Not It! Resistance to Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum

Science Writing, Undergraduate Students, Writing Across the Curriculum / Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

By Kathleen Daly –

Kathleen Daly is a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric and is currently serving as the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison. Her dissertation looks at how arguments are made from and with Big Data, both within and outside of academia.

For the past three years, I’ve worked in the UW-Madison Writing Center and, for the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working as Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program where I have worked with faculty members, instructional staff and teaching assistants from a range of disciplines, including plant pathology, political science, sociology, psychology, history, physics, and more. 

In almost every part of my WAC work—from the writing center workshops that I teach to the one-on-one consultations I hold to the large teacher training events I co-lead with the Director of WAC, Brad Hughes—there is one question that never fails to come up. In fact, I often can’t even go five minutes without having someone ask it. Any guesses what it is?

“How do I teach writing without having to cut out course content?”

The question isn’t always as straightforward as that (and doesn’t always take the form of a question). Other variations of this concern have included:

“That sounds great, but I don’t have time to spend on writing with all of the content I need to cover.”

“I have too much content to cover to worry about teaching writing. Besides, shouldn’t the instructors teaching required composition courses be responsible for teaching students how to write?”

“I’m disappointed with students’ papers, but teaching writing is too much work and I need to cover content.”

Understandably, instructors are concerned that students are only getting a shallow pass through their field, especially when teaching non-majors. Instructors want their students to engage with the maximum amount of disciplinary ideas that a semester allows, with the hope that the material will spark their students’ curiosity and result in a greater understanding of the course topic/content.

But what many instructors don’t realize is that writing can be an integral part of deepening student learning. In writing assignments, students grapple with both content and disciplinary conventions. Writing helps students make new connections with course content and gives them the opportunity to both speak and be heard.

Reflecting on Learning: Conversations in a WAC/Delta Course

UW-Madison Delta Program

This semester, I am teaching a course through University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Delta program, which is a part of the University’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (an NSF sponsored center for learning and teaching in higher education). The Delta program is designed to support STEM faculty and future faculty in the development of effective teaching practices. The following three principles are central to the Delta program’s mission:

1. Teaching-as-Research
By applying research methods—idea, experiment, observation, analysis, improvement—to the challenge of teaching, the Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning:

  • Brings the skills of research faculty to the ongoing investigation of student learning
  • Promotes innovation in teaching and measurement of student learning
  • Advances the role of instructors in the ongoing improvement of teaching practices

2. Learning Communities
Through collaborative activities and programs, the Delta Program creates a community of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty that will:

  • Support and validate growth in teaching and learning
  • Create a foundation for institutional change

3. Learning-through-Diversity
Recognizing the common challenges in teaching and learning and the strength in bringing together diverse views, the Delta Program is:

  • Interdisciplinary—serving all science, engineering, and mathematics departments
  • Cross-generational—bringing together graduate students, postdocs, and both new and experienced faculty
  • Comprehensive—providing knowledge, practice, and community
  • Responsive—reflecting the broad range of responsibilities that face today’s faculty
  • Inclusive—welcoming for a multifaceted and diverse group of people

The Delta course that I am teaching is called Expeditions in Learning: Exploring How Students Learn with Writing Across the Curriculum. This course follows an expeditionary learning model, grounded in adult learning theory, where participants can develop new questions about teaching and learning and create methods for exploring answers to those questions. The primary goal of the course is to learn from each other’s experiences and develop new answers and ideas for future teaching. The participants in this course include graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members from a variety of disciplines and with a wide range of teaching experiences.

John Bean’s Engaging Ideas

A couple of weeks ago, the course participants and I were discussing a chapter from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Our conversation lingered on a section from Bean’s first chapter aimed at debunking four myths about teaching with writing. Predictably, one of the myths, or discouraging beliefs, Bean chose to highlight in this section was, “Emphasizing writing and critical thinking in my courses will take time away from content.”

To address this misconception about teaching with writing, Bean explains that, “one must first distinguish between how much a teacher ‘covers’ in a given course and how much students actually learn in a usable way.” One thing that is important to remember is that the content covered in any given course is always already a selection made from a much larger pool of possible texts, ideas, concepts, and whatever other material might exist that is relevant to the course topic or theme.

Bean goes on to explain that “…[I]ntegrating writing and critical thinking components into a course can increase the amount of subject matter that students actually learn. My assertion may seem counterintuitive until one realizes that these assignments can restructure the way students study outside of class. Critical thinking tasks—which require students to use their expanding knowledge of subject matter to address disciplinary problems—motivate better study habits by helping students see their learning as purposeful and interesting.”

In support of Bean’s claims, many of the participants in my Delta course shared that the most memorable learning experiences from their undergraduate (and graduate) careers happened through writing. None of the participants remember ever being aware of missing content (or feeling like the content covered was lacking) because of a writing assignment. On the contrary, all of them claimed that, in most cases, the writing assignments they completed for graduate and/or undergraduate courses helped to deepen their engagement with and understanding of course content.

Interrogating the Content Versus Writing Debate

So why is it that the teaching of writing and the teaching of content are so often perceived as being mutually exclusive to one another? In other words, why do instructors often see teaching writing as inhibiting the teaching of content?

As I mentioned earlier, I have had conversations with instructors who have initially dismissed the idea of teaching writing in their courses, usually arguing something like, “Students should have learned how to write in their freshman composition course.”

Not only does this argument assume that learning to write is a linear process and that students can transfer writing skills across disciplines and between courses and writing experiences with ease, but it also assumes that all students have the same literacy privileges and prior writing experiences. Many of our students are multilingual, and many students have home languages that are not standard english.

For the majority of our students, disciplinary writing practices can be inaccessible, especially if they are new to writing at the college level or are new to the discipline. Although first-year composition courses are often designed to introduce students to different modes of academic writing, the instructors for these courses do not (and cannot) bear sole responsibility for preparing students to write well. There is also a large number of students who tested out of required composition courses (either through advanced placement testing in high school or via placement tests taken during orientation) and thus have little to no experience writing at the college level or in discipline-specific genres. And, while UW-Madison does require students to take at least one “Communication-B” course, a discipline-specific writing intensive course aimed at introducing students to the genres, styles, and communication practices of a particular discipline, students should not be expected to come out of these courses with a mastery of writing in that field. Writing is a complex, recursive skill that requires practice, feedback, and guidance for students to excel.

“The Neurobiology of Writing,” PhD Comic: Jorge Cham

Another challenge that arises in conversations about teaching writing is that many instructors do not feel prepared to teach writing in their courses. Often this is the case due to instructors never having engaged in explicit conversations about writing in their discipline or due to instructors conflating teaching writing with teaching grammar/mechanics, the rules of which they may have difficulty articulating. In response to claims about their inability to teach writing, I try to push instructors to see the bigger picture of writing in their discipline and to focus on global, paragraph-level or whole-paper concerns (like organization and structure) rather than local, sentence-level concerns (like grammar and punctuation).

Quality Over Quantity

Not just any writing assignment will do. Writing is not a magical solution for increasing student learning. It takes a lot of work to design and use writing assignments effectively.

Spring 2016 Issue of the UW-Madison WAC Newsletter, Time to Write

The Spring 2016 issue of the UW-Madison WAC program’s newsletter, Time to Write, features a study from the November 2015 issue of Research in the Teaching of English in which collaborators from the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Council of Writing Program Administrators provide empirical evidence of the value of writing assignments in undergraduate courses, both across the curriculum and across the nation. This evidence-based investigation marks one of the few large-scale, multi-institutional studies that examines writing and learning. However, unlike other similarly sized studies, which often are limited to prescriptions for the increased quantity of writing, this study explores questions of the quality of writing and writing assignments as they relate to increased student learning.

The study found that when writing assignments have the following three characteristics, students engage in deeper learning:

  • Interactive Writing Processes…“which involve the student writers communicating orally or in writing with one or more persons at some point between receiving an assignment and submitting the final draft. [Examples include] conferencing with their students, incorporating peer review in their classes, and encouraging their students to visit the campus writing centers to discuss their drafts” (Anderson, et al. 206).
  • Meaning-Making Writing Tasks…“which require students to engage in some form of integrative, critical, or original thinking. Examples include asking students to apply a concept learned in class to their past experience, relate knowledge learned in another class to knowledge presented in the current class, support a contestable claim with evidence, or evaluate a policy, practice, or position.” (Anderson, et al. 207).
  • Clear Writing Expectations … “which involve instructors providing students with an accurate understanding of what they are asking their students to show that they can do in an assignment and the criteria by which the instructors will evaluate the students’ submissions… [Examples include] presenting assignments in writing…and creating, distributing, and discussing grading rubrics when assignments are first given to students (Anderson, et al. 207).

By taking into consideration our students’ diverse experiences with writing and working to design writing assignments that offer students clear insight into course learning goals, assignment evaluation criteria, and possibilities for approaching the writing process, we can help move students to deepen their understanding of course material in a way that allows for active engagement with the questions and concepts that structure our various disciplines.

Concluding Questions

  • For those of you who are writing center tutors, can you think of a time where you were convinced by a student’s drafts that the student was really learning? (Bonus points for giving an example from disciplines where writing is less likely to be assigned!)
  • For those of you who do WAC work, how do you negotiate these questions and conversations about content versus writing?

Featured Photo

WAC Director Brad Hughes giving a plenary to (nonresistant) teaching assistants at the Spring 2017 Communication-B TA Training


Anderson, Paul, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, and Charles Paine. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.2 (2015): 199-235.

Bean, John C.. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

7 Replies to “Not It! Resistance to Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum”

  1. Thanks, Kathleen, for giving us a peek into the training of writing instructors across disciplines — whether they want the title or not, I’m sure that’s exactly what they become!

    I’m going to follow up on the RTE article you cite here, which might address what I’m about to say, but I find myself thinking about the distinction between creative and critical writing assignments and wondering if it’s in the “meaning-making writing tasks” that much of that distinction might be lost. After all, creative writing is all about making meaning and making worlds, albeit in forms and styles that are markedly different from most (all?) academic writing genres. I wonder if the instructors you work with have experimented with what might be called “creative” writing assignments in their classes, or if “creativity” in assignments might be met with its own resistance?

    I’ve definitely worked with students on biology and ecology papers that took if not a creative at least a reflective approach to making meaning. For instance, a first-year student I worked with last year needed to write a two-page reflection on a natural thing after an interval of some time (something like attending to how a plant changes in appearance after the passage of time) and make connections between her observations and the course content. I remember the student really struggled with the assignment — she wasn’t sure what it was asking for, in large part because it didn’t sound like a traditional academic paper. Through prompting and conversation, though, she started making the connections the assignment asked for; learning happened.

  2. Thanks for this excellent statement of our case! I’m inspired to have these conversations with disciplinary faculty again. They do go just as you say though. The two things in my short time here that have brought writing instruction into places it was not before have been structural, not from my persuasive abilities J

    The first has been the necessity of creating 100 (developmental) level courses in the disciplines for our many underprepared students. Because the courses are new, and come before the introductory (200 level) survey courses, they aren’t wedded to covering content, and sometimes assign writing. I can think of one assignment in history (not an unexpected discipline–not expecting bonus points) that I worked with some students on that succeeded in encouraging thinking: students had to think from *and write from* opposing sides of an historical event, in editorials from opposing newspapers. Making students write from both sides encouraged productive mental struggle in the students I worked with, not only in the viewpoints but how to express them. Not disciplinary writing, but some of these students may have been 3 semesters from passing our equivalent of Comm A. It would have been inadvisable if not impermissible for these students to take history before this class was introduced.

    The other structural change is ongoing, so I have no report from it, but I am hopeful. Our new AA requirements will include one from a list of high impact practices, including a writing-intensive course. I am hoping that will induce more departments to offer writing-intensive courses more regularly at the 200 level. I don’t know how that will play out, but the arguments you give should make more faculty feel like they/we can do it, Because we can!

    Thanks again. Your post is so encouraging!

    Andy Karr
    Coordinator, Wausau Homes Learning Center
    UW-Marathon County

  3. Thank you for this post about your experiences working with instructors in other disciplines, Kathleen!

    I was particularly interested in the study you cite (Anderson et al., 2015), and how three characteristics of the writing assignments facilitated students’ engagement in deeper learning. You explained that assignments with (1) Interactive Writing Processes and (2) Meaning Making Writing Tasks produced deeper learning.

    Perhaps this is also discussed in the study, but I was wondering about your thoughts too: To what extent is the notion of audience discussed in the WAC work you’ve done with instructors/faculty? For much of the writing that faculty do, they are writing to an audience of other scholars or researchers in their field, and sometimes (but less frequently) the public. In your conversations with faculty, do they try to think about their students’ audience and readers in ways beyond the traditional “instructor as audience” or “classmates as audience” or “disciplinary experts as audience”? In other words, has any instructor you’ve worked with had students write to imaginary audiences or unconventional readers (e.g. the student’s grandparents or a child)? For example, can a chemistry major benefit from trying to write about and explain findings of an experiment to their grade school aged cousin, etc.?

  4. Kathleen, thank you for bringing attention to this topic. Just reading about people’s assumption that content delivery should take precedence over teaching with writing (which I often hear) makes my blood pressure increase.

    To me, one of the most important indications of how writing supports learning is how it helps students to connect course content to their own lives. I often see writing perform this function in Gender and Women’s Studies writing assignments. When I work with students, they’ll say things like, “Wow, I wasn’t too surprised to learn how sexism is a problem, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be to explain why in writing.” Imagine graduating a student who knew about the wage gap but had never practiced articulating her stance. I see writing perform a similar function in classes I’ve taught that deal with diversity. Students will say, “Wow, I didn’t think I held any racist views, but seeing statements I make in my writing shows I need to think about things more.”

    I’ve also seen writing perform this connecting work in the essays majors on campus require students to write in order to be admitted. Writing an essay helps students to articulate exactly why they want to study finance or computer science. Who wouldn’t want to encourage their students to know precisely why they are here?

    I think the argument in favor of content starts to look pretty weak when we extend it to other modes of literacy. How much can a person really remember from their reading? How long will they remember the content of that 60-minute lecture, even with notes? How challenging is it to paraphrase something they’ve learned in their own words? It’s quite difficult. And if people can’t explain what they remember, do they actually remember it? We need to view students as more than containers for knowledge but as people who need training in communication to put their knowledge into practice.

    1. Zach, I like what you say here regarding students being more than containers for knowledge.
      Kathleen, as I was reading your post, I kept thinking about what you mention about Bean and the Delta course acknowledging how their most lastingly memorable learning experience have happened through writing. Sometimes I get disheartened about the amount of things that I’ve forgotten from my undergraduate (and graduate) classes. I sat through a semester’s worth of lectures about the philosophy of religion when I was a sophomore, and the only thing I remember is Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical, and that’s because I wrote a paper about it.
      Of course content is important, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think that students are going to actually carry with them everything we talk about in class. But they might hold on to the concepts that they interrogate and investigate further in their writing. And what is more, the interrogation/investigation process might inform their development as active, critical thinkers–not just content containers.

      1. Hi Matthew,

        I’ve been struck by your last paragraph, and have been unpacking it in my mind all night. It suggests something very important. “Of course content is important” is a reassurance to someone who thinks we don’t believe that. Then “but we’re fooling ourselves if” suggests that maybe we don’t believe it, or at least not in the same way they (presumably teachers who focus on content to the exclusion of anything else) do. The “we” puts you back with the teachers, which is a nice move if you can do it, or with the disembodied voice of academic pursuits in school. We (from WAC) could go a lot further than humbly pointing out that students remember more from writing a paper about Kiergegaard than listening to a lecture. Bean’s book was so important in getting more instructors to realize that! Rather than humbly begging for a day to teach writing, we could ask why the content takes 15 weeks?

        If your “we” above does suggest a conversation among people speaking with the disembodied voice of academic pursuits in school, escaping the power structures and commitments that maintain the status quo, where is that happening? If it is not, how can we encourage it? How are we going to quit fooling ourselves?

        Andy Karr

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