It’s 11:14 a.m. on a summer Tuesday, and St. Thomas professors are getting schooled.
Room 102 of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library is buzzing with conversation as 19 professors discuss the pros and cons of a theoretical art history assignment rubric. Theology Department chair Bernard Brady talks with Sonia Rey-Montejo of the Spanish Department and Kari Fletcher from the School of Social Work. Their group’s interdisciplinary representation is typical on this second day of their week-long workshop; professors from theology, art history, social work, English, Spanish, management and business law are in the room together. They’re all there for one purpose: to get WAC-ed.
Despite sounding the same as the mafia phrase, this kind of getting whacked is a good thing; faculty are being trained to teach Writing Across the Curriculum courses, which – starting this fall with the freshmen class – will be part of the St. Thomas core curriculum requirement for students to graduate. Incoming students will need to take a minimum of four WAC classes: at least two Writing Intensive courses (one of which can be an English class), one Writing to Learn course and one Writing in Your Discipline course.
“We’re trying at St. Thomas to create strong, flexible writers,” said Erika Scheurer, English professor and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at St. Thomas.
Transitioning WAC to a core requirement for students underlines the institution’s dedication to creating strong, flexible writers and also more critical thinkers, two things WAC proponents have found go hand in hand.
“This is not just for English majors. As a business major I have to effectively communicate things from a business perspective. If I can’t write, if I can’t explain that, I can’t do my job,” Matt Wagner ’15 said. “The value of strong writing doesn’t just stop at an English major. The ability to write from an intelligent perspective and know what you’re talking about is invaluable to every student.”
Bringing WAC to St. Thomas
WAC as an academic movement has been around for several decades and centers on the idea that written communication is not something that should be pigeon-holed to English teaching; it should be infused throughout every discipline.
“I always use this analogy of speaking: I’m not an expert in speaking, I didn’t do my Ph.D. in a communications department, but does that mean I should not use speaking? I wouldn’t say, ‘That’s just for the communication people.’ Everyone’s a writer, everyone uses written communication,” said Chris Anson, director of North Carolina State University’s Campus Writing and Speaking Program and a WAC consultant around the country. “Everyone has a responsibility to use written language, and well.”
Anson has come to St. Thomas twice a year since 2009, teaching St. Thomas faculty how to use WAC principles in their classes. His first seminar came about after a St. Thomas curriculum review in the mid-2000s called for further emphasis on writing, which eventually led to the faculty senate’s approval of Scheurer heading up a WAC program on campus.
Since 2009 nearly 250 faculty members have gone through Anson and Scheurer’s seminars (plus the dozen or so smaller seminars Scheurer coordinates every semester) and transitioned their own courses to WAC status. So, thousands of Tommies already have taken WAC courses. Making a certain number of them a core requirement for students is just the next step in the pedagogy’s development at St. Thomas.
“The basis of the whole program is faculty development, so we’ve needed faculty to go through this seminar to certify them to teach WAC courses,” Scheurer said. “The time was right, now, and we’ve got enough faculty members to teach sections and meet the requirement. That’s why it’s been six years to get to this point.”
WAC pedagogy is built on several pillars of thought. The most prominent are that writing should be emphasized across all disciplines and areas of studies; that writing increases the ability to learn material and think critically about it; and that writing should be structured in a way that uses smaller tasks and goals to scaffold upward toward larger ones. These tenets take many forms and can be tailored to suit different disciplines (WAC principles might look different, say, in a theology course as opposed to a biology course), but writing can ground all types of learning.
“It’s really vertical and horizontal integration in the curriculum,” Fletcher said.
“This is really about thinking. It sounds like it’s all about writing, but it’s not. It’s about using writing to get students to think,” said management faculty Teresa Rothausen.
Beyond the strategic principles that guide WAC, faculty also learn many tactical approaches that help them accomplish their larger goals. Among these are guidelines for creating more explicit expectations and rubrics for students so they know what the goals of assignments and courses are; providing better, more strategic feedback that isn’t based just on grammar, but on overall development; and using “low stakes” writing assignments that lead toward and inform “high stakes” assignments, so students build skills and ideas as they work through a semester, a process Scheurer calls “scaffolding.”
“You can’t just expect them to know all this stuff. You have to give them a structure, a scaffolding, and teach them some of this stuff to expect it to show up on their writing,” said engineering assistant professor Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman. “It’s very much creating a nurturing environment and supporting your students so they can write better. We’re not just expecting them to be amazing writers; we’re nurturing them, going through drafts, so it’s not just, ‘Turn this paper in,’ at the end of the semester and hoping for the best.”
Unique program at St. Thomas
Scheurer pointed to engineering as an example of what she hopes will be part of the future for WAC at St. Thomas: faculty scaffolding not just individual courses, but their entire department. Nelson-Cheeseman and other engineering faculty formed their own WAC committee and have worked to structure – based off what each is doing in his or her own classes – a system that sees students increasing writing skills and levels from their freshman through their senior years.
“It’s a great way as a program … that we can have all these parts there and build off each other, but spread it out between us so we’re not trying to do too much individually,” Nelson-Cheeseman said.
That kind of saturation could become more available as departments have more and more faculty “get WAC-ed,” and St. Thomas’ overall model should help make such high-level scaffolding possible. That’s due in large part because of the different categories St. Thomas has adopted: Writing Intensive, Writing to Learn and Writing in Your Discipline.
“Everywhere I go I’m constantly talking about St. Thomas because of the system you’ve had here, which is the orientation of three different choices. That’s unique. I’ve never seen that anywhere else in the country,” Anson said. “The option is there for professors who may have a larger course and can do a Writing to Learn course so there’s not so much pressure on them, as opposed to a senior-level capstone that’s Writing in the Discipline, as opposed to a more general Writing Intensive course. It helps buy-in and the faculty to say, ‘There’s some flexibility here.’ It’s a model of how to do this in a flexible way.”
Creativity breeding accessibility
Throughout each of those three levels, Scheurer said one of the most important things for a WAC course is to have goals laid out for what should be accomplished and how assignments strategically align with those goals. Oftentimes this involves being more explicit with students about why they’re being asked to do certain things, which studies have shown is positively associated with overall learning, Anson said.
“It makes you more conscious of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. What is the point of an assignment? It’s something students sometimes wonder. I think this helps change things that could have been more busywork into something meaningful,” said Eric Kjellgren, an art history professor who completed the WAC seminar in June.
Intensive, To Learn and In Your Discipline courses have different goals, but can build off the goals from courses that preceded them, like the plan Nelson-Cheeseman described for engineering. Lower-stakes writing is especially usable with Intensive and To Learn courses, which open up opportunities for faculty to get creative with assignments that have less reflection on grades and are more about building skills. Theology professor Sherry Jordon is particularly well known for creating a wide range of low-stakes writing assignments to make writing – and thinking – about the world of Martin Luther and other historical theology more accessible.
“I remember once we were reading the book Year of Wonders and to help understand different characters’ positions around their beliefs in God we had to create a Facebook profile for one of the characters we were assigned,” said senior Melanie Kraemer about one of Jordon’s assignments. “(The character) would make a status update, and two other characters would have to comment using textual evidence about what their theological stances were. When you have to critically think about text and write it out in a creative way it’s a lot more helpful.”
Jordon said those kinds of assignments also help inform students’ high-stakes writing as the semester goes on. It also helps make the idea of writing consistently more accessible and less intimidating.
“A lot of people don’t like writing, or think they don’t, so when they hear, ‘Writing Across the Curriculum,’ or ‘Writing to Learn,’ it could be intimidating,” Jordon said. “Helping them understand in accessible ways what all of this is about is really helpful.”
On to the core
Since WAC courses began being taught at St. Thomas in 2009, Scheurer has used surveys and other feedback from both students and faculty to gauge the value of WAC. Those results – such as a 19 percent shift in positivity toward academic writing over the course of one semester – help show why WAC has been approved to be part of the core curriculum. Other more anecdotal evidence supports the overall notion that WAC has made faculty better teachers, students better learners and St. Thomas classes more valuable.
“You create a foundation of writing to learn and build it each year, and by the time you’re a senior you can look back on all this … and you’re a better business person, or theologian, or English major, because you’ve had to dive in, think about things and explain your thoughts in a detailed matter through your writing,” said Wagner, who is now working for Willis, a risk-management firm in New York City.
“With the core and students having to take at least four WAC classes, they’re just going to take more than that,” Brady said. “We’re going to look at students coming out with six, seven, eight Writing Across the Curriculum classes. It’s going to be a very distinctive mark here at St. Thomas.”