Staying in Our Lane: WAC as Rhet/Comp Diplomacy

A dog waits patiently in the driver's seat of a car. Clearly skilled in diplomacy, this good pup waits patiently to make a strategic difference.

Burgeoning writing programs face a number of predictable challenges. Among the most common is an external perception that writing is not a “real” academic discipline. Rhet/comp scholars often struggle to explain to other departments that composition has its own literature and that we teach content far more influential, and more complex, than grammar rules. Yet few outside our discipline receive writing training beyond rules and standards. Further, tools like Grammarly and our word processors present “good” writing as error avoidance. Current trends and past pedagogies combine to subvert the wisdom of decades of rhet/comp research. Put simply, administrators and our colleagues often dismiss writing studies as a non-discipline. To resist the inertia of this dismissal, I propose employing diplomacy in defense of effective writing programs.

This post is the text of a talk I gave at the NJCEA 2024 conference at Seton Hall University on March 23, 2024.

Specifically, writing-across-the-curriculum/writing-in-the-disciplines (WAC/WID) programs highlight the ubiquitous role of writing throughout academia and use scholarship in our field to inform pedagogical choices in other departments. These programs show the benefit of competent, research-based writing instruction in any academic setting. Yet sometimes a WAC program can be a victim of its own relevance. Faculty in other departments don’t want to be told how to teach, and they understandably challenge the expertise of writing faculty in the context of non-writing fields. Further, discussions of teaching writing in other classes trigger protestations that teaching writing is our job, not theirs. Faculty in other departments want to teach only their subject. The problem, as we all know, is that teaching a subject without teaching how to write for that subject separates knowledge from knowledge construction and prevents students from becoming functional members of the discourse community.

WAC as Diplomacy

In light of those very real challenges, I want to offer hope. Taking an optimistic approach, I propose that strategic use of WAC concepts can address common concerns while simultaneously strengthening our position. I will show how “staying in our lane” can bring recognition and alignment when working with external stakeholders of all stripes. Clarifying where our expertise lies, and where its boundaries are, can help writing programs establish our territory and signal to stakeholders the benefits we offer. I will present ways to position a WAC program that resonate with outside constituencies and reinforce our expertise—without stepping on anyone’s toes. In short, I will demonstrate using WAC as a tool for diplomacy.

Rhet/comp scholarship is replete with practical approaches to teaching and assessment that can benefit any instructor—in many cases, even those outside our field. Sharing what we’ve learned as a discipline about effective teaching can help reinforce our value within academia. But we cannot pretend to tell others how to teach. To do so would create animosity and interdepartmental tensions because it would overstep our authority. We need a way to benefit entire institutions by applying disciplinary wisdom. We can do this effectively by implementing WAC. I propose strategically using WAC instruction to:

  • recognize the disciplinary expertise of non-writing instructors,
  • keep writing teachers focused on our strengths,
  • clarify students’ roles as learners, and
  • encourage dialogue across the institution.

In short, by staying in our lane—by emphasizing the fundamental principles of Writing Across the Curriculum—rhet/comp scholars can improve our institutions…and our own reputations.

The Local Need for Diplomacy

My current context at Kean offers a clear case in point. Currently a teaching institution aspiring toward R2 status, we currently stand divided between two worlds. On the one hand, we pride ourselves on our students’ diversity, the care we offer them while enrolled, and the social mobility we empower after graduation. On the other hand, we expect our faculty to engage in previously unheard-of levels of research while teaching ever-larger class sizes. It’s as though we—or specifically our provost—wants to have our cake after eating it. It seems that, at Kean, we need to teach underprepared students, foreground research activity, and raise the bar for productivity. I’m working to show both our faculty and our administration that writing studies is uniquely positioned to address our immediate needs.

As a Provost Faculty Fellow during the Spring 2024 semester, I have created a four-course faculty-development workshop sequence designed as a pilot of WAC certification training. Positioned as a way to simplify and streamline writing assignments in any class, these sessions serve to introduce basic WAC principles to our faculty. Importantly, these sessions also allow me to test how receptive Kean faculty are to these principles. Through this work I have discovered that faculty are eager to learn from our field, are ready to create nontraditional writing assignments, and are determined to welcome students into their respective discourse communities. They just need the tools—including the vocabulary—to help them do so. Each of the five sessions I’ve run to date has generated disappointing attendance but encouraging feedback. From those sessions, I derived the four goals of WAC instruction mentioned earlier. Now let’s look at how each one works.

Recognizing Expertise

Disciplinary faculty are experts in their field. In fact, we have to rely on their expertise to identify, define, and critique discipline-appropriate writing. This is one case where the legendary arrogance of academics can work to our advantage: By stroking the egos of colleagues outside our discipline, we offer positive reinforcement for behaviors they want to continue. It’s a win-win scenario, and using it to our advantage can help us build alliances. When colleagues at Kean hear me say I can help them make writing assignments more effective for them, they’re intrigued. When I say it requires their expertise, not mine, to determine what makes for good writing in their field, they appreciate the perspective. I effectively tell them that they know more than they think they do.

More importantly, suggesting that they have expertise in their form(s) of disciplinary writing establishes the idea that “good” writing is different in different scenarios. That understanding—that “good” writing differs by discipline—is essential to building collaborative interdisciplinary working relationships. It also preempts a common problem writing teachers experience. I frequently hear faculty complaining that “students don’t know how to write.” What those faculty really mean is that students don’t know how to write according to the expectations of their discipline. That complaint is actually to be expected because students don’t yet know the varied disciplinary writing expectations. Knowing why students struggle to write in a variety of fields helps us stand up for students.

When I tell faculty I’m not qualified to grade writing in their classes, I help them understand the limitations of writing classes. If I can’t judge good writing outside my discipline, I also can’t teach students how to write in those disciplines. Furthermore, faculty should not expect students to possess writing knowledge without explicit instruction. My position helps faculty understand the fallacy behind complaints that students don’t know how to write. The conversation shifts to helping students understand that writing is situational.

Focusing on Strengths

Now let’s look at the strengths writing teachers can bring to the proverbial table. What might happen if we start to think of ourselves as professional consultants? Our specialized expertise means we can advise faculty on ways to construct authentic writing tasks, promote writers’ development, and provide meaningful assessment. These are all things faculty do routinely, yet our discipline specializes in studying how to effectively manage those tasks. Leaning into those skills as a unique strength can help establish writing as a legitimate academic discipline in its own right. Teaching WAC concepts shows faculty across the institution what it is that we do in writing studies.

While focusing on our disciplinary strengths does have its advantages, there is a caveat. One aspect of writing-studies scholarship makes the idea of faculty-as-consultant potentially tricky. Since its inception, our field has focused on pedagogy. Much of the literature of our field discusses the implications of writing concepts and the ways our teaching can accommodate the new knowledge. Therein lies the quicksand. It’s easy for writing faculty to critique teaching styles or suggest new ones. But that’s not our job, our field, or our place. Once we overstep our authority and start telling others how to teach, we lose our credibility. Instead, we should focus on how to work with writing in relation to how folks teach their disciplines.

Clarifying Roles

Students learn writing in the context of various disciplines, not just a Writing 101 course. Ultimately, they are learning to think/act/believe/value in accordance with each discourse community. In the words of John Seely Brown and Paul DuGuid, they aren’t learning about; they are learning to be. That kind of deep learning requires not just book knowledge but also experience. Students can read a vehicle owner’s manual and the rules of the road all they want. But until they actually get behind the wheel and try to actually drive, they lack the experiential knowledge essential for skill-building. In other words, students learn by doing. How often do we give students the opportunity to practice a situational skill before they’re accountable for possessing it?

Writing can help here. Effective writing assignments ask students to take on a disciplinary role—to inhabit a persona relevant to the field. In this way, students practice not just writing the way we do but, critically, thinking/acting/believing/valuing the way we do. They learn by imagining a specific scenario that calls for writing in response. Put another way, a carefully crafted writing assignment helps students understand their identities as rhetors, clarifies the exigence of a writing scenario, and sets clear expectations for the purposes of their writing. Effective writing assignments help students understand their role as novice members of our specific disciplinary discourse communities.

Encouraging Dialogue

Writing teachers can’t teach students everything they need to know about writing in every field. Fortunately, faculty from other disciplines have experience with the kinds of writing students learn to do in that discipline. Thus, successful writing assignments require collaboration. WAC instruction establishes the foundation of working with writing scholars to improve teaching and learning across the disciplines. In other words, WAC helps rhet/comp scholars position ourselves as valuable resources. Our colleagues can reach out to us for advice and guidance related to using writing in their classes.

Similarly, we can learn the value of our expertise within our campus communities by engaging with our colleagues. Localized value comes from localized dialogue. When we apply the lens of composition studies to the specific, material concerns of instructors at our institutions, we become attuned to their needs and concerns. From there, we can play the part of the expert outside consultant. That role allows us to help our colleagues improve the way they work with writing in their classes. That process starts by seeking out problem spots and identifying opportunities to help. In my limited experience at Kean, promising to help simplify and speed up the process of working with writing assignments serves as a near-universal desire among faculty. We have the ability to address that concern directly.

Conclusion: Writing Diplomacy in(to) our Discipline

I want to end with a call to action of sorts. I challenge everyone in rhet/comp to view our work beyond the context of our classrooms. Typically, our primary charge is to improve the writing knowledge and skill of students in our courses. However, the greatest value we offer our institutions goes beyond the courses we teach. If we consider the impact we can have by improving writing instruction across the institution, we should feel compelled to engage in WAC diplomacy. Those of us who study how writing, writing assignments, and writing instruction work in academia need to share that knowledge beyond the boundaries of our discipline.

We need to think, as a field, about the impact we might have if we go beyond disciplinary conferences, disciplinary journals, and disciplinary collaborations. The true value of writing-studies scholarship can only be realized by applying it outside our own domains. Writing Across the Curriculum provides the opportunity we need to further establish our field, demonstrate our value, and improve the quality and effectiveness of instruction all across our institutions. I challenge us all to go out and become WAC ambassadors, sharing the benefits of our disciplinary knowledge with others. Maybe, just maybe, we can help faculty and students alike use writing effectively and gain administrative recognition for our contributions. What a world that would be.