Exploring the WAC Archives at Fenwick Library

This piece was first published in our WAC 2015-2016 newsletter.

By Emily Chambers

Emily Chambers is an English M.A. student in the Teaching Writing and Literature program and a Graduate Research Assistant for Mason WAC.  She taught sixth grade English for five years in Culpeper, VA before beginning her studies at GMU.  Emily’s main interests are in teacher development and curriculum resources.  She can be reached at echambe5@masonlive.gmu.edu.  

Mason WAC has a rich history of supporting faculty who teach writing across the disciplines. During the 2014-2015 academic year, WAC worked with the GMU Libraries to archive over 30 years of the program’s historical documents. In the Fall of 2015, I searched through those archives for evidence of the history and work of WAC. What I found was documentation of the relationship-building work carried out across campus, by program and department faculty interested in supporting student writers at all levels. Documents reveal conversations with faculty in Nursing, Law, Psychology, Art, and more. Documents include meeting memos, reports, syllabi, student writing, and ongoing communications about course development. There are print and hand written notes from phone calls about writing contests, writing ambassadors, and other collaborations. Through these partnerships, a WAC Committee was formed in 1993 and began to define what writing across the curriculum meant. The Committee continues to do so, overseeing the approval and review of all WI courses on Mason’s campus.  Here are three examples of documents in the archives:

Adams and Thaiss Memos 1991In a memo to Christopher Thaiss, WAC Coordinator, William H. Adams, of the School of Law, wrote, “They need to understand the different writing techniques used in a variety of legal activities…to develop coherent legal arguments, students need both the ability to write clearly and a different kind of understanding of the legal process.” In response, Thaiss sent Adams materials on writing principles and characteristics that work across the disciplines.

On a handwritten note from a faculty meeting, titled “’mini-version’ of 499 papers,” the author jotted down these notes:April 29, 2003 Handwritten note

“Intro spells out how paper will engage in the debate;

“‘I’ is often okay but must be strategic;

“Makes an argument even if flawed.”

This note shows the ongoing collaboration between WAC and faculty in the departments, as they strive to define writing expectations in the disciplines.

In her New Century College Portfolio reflection piece, one student writes, “As a learner I am now better able to read and write, two things that seem more basic than they actually are…As a wriNew Century College Portfolio, Student Writing Sampleter I have learned how to organize and explain my thought[s] more appropriately. I feel I have gotten away from the page filling method of writing. I am better able to write the necessary material to make my point and thoughts clear. Though I at one time was under the
misconception that informative writing had to be plain and straight forward, I have learned to make my writing interesting to not only the reader but also me the writer.” This student’s rich metacognitive awareness is a model for writing students, and one that WAC aims to help students achieve through WAC’s support of writing teachers.

Mason’s WAC program continues to be grounded in this rich history of relationship-building and work across the curriculum, even as it seeks new ways to support and reach writing teachers across campus and to advance the conversation about writing course pedagogy.

Course Workload Estimator by Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence

How long does it take students work on coursework assignments?  In a recently released resource from the Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence, Elizabeth Barre and Justin Esarey created an online calculator of out of class hours students spend on coursework, based on their writing and reading rates.  

The online calculator uses various factors of reading and writing assignments to calculate an estimated number of out of class work hours.  Researchers Barre and Esarey used several research sources as a foundation and filled in its gaps with their own assumptions.  The calculator, nevertheless lets you manually adjust if you disagree with their assumptions.  Reading rates are determined by page density, text difficulty, and reading purpose.  Reading to survey a text that has no new concepts, students can read about 500 words per minute.  But when the purpose is more complex (reading for understanding or engaging with a text), the text difficulty is greater (some or many new concepts), and/or the page density increases, the student’s’ reading rate drops.  

Continue reading

“I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc…) Papers” by John Warner

First year composition courses are often expected to cure students of all their writing woes.  John Warner addresses this false assumption by examining why students’ writing often falters outside the first year composition classroom.  Not only are students often underprepared and still learning content material, but they do not grasp the requirements of different genres and rhetorical situations.  Even when armed with an understanding of rhetorical questions to consider when writing, students often struggle to apply these to a new field of study.   Continue reading

“When More is Less” by Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty reviews a new study, a collaboration between the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Council of Writing Program Administrators, which finds assigning more writing assignments does not necessarily mean better student writing.  Instead, the study’s authors suggest that better, not more, assignments (ones that are interactive and deeper) improve students’ writing and learning.  “Meaning making” writing assignments, or those assignments that require students to construct their own knowledge by interpreting texts or learning experiences, are especially helpful for students’ growth, the authors report.

Continue reading

The High School/College Writing Classroom Disconnect by John Warner

John Warner’s assessment of the disconnect between high school and college writing classrooms is surprisingly more critical of college professors.  In fact, Warner argues that professors are responsible for connecting college writing assignments to the outside world.  In addressing primary and secondary teachers, he acknowledges that they have good goals in teaching their students restricting writing rules, but he would instead have them, along with all writing teachers, help their students focus on the rhetorical audience and purpose.

Continue reading

Authentic Writing

photo-1414919823178-e9d9d0afd0acEmily Chambers is an English M.A. student in the Teaching Writing and Literature program and a Graduate Research Assistant for Mason WAC.  She taught sixth grade English for five years in Culpeper, VA before beginning her studies at GMU.  Emily’s main interests are in teacher development and curriculum resources.  She can be reached at echambe5@masonlive.gmu.edu.  

Educators often note that much of the writing students do in school settings (from k-12 to their first few years of college) is written for the “teacher as audience.” Many have suggested that “authentic writing” opportunities are more helpful to students, teaching them to consider audience and motivating them to write. Defined in simple terms, “authentic writing” is a phrase that describes writing for “real life” audiences and purposes. Examples might include asking students to write web text for a non-profit, proposals to granting agencies, letters to the editor, or pieces that will be submitted for publication.

In my five years of teaching middle school classes, the most successful and rewarding authentic writing experience was when I asked my students to submit to the America Library of Poetry Contest.  My sixth-grade students used the writing process to compose poems, and after peer- and teacher-conferences, they submitted these poems to be read by national judges.  We spent time through this lesson reading poems and talking about the strengths of good poems in our class sessions. This summer, I happened to read a short autobiography by a former student, written for a fundraiser.  As one of her interests, Lindsay listed “writing poetry,” and mentioned that she was a winner in a national poetry contest.  She had won! I was overjoyed to see that a classroom writing assignment had become a proud moment in my student’s life, and that she had taken on a role as a writer.   Continue reading

National Census of Writing report released

Carl Straumsheim’s Inside Higher Ed article summarizes and highlights the newly released National Census of Writing, a comprehensive data-based survey of writing at national two-and four-year public and not-for-profit institutions.  The researchers offer open access to the data, which includes contributions from the 2014-2015 George Mason WAC program team.  Data was collected from 900 colleges, and the survey is the most comprehensive survey of its kind.   We are eager to learn from this new report, which makes writing instruction trends clear on a national level.

Read the full article here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/10/20/national-census-writing-releases-survey-results

Error in Student Writing: A Balanced, Developmental Approach

Corrigan Image

By Paul T. Corrigan

Paul T. Corrigan teaches writing and literature at Southeastern University, where he serves on the steering committee for Writing Across the Curriculum. He writes at Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed. You can reach him through Facebook, Twitter, and paultcorrigan.com.

Errors in writing may irk and confuse readers, imply ignorance or negligence on behalf of the author, and have unintended consequences in the real world. For these reasons, many teachers feel compelled to try to “cure” students’ writing of errors, often by prescribing heavy doses of red ink. I am grateful for the thankless efforts these teachers make to help students become clearer, more accurate writers. But I bear bad news. There is no cure for errors in student writing. We need to be absolutely clear on this. Short of not writing, students will continue to err, no matter what we do.

Butlet me hasten to addthis bad news is also the good news. Continue reading