag increase in number, allowing readers to see visually the themes a blog focuses on…
Blogs can be organized in a number of ways, putting authors and commentors in different relationships with each other. They can also take on different levels of style, from informal to more formal discourse. Furthermore, Public access to blog and wiki sites can be controlled, so that whatever is posted can be limited to a small group (even just the teacher and student, which Iâ€™ve done where privacy is important, as in the internship course I taught that winter) or posted for all the world to see.
At this point, we had to end our discussion. I’m very curious to hear more about what the participants are thinking about writing and technology since the workshop.