By Elisabeth Miller
Elisabeth Miller is currently serving as Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison. In this role, she’s had the wonderful opportunity to work with several TA Fellows to facilitate Comm-B training. She is also a PhD Candidate in Composition and Rhetoric.
Each semester during Welcome Week, the Writing Across the Curriculum program at UW-Madison runs a two-day training for new teaching assistants in Communication-B (Comm-B) courses. Comm-B courses are writing-intensive, exposing students to conventions of writing in disciplines from anthropology to biology to journalism to psychology. The training, with 70 TAs every fall and 40 every spring, is energetic and packed with advice preparing TAs to conference with student writers, run effective student peer review sessions, support students in developing strong thesis statements, and much more.
What makes our Comm-B training most effective, though, is not just the efforts of WAC director Brad Hughes and the TA Assistant Director of WAC (a role that transitions to new TAs every two years). Our interdisciplinary training greatly benefits from thoroughly cross-disciplinary expertise: specifically, the participation of TA Fellows, experienced Comm-B teaching assistants who design and facilitate breakout sessions and act as positive peer role models.
TAs who attend the training regularly cite TA Fellows as the most effective part of the training, and we in the WAC program deeply benefit from their expertise and insight as part of the training planning team. It is, however, equally important to us that this experience is a generative one for the TA Fellows, especially for their own teaching and future careers. To gain insight into what TAs take from their time as Comm-B Fellows, I talked to two of our wonderful former fellows: Professor Dawn Biehler and Julie Collins.
In this post, I offer some highlights from our conversations. Both former fellows’ reflections speak to the importance of teaching writing across disciplines and the value of WAC programs and Writing Centers collaborating across disciplines.
Two Former Comm-B TA Fellows: Dawn Biehler & Julie Collins
After TA-ing for several semesters in the Comm-B course Introductory Geography 101 and in several other courses, Professor Dawn Biehler served as a Geography TA Fellow in Fall 2006 and is now Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a honors college in the University of Maryland system. Julie Collins, taught Biology 152, a very large Comm-B course, for five semesters as she completed a Masters in Agroecology. She acted as a Biology TA Fellow in Fall 2013 and now works as a Course Coordinator in the Biology 151/152 program at UW-Madison.
What memories stand out to you from your work as a Comm-B Fellow?
Biehler: I ran a breakout session about writing conferences at Comm-B training. I really think that one-on-one time is extremely valuable for students. It is especially important at the beginning of the semester to have that time one-on-one with the instructor and to give students a chance to voice what they think are some of their writing challenges and what kinds of things they want to work on. Conferencing was a big part of Geography 101 curriculum, but I felt like no one was really thinking through best practices for one-to-one instruction, so that’s why I decided to take it on for Comm-B training.
More broadly, working with Brad Hughes and the WAC program made such a great impression on me. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone and that working with writing was a really important skill, and they created this community where we were all really dedicated to helping students become better communicators.
Collins: I really liked the community of Comm-B training. It was so great to meet other folks, hearing their stories about how they approached writing. It was very humbling to see how differently people approach the task of teaching writing to undergraduates.
As a Fellow, I designed a breakout session on strategies for helping students really interpret scientific data. Writing about data is one of the most important and often most enlightening parts of scientific paper because you learn so much by writing. I worry that a lot of our students stop at the graph—just reporting. So I try to get them to think about why data looks the way it does, why you might have gotten those results, what they might mean, why they’re significant—beyond just saying these are the results.
What are your thoughts about the importance of Comm-B training to TAs across campus?
Biehler: I think that it gives TAs the sense that there are other people who care about writing and that they don’t have to be alone as instructors of Comm-B courses. It helps create a culture where writing matters and where you can encourage students to reflect on their writing. The 2-day training is really important for establishing that culture and for addressing some really nitty-gritty things—developing your toolkit as an instructor supporting students’ writing. Those tools are really important because you’ll encounter all kinds of different students with all kinds of writing challenges. I really appreciated the bound WAC Sourcebook with past assignments and teaching tips that we received and used in training. And I appreciated getting a chance to practice using those tools in breakout sessions—addressing might come up in the semester.
Collins: I think the training is vital to TAs for a lot of reasons. At the most basic level, it’s about intention setting. Even if you don’t remember all the details of what you did in training, it is important that you dedicated time to realizing that writing is going to be an important part of students’ experience and curriculum and not just an assignment that you give just because that’s what you’re expected to do.
Getting a chance to be a part of the interdisciplinary experience of Comm-B training and to see that writing is a thread amongst all of those disciplines is a huge factor in getting your mind where it needs to be as a TA.
In what ways do you teach or support the teaching of writing now – in the classroom or in administrative work? How has your experience as a Comm-B Fellow influenced that work?
Biehler: Now as a tenure track professor, I look back at my time as a graduate student and see that there was so little time spent on how to teach. Participating in and planning Comm-B training helped me as instructor and as a TA while I was in graduate school, but it’s helped me even more looking back as I’ve been teaching as a faculty member.
I now have a 2-2 teaching load, and I’m also director of the undergraduate program, which means I help develop curriculum and help to improve the undergraduate teaching in this program. In that director role, I have really looked back at my WAC Sourcebook and all the handouts that I worked on developing as a Comm-B TA. I look to that as a way of improving our curriculum and teaching, especially in terms of creating a culture of writing.
I think Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines is really important, and what my department has done—in large part drawing on my background with writing—has been emphasizing more writing within the department. We’ve started to develop shared standards and expectations for students’ writing skills while they’re in the major so that they’ll get the same message over and over again: writing skills are important and here are some of the things we consider most important. We also brought in Professor Chris Anson (a specialist on Writing in the Disciplines from North Carolina State) earlier this year to do a day of workshops, consulting with departments and giving a workshop on commenting strategies.
I’ve also been involved with applying for and receiving a grant from the Writing Board (similar to the WAC and Writing Center programs at UW-Madison) to support faculty running writing-intensive courses. We’ve created a Writing Working group bringing together faculty interested in creating and running writing-intensive courses. We sponsor writing lunches, maybe one per semester, when faculty members who are really dedicated to fostering a culture of excellent writing in our courses get together for lunch and hear presentations from colleagues about what they’re doing to support and develop writing in their courses and departments.
Collins: In our Biology 151/152 staff meeting today, we were talking about the ways we can support students’ writing needs broadly. Students come in not particularly prepared to write in science, so even just basic paragraph structure and clarity. So we’re trying to figure out the back-and-forth of supporting students’ big ideas and the ways they express them. That’s a persistent challenge we’re working on.
In Biology 151, most writing happens in lab and in course writing assignments we’ve been trying out, which are short summary and reflection pieces on content from lecture. So in those cases I’m involved in training TAs to evaluate and to guide students. So I have a hand in that.
I’ve had an interesting experience of having to coach students to practice a more professional tone in emailing and communicating with peers. That’s a really important professional practice to know how to address people and what’s appropriate and what’s not. That wasn’t something I foresaw working with, but they’re really struggling with that.
Biology 151 is not a Comm-B course, but we do try to canvas lot of communication styles, so students have written in one lab a professional business letter addressing a concern about a hypothetical farmer/client and an internal memo to their lab to think about how to address audience via content and tone. They’ve done more formal write-ups. For the last lab, they’ll be doing PowerPoint presentations. So the end of each lab is as much about processing what they’ve done as it is about communicating their findings. So writing and communication is a huge part of 151.
What advice would you offer to graduate students about the importance of preparing to teach writing (or with writing) as part of a faculty career?
Biehler: The skill of teaching writing is also an interpersonal skill. No matter what you’re doing in life, the interpersonal communication that goes on in helping students to be better and more self-aware writers are always going to be important. And it’s sometimes awkward and uncomfortable to be working through those skills and challenges with students, but having done that is so beneficial to any kind of interpersonal interaction you might have later on in life.
As someone who’s gone through Comm-B training and served as a Comm-B Fellow, I think I’m a much better colleague. I think I can contribute more to my department as we work to support student writers in the major.
Also, when I was applying for faculty positions, I always included something about how I think writing is not a separate skill but is actually part and parcel of teaching students critical thinking skills and teaching them to be really aware critical thinkers. That idea about how writing functions was always part of how I pitched myself as an applicant for faculty positions, and I hoped that people hiring me would really value that, and I found a place where colleagues really do value that.
Collins: I can’t think of a class where writing wouldn’t be helpful in some form. Anything these students are going to do requires communication. We exist as a species that lives because we communicate. Again, to get back to that idea about setting intentions: it’s easy to assign a term paper because it’s such an archetypal assignment that exists in the consciousness of academia, but for it to really be meaningful, you have to think about why you want to do it, what you want the students to get out of it, and you have to be receptive to what students do get out of it. One of the exciting things about writing is that you can’t really control what people get out of the process, and that’s one of the virtues of it, that there’s a kind of ownership that happens when you really write about ideas and that that can happen in a lot of different ways. So knowing why you’re doing it and being mindful of where you’re students going for it, and you won’t be ready for those if you don’t think ahead.