Writing at Urban R2 Institutions: Expectations, Limitations, and Aspirations

A soft, fluffy, mottled-coat dog with adorable floppy ears rests its chin on a laptop, staring up at the screen, forlorn. The dog is right: Writing *is* hard. This good dog needs a good WAC program for support. And a treat.

As Kean University transitions from a teaching-centric institution to an urban research institution, foundational writing classes (such as the required ENG 1030) face an opportunity to transition along with the school. Academic writing plays a key role in both research and education. That role makes writing a component to shaping the identity of the school and the preparation of its students. Foundational writing courses can engage students and faculty alike in a campus-wide conversation about the nature and uses of writing in academia. That campus-wide conversation about writing is at the heart of what are commonly called Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs. WAC programs are commonplace at research institutions nationwide and are already in place across the entire CUNY system. That includes Baruch College, where our new Provost is from, and Hunter College, where our new Associate Provost of Faculty Development hails from. In other words, Kean’s new upper-level administration is already familiar with WAC programming and results at other institutions. My goal today is to explain how WAC works and what it could look like here at Kean.

This post is the text of a talk I gave at the English Studies Colloquium at Kean University on Nov 15, 2023.

WAC and Research

Faculty at teaching institutions often use writing as an assessment mechanism, testing students’ retention, recall, and processing of course content. By contrast, faculty at research institutions rely heavily on writing for knowledge creation and dissemination. In these cases, writing serves a variety of purposes, with each one tied to a specific disciplinary practice. Researchers use writing because it does things in the world, beyond the walls of the classroom. Students learn those disciplinary practices from their faculty, who actively contribute to the discourses students aspire to join. It may seem odd to suggest that faculty outside the writing program should teach students about writing. However, this approach emphasizes the specific expertise each member of the faculty can contribute.

At an urban research institution like what Kean aspires to become, students learn to use writing in discipline-specific ways. Teaching disciplinary writing practices presents a number of challenges, most notably related to qualifications, which I’ll return to later. Addressing those challenges at a research-heavy school takes deliberate, coordinated efforts from across the campus and across the curriculum. In this presentation, I want to introduce a commonly used framework for thinking about writing—and writing classes—at research institutions. I’ll review what people expect out of foundational writing classes, note some key limitations we will face if we roll out a WAC program of our own, and outline some aspirational goals for where a WAC-enriched writing curriculum might take us. I’ll dream big and suggest an integration of offices and elements that will have to work together to build a successful program. Afterward, we’ll strike up conversation with dedicated discussion time. Let’s imagine what an effective, intentional, vertically aligned writing program could look like at Kean.

Expectations—What People Think Writing Classes Do

First, let’s look at what people generally think foundational writing classes (like ENG 1030) do. All too often, instructors and institutions share misconceptions about writing studies as a discipline and writing classes. Bear in mind—spoiler alert here—each of these beliefs is wrong. But they’re worth discussing because they’re so prevalent, persistent, and evident in curriculum design. That is precisely why the imminent GE redesign really grabbed my attention. More on that in a bit. As Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs (2007) explain, most instructors and institutions alike think that…

  • [We can] teach, in one or two early courses, “college writing” as a set of basic, fundamental skills that will apply in other college courses and in business and public spheres after college.
  • Writing is not a real subject.
  • Writing courses do not require expert instructors.
  • Rhetoric and composition are not genuine research areas or legitimate intellectual pursuits.
  • Writing studies [is] a trivial, skill-teaching nondiscipline.

Wardle and Downs refer to classes designed around these beliefs as the “industry standard” pedagogy because they are so prevalent, particularly at institutions that do not house a research-based rhetoric and composition department or a well-managed WAC program.

The Problem with the Common Expectations

Put simply, a pervasive notion exists making people think it’s possible to teach “college writing”, as though there’s only one universal way to write in the university. But anyone who has read a scholarly journal from an unfamiliar discipline can attest, writing is used differently by people in different fields. As Wardle and Downs attest, “more than twenty years of research and theory have repeatedly demonstrated that such a unified academic discourse does not exist” (p. 552). Yet writing classes are often expected to teach that nonexistent discourse in only one or two courses aimed at first-year students. Our expectations for writing classes need to change.

To an extent, folks in rhetoric and composition have ourselves to blame. As best I can tell, writing studies is the only academic discipline that came into being in response to the prior existence of its classes. In every other case, people first studied something (like astronomy, calculus, geology, or social science), then decided they should teach classes showing students how to study that thing. The history of our discipline is a little different. Harvard University created the first first-year writing course in 1875. The scholarly journal College Composition and Communication debuted in 1950. The professional Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) formed in 1977 and published a statement of outcomes for first-year writing classes in 1999 (v3.0 revisions published in 2014). It only took 124 years, but we finally figured out what we teach!

Or did we.

Limitations—What Writing Classes Cannot Do

By now it should be clear that one or two first-year writing classes cannot definitively “fix” student writing. We can’t teach all the grammar issues that each teacher notices most when reading student work. Most importantly, we can’t teach students how to use the genres of other disciplines because we are not active members of those disciplines. Writing scholars don’t use the texts of other disciplines, so we can’t in our classes assert or assess the nature of those texts’ use. Writing classes are much more effective when writing instructors stay in our lane. If writing classes are taught by instructors with expertise and credentials in writing studies, then those instructors should teach students how to study writing as a writing scholar.

I mentioned a moment ago that writing studies drafted an Outcomes Statement for first-year writing. According to that WPA Outcomes Statement, introductory writing courses should teach students the following:

  • rhetorical knowledge
  • critical thinking, reading, and writing
  • process
  • knowledge of conventions

We can only do that if one the following is true: Perhaps all disciplines share a common approach to rhetoric, critical thinking, and language conventions. However, I cited Wardle and Downs stating that no such common approach exists. No two disciplines use writing the same way; nor do any two disciplines enact the same genres. Thus, some other condition must be true. The alternative is that students need specific instruction in the rhetorical, cognitive, and linguistic conventions unique to their major. Students must be taught how to write the way their discipline writes. But writing-studies scholars don’t write those ways. We only write the way our discipline writes.

Embracing Those Limits

Elizabeth Wardle (2004) agrees. She asserts, “people know and understand the genres used to mediate activity in their own disciplinary systems, but logically know little about genres that mediate activity in other disciplines,” asking writing-studies faculty to teach students how to write the genres of any and all disciplines across the institution is foolish—we lack awareness of, and certainly expertise in, the genres used in other departments. However, we can teach students to study writing the way we do. They can learn to see that writing mediates activity, shapes thinking, and establishes norms within communities.

Aspirations—What WAC Could Do

In other words, writing studies classes can teach students to study writing intelligently, helping them anticipate and adopt disciplinary needs more quickly. We can give students an introductory understanding of our discipline and give them the skills to see writing through our lens. Students could learn strategies for seeing writing as a flexible tool, not a prescribed formula. And they could enter other classes in other disciplines expecting differences in writing and understanding why those differences exist. It’s a bold, aspirational goal, and it won’t happen overnight. But that’s exactly what we’re here to discuss today.

Cautionary Tales

Before we look for a tailored solution, I want to share advice from writing-studies scholarship. As you might imagine, Kean is not the first institution to develop, implement, or theorize a WAC program. The literature in my field is full of program roll-out stories—both successes and failures. These stories generally follow one of two paths. If administration prompts the development of a WAC program and commits to support the initiative long-term, reports tend to end in satisfied success. At my alma mater UCF, “particular institutional supports had to be in place, and an advocate in upper administration needed to serve as the catalyst to ensure the attempted changes came to fruition” (Wardle, 2013). At Virginia State University, a campus-wide accreditation QEP process necessitated the creation of a successful WAC program with administrative support (Thomas, 2009).

By contrast, if a department designs a WAC program first and then later pitches it to administration, program reports tend to end with a disappointed fizzle. Virginia State’s earlier efforts at creating a WAC program did not succeed. As Thomas (2009) explains,

“Like many WAC programs across the country, the program was not sustained, in part because of inadequate support by the university. Likewise, several attempts were made by the department to develop a Writing Center, but the efforts were not supported by the university; and the Writing Center closed in 2003.”

Thomas, 2009, p. 2

Kean currently has no writing center. Again, our experience here is not unique and follows a predictable path. In an article introducing Colorado State’s 2005 WAC redesign, a pair of epigraphs reduce an all-too-common scenario to two pithy and predictable lines:

“I think this is a great solution to the problem.”

—Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs

“In its current form, unfortunately, it’s likely to fail.”

—Mike Palmquist

There is no one-size-fits-all, out-of-the-box solution for building a WAC program. Plenty of research (collected in McLeod et al., 2001; Bamberg, 2000; Palmquist, 2003; Palmquist, et al., 2020; WAC Clearinghouse, etc.) supports the need for customized solutions that account for varying forces, activity systems, and kairotic opportunities. In short, each institution must develop a WAC program tailored to its unique mission, students, and structures.

But at Kean…

For Kean, that’s a monumental challenge.

As we so often hear, Kean is “in a transition period” as we move from a teaching-focused institution to a research-driven one. If we build a WAC program for the Kean of today, we’ll doom ourselves to failure. Such a program won’t meet the needs of the institution we hope to become. Instead, we must build a WAC program for the Kean of tomorrow. We need to design a program custom-built for an affordable, public, urban research institution serving predominantly minority and first-generation students, many of whom are under-resourced and under-prepared. In other words, we need a WAC program that:

  • teaches students how to write like scholars,
  • teaches students how to think like their discipline, and
  • streamlines writing assignments for instructors and students alike.

Done well, a WAC program at Kean could highlight faculty research, help students see their own work as entering a disciplinary discourse, and establish a common language around writing to be used across the institution.

That last point—a common vocabulary and shared understanding—is critical. If students, instructors, GTAs, and tutors all speak the same language around writing, we can more easily align expectations and discuss trouble spots. Shared understanding of how writing works in various academic disciplines forms the foundation of this proposed WAC program. Getting everyone on campus to a shared understanding of writing will take a ton of coordination. Let’s look more carefully at what’s involved.

Integrations—A Proposal to Shape Our Identity With WAC

Successfully deploying WAC at Kean will require a collection of aligned initiatives. We can create a culture of academic writing and use a shared language about writing. To do that, support for WAC will have to come from multiple organizations. At a minimum, the following elements will be involved:

  • the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), hosting training and support for faculty across the institution
  • the GE program, integrating foundational writing-studies concepts in our core curriculum
  • the University Senate’s Writing Emphasis Committee, establishing standards for WE courses and coordinating WAC compliance
  • the Curriculum Committee, adopting and enforcing aligned Writing Emphasis requirements for relevant disciplinary courses
  • the Writing/Tutoring Center, helping students apply the new, shared curriculum across their courses and in a variety of assignments
  • the Coordinator of Composition, managing the writing-studies curriculum and adjunct training

Here’s what such a system of integrations might look like:

A complex diagram of departments, people, and programs connected by arrows indicating responsibilities and influence. The diagram centers on CTL, the WAC Program, and the Writing Center, with all three supported by writing faculty and all three supporting faculty in the majors, training programs, and students as appropriate.
WAC Proposal for Kean. Diagram inspired by, and derived from, Figure 16.2 in Palmquist (2000), p. 378.

How This WAC Plan Works

This proposal centers on a WAC Program that relies heavily on CTL and the Writing/Tutoring Center to provide its outreach and support resources. Faculty with expertise in writing studies would staff the administrative positions, support CTL’s work with faculty development, and train tutors. Such tutor training will be necessary, as the focus of our writing classes will shift. Our current tutors did not learn WAC-aligned content in the foundational writing courses they took.

If the WAC Program, CTL, and Writing/Tutoring Center align their expectations and resources, we could build a consistent conversation around writing at Kean. At that point, we would have laid the groundwork of support for wider roll-out. The cornerstone of that roll-out would would be an Intro to Writing Studies course, essentially an update to our existing ENG 1030 curriculum. That updated course would teach students how to analyze the rhetorical situation of various genres enacted in discourse communities. We could teach students to analyze the communities with which they’re already familiar. Then, students could draw on those transferrable skills when encountering new writing situations and discourse communities.

Additionally, CTL could provide faculty workshops designed to help faculty create effective and clear writing assignments. In those workshops, faculty would learn the same language that students are taught in their required writing course. This shared vocabulary would facilitate transfer of writing knowledge and practiced skills.

Credential Requirements

Critically, we would train specialized faculty in each major to pay careful attention to the normalized, unspoken writing expectations of their disciplines. Those trained faculty would then teach the courses designated as Writing Emphasis in each program. To that end, the University Senate’s Writing Emphasis Committee is developing standards for such courses. Our goal with that work is twofold. First, we want to give the Writing Emphasis designation clear and consistent meaning across the university. Second, we want to ensure that Writing Emphasis courses follow rationally and conceptually from the foundation established in a future Intro to Writing Studies curriculum.

To be abundantly clear, if we are to teach an Intro to Writing Studies core course, that course should be taught by instructors with expertise and credentials in writing studies. However, the discipline-specific Writing Emphasis courses, akin to an update to our current Research & Tech classes, should not be taught be writing-studies faculty. Instead, they should be taught by instructors with expertise and credentials in their discipline and supplemental writing training from CTL. In that training, faculty would learn the concepts students learn in the updated ENG 1030 class and apply those concepts to their course and assignment designs.

A Solution?

In the introduction to this talk, I asserted that Kean needs a WAC program that does three things. Each item on that list is addressed by one specific aspect of the integrated solution I just proposed. To review, I said our WAC program needs to:

  • teach students how to write like scholars (which an Intro to Writing Studies course could explain, though students need continued practice to become consistently competent),
  • teach students how to think like their discipline (which a Writing Emphasis certified, discipline-specific Research & Tech-type course could introduce), and
  • streamline writing assignments (which a robust faculty training program could offer as incentive to complete WAC workshops).

A supported, persistent WAC program can help prepare our students for the work of the academy. It could also reinforce Kean’s image as a research-focused institution. Indeed, implementing a WAC program acknowledges decades of writing-studies research and applies best practices from that field to our particular institutional challenges.

Possible WAC Implementation Timeline

Our GE revision project and the need for significant structural support to roll out a campus-wide WAC program reduce predictability. However, the following timeline seems optimistic yet reasonable, assuming continued enthusiastic administrative support:

  • Fall ’23 — Secure administrative support; draft WAC Mission Statement; establish WE guidelines
  • Spring ’24 — Develop faculty training materials and curricular frameworks (GE & WE courses)
  • Fall ’24 — “Early-adopter” training, prioritizing those teaching GE writing courses
  • Spring ’25 — WAC Fellows training, prioritizing those teaching disciplinary Research & Tech
  • Fall ’25 — Full-faculty workshops, prioritizing upper-level, writing-heavy disciplinary courses
  • Ongoing — Routine training for GTAs and GE writing instructors, regular faculty workshops, on-demand consultation via CTL

Necessary Support

Five decades of writing-studies research tell a consistent story regarding the support needed for a successful WAC program. According to the WAC Clearinghouse’s design-recommendations page:

Regardless of the specific design of individual WAC programs, the WAC literature and the example of long-standing WAC programs point to certain features of sustainable and successful WAC program designs:

  • A designated leader or leadership team with writing expertise and appropriate release time.
  • An operating budget appropriate for the scope of the program design.
  • Support from stakeholders across disciplines through a campus writing advisory board or an academic senate writing committee.
  • A clear and realistic mission for the WAC program.
  • Campus writing curricular reforms and adequate faculty development and student support to insure the success of the initiatives.
  • Both grassroots development and top-down support from administration and faculty governance bodies.
  • A timeline for developing and implementing WAC that takes into account the fact that WAC programs are not a “quick fix” for teachers’ concerns about student writing, but rather a long-term commitment to transforming the campus culture of writing.

Obviously, Kean presently has very few of these necessary features in place, which highlights the challenges ahead. We have (infra)structural work to do before this program can roll out. But it’s possible to imagine a program that relies on and celebrates the disciplinary expertise of researchers across the campus.

Anticipated Resistance—Or, “Brace Yourselves: WAC Objections are Coming”

Speaking of challenges, we can also expect non-trivial faculty pushback.

The obstacles we will face are, to an extent, predictable. Indeed, I had an amusing situation occur after a recent meeting of the University Senate’s Writing Emphasis Committee. The most recent meeting was both productive and collegial. Later in the day after that meeting, while reading scholarship about WAC program design, I found parts of our discussion essentially reprinted in an academic journal. That meeting took place one month ago. The article in question was published 23 years ago, yet it read like a transcript.

In that prescient text, Mike Palmquist from Colorado State warns that, “despite the tendency of most WAC programs to invest heavily in faculty training and outreach, faculty are the most likely—and typically the most vocal—sources of resistance to WAC initiatives” (p. 376). He goes on, quoting Susan McLeod, to say such resistance can “gradually wear away even the most first firmly established institutional program” (McLeod, p. 343, qtd. on Palmquist, p. 377). Palmquist lists these three forms of faculty resistance (p. 377), each one echoed unprompted by a member of the Writing Emphasis Committee:

  • “lack of expertise and/or inclination to teach and respond to writing,” articulated by a colleague from CSMT
  • “concern that incorporating writing into courses would reduce the amount of instruction provided in the content area,” articulated by a colleague from MGC
  • “programmatic concern about replacing existing courses with writing-intensive courses (an issue of particular importance at public institutions operating under state-mandated ceilings on the number of credits that can be required for graduation),” articulated by a colleague from CLA, referencing the provost’s course limits

Discussion Questions

Finally, we are left with several challenges to work through as a campus community. I see these as the most critical questions to begin working on. But I want to hear others’ concerns to make sure we move forward with unified intention. I currently wonder:

  • How can we best motivate (compel?) faculty to engage WAC training?
  • What commitments do we need from administration to sustain this project after the initial enthusiasm passes?
  • What does success look like for a well-executed WAC program at Kean, and how might we measure our performance?