Undergraduate Column: Talk To Us About Your Writing Process

Fenwick Library

For many undergraduate writers, being introduced and reintroduced to the writing process is an important part of learning to write in an academic community. Some of the most important aha moments I’ve had as an undergraduate writer have come from these infrequent opportunities to listen to my professors talk about their own writing, their experiences as writers, and their strategies for overcoming difficulties. I find this especially true as I take courses on the 300 and 400-levels. As my writing becomes more intensive, the insights I can gain from conversations with professors about their own writing has become invaluable. Continue reading

Will Write… But for Whom? An Analysis of WI Faculty’s Consideration of Audience in Assignment Design and Pedagogy

Amber Jensen, PhD Candidate, Writing and Rhetoric

Audience is an essential element of any writing task, yet many instructors design assignments that conceptualize themselves as the only audience for student writing. In a recent national study of postsecondary writing assignments, for example, Melzer (2014) found that 82% of university writing tasks were designed with the instructor as the primary audience. Although Thaiss and Zawacki (2006) indicate that “writing for ‘an applied audience’ helps students write at a more sophisticated level” (p. 69), the audience defined for most postsecondary writing assignments is a teacher-evaluator who verifies student knowledge, assesses their writing, and assigns a grade.

Writing studies researchers have argued against this approach for some time. When an instructor is positioned as the central actor in an academic context—the only reader, the imagined audience, and the designer of the assignment—students are incentivized to write to receive a good grade rather than to engage the types of learning situations that lend to more effective writing in the long term.

In light of this gap, this semester-long study explored how WI faculty built audience awareness into their classes and assignments. Drawing from interviews and WI course assignments, this study sought to uncover relationships between instructor knowledge and beliefs about writing for various audiences and the audiences they posed in their writing assignment.

Research Study
During the Fall 2015 semester, I was one of a research team of 11 doctoral students in the English Department who collected data from a cross-section of Writing Intensive (WI) instructors and courses across George Mason University. For this study, the research team conducted interviews with 20 faculty members representing 7 colleges and 17 programs across campus (See Figure 1 below). After the research team conducted and transcribed interviews, I analyzed them to determine how participant instructors articulated the ways in which their assignment design and/or instructional practices reflected rhetorical wifacultyinterviewedconsideration of audience within required course writing tasks. The results reveal the ways that instructors articulated their explicit or implied understandings of audience in course writing assignments and/or instructional practices.

I selected five questions from the interview protocol that invited instructors to reflect on and discuss, both implicitly and explicitly, their general pedagogical approaches in WI courses. These five questions were asked as follows:

  1. How do you envision the WI-course preparing students to write for other courses in the major and/or after graduation?
  2. How do you support students in understanding the expectations for them as writers in your field? Can you comment on how similar or different your approach may be when compared to others in your department who also teach writing?
  3. What do you like about including writing assignments in your classes?
  4. What type of writing assignments (assignments submitted for your feedback) do you include in your WI-courses? Why?
  5. How do you work with student writers on those assignments? That is, how do you offer feedback on their work, support those who may be struggling (such as multilingual writers) or help students to better meet your expectations as a teacher?

While none of these questions directly asked instructors to articulate their understanding of specific rhetorical principles, such as audience, purpose, or genre, asking open-ended, rather than leading, questions allowed me to draw inferences from the general knowledge, values, and attitudes instructors shared about rhetorical practices.

Adopting the codes developed in Melzer’s (2014) study of 2,101 assignment sheets from postsecondary institutions across the nation as a baseline, I coded each interview with WI instructors for any explicit and/or implied mention of audience as they discussed course assignments and/or classroom instruction. A second round of coding distinguished between explicit and implicit mentions of audience when discussing pedagogical choices, applying subcategories of codes for audience in instructional materials and classroom practice that included: “Teacher as Instructor,” “Teacher as Evaluator,” “Peers,” “Self,” and “Wider Audience.”

Results and Discussion

  1. Instructors as Primary Audience. GMU WI instructors reflect national norms with regard to audience in writing tasks (See Graph 2 below). Instructors are most likely to design and assign writing that explicitly or implicitly defines the teacher as the primary audience: 73% of GMU WI instructors’ comments referencing audience featured teacher as audience, whether “teacher as evaluator” (e.g. gives grades, assigns point value to writing) or “teacher as instructor” (e.g. meets with students to discuss writing, leaves comments for revision).comparison

These findings are consistent with both Melzer’s sample of 2,101 general postsecondary writing courses (in blue) and a subset of writing-intensive courses only (in red). A substantial distribution toward “teacher as instructor” in the GMU WI study is likely explained by the data collection process; instructors are more likely to represent themselves as instructors rather than evaluators as they discuss their pedagogical process and theories and beliefs about writing in an interview, whereas they are more likely to position themselves evaluators than instructors in a syllabus or assignment sheet, which was the source of Melzer’s data.

  1. Writing for a Wider Audience. Designing writing assignments to be addressed to wider audiences is central to reinforcing and modeling the rhetorical practices within disciplines and preparing students for writing situations beyond academia. While only 10 comments across 20 interviews indicated an assignment that explicitly identified a wider audience, 33 comments implicitly referenced an instructor’s classroom practice or discussion with students about how given writing tasks can be imagined toward or motivated by a wider audience (See Graph 3 below).acknowledgement

This is an important distinction to note because, although assignments may explicitly indicate the instructor as the evaluator or audience for a writing task, students may still gain important rhetorical understanding of hypothetical audiences if instructors discuss rhetorical implications of writing assignments in the context of class discussion, assignment instructions, or individual feedback to student drafts. Table 1 (below) offers a sample of interview responses that demonstrate how instructors both explicitly and implicitly connect writing assignments to wider audience in WI courses, either through assignment design or classroom instruction:

Explicit Attention to Wider Audience Implicit Attention to Wider Audience
Visual and Performing Arts:

One of their revisions has to be a 5-minute video game narrative review which they can submit to a national competition at GDC, the big game developers’ conference. I think the big idea is that it has an audience–they’re not writing for me, they’re writing for a larger audience that is industry-relevant, because those are the people who read it.”

School of Management:

“We do a lot of modeling. We also have a cultural diversity [email] where [students] have to respond to an HR issue, like how to deal with other people in the workplace. They imagine that they’re the boss, so they have to respond to that situation, company-wide.”

Athletic Training Education:

We have grading rubrics which give them the specific nuances and details we’re looking for for each assignment, but I share a lot of the journals and their submission requirements, and we talk about what authors have to go through to get an article published in a journal, and the work they had to put in to get that article.”


Applied Developmental Psychology:

“We have two big research projects that take the bulk of the draft-feedback-revision process. And that’s simply because it mimics the structure of what you would be reading in any peer-reviewed journal article.”


The examples from the School of Visual and Performing Arts as well as the School of Management exemplify how instructors explicitly identify, and even invite students to write specifically for, authentic audiences in the field, either by “imagin[ing] that [the student] is the boss, so they have to respond to that situation, company-wide” or by inviting students to submit their work to a national competition. Other instructors design their course writing assignments as part of an overall course design that introduces students to and engages them with the kinds of rhetorical situations and audiences students may encounter in their related scholarly and/or professional fields. The given example from Athletic Training Education contextualizes the students’ course writing tasks alongside opportunities for students to become familiar with academic journals and their submission requirements, which creates the potential for them to see beyond the course to where the writing task becomes relevant and contextualized to an authentic professional audience.

Summary of Results & Conclusions
This study shows that it is necessary to examine pedagogical decisions not only by collecting and evaluating course documents, but also by conducting interviews with instructors. These multiple sources allow researchers to understand the context of the choices faculty make and the ways that classroom interactions with students contribute to more effective writing. Instructors’ beliefs and understandings about writing are often reflected in their classroom practices, but may not feature directly in course syllabi, assignment sheets, and/or assessment rubrics, particularly when these documents are designed by committee.

The results of this study show that:

  1. Most instructors of WI courses at GMU design assignments that identify the teacher as the primary audience.
  2. Most instructors of WI at GMU courses do not explicitly or implicitly identify a wider, public, or disciplinary-specific audience in assignment design and classroom instruction.
  3. Some instructors of WI courses indicate attention toward a wider audience in assignment design and/or classroom instruction.

Recommended Teaching Strategies
The WAC program at George Mason University includes in its guiding principles that “students gain proficiency as writers when they have frequent opportunities . . . to [address] a range of audiences” and that “faculty across the curriculum share responsibility for helping students learn the conventions and rhetorical practices of their disciplines” (emphasis added). WAC faculty are encouraged to support student-writing development by asking their students to write for multiple, authentic, and disciplinary-relevant audiences in WI courses.

Many WI faculty at George Mason University are already developing writing tasks that include authentic disciplinary and professional audiences. Those who would like to engage students in more authentic rhetorical writing tasks might consider:

  1. Situating writing tasks in real-life settings that give students the opportunity to imagine an authentic audience (e.g., a scholarly journal, a report for a workplace committee, a submission to a creative production competition). When relevant and possible, invite students to submit their work to these audiences for real-world application.
  1. Engaging students in reading and analyzing the kinds of writing professionals and/or scholars in their particular field interact with: websites, journals, research reports, etc. Use course readings, where possible, as models for the kinds of writing students will do for the course. Faculty are encouraged to be explicit, both in instruction and in assignment design, about how the writing students do for the course fits into the disciplinary community of the field.
  1. Focusing comments and feedback on student writing to highlight how an imagined, authentic audience in the field (e.g., a boss, an awards committee, a funding organization) might respond. Rather than responding and evaluating student writing from the perspective of a teacher, consider how your feedback might change if you were positioning yourself as the kinds of real audiences in the field for which students might eventually write.

Chiseri-Strateer underscores why it is so important for writing instructors to be conscious and conscientious about students’ engagement with the discipline from a rhetorical perspective: “From the students’ perspective the literacy norms within most fields—the reading, writing, talking, and thinking patterns of the discipline—most often remain powerfully invisible, not offering ready access for them to earn membership in any discourse community” (qtd. in Russell, 2001, p. 276). Together, instructors of writing across the curriculum can invite students to be successful members of their fields by helping them imagine, and then write for, the kinds of audiences with whom they will interact as members of our scholarly and/or professional communities.


Britton, J., A. Burgess, N. Martin, A. McLeod, and R. Rosen. 1975. The Development of Writing Abilities. London: Macmillan, p. 11-18.

George Mason University WAC Program Website. 2015. http://wac.gmu.edu/.

Melzer, D. 2014. Assignments across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State University.

Russell, D. 2001. “Where Do the Naturalistic Studies of WAC/WID Point?” In WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs, ed. S.H. E. Miraglia, M. Soven, C. Thaiss. 259-298. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Thaiss, C. and T.M. Zawacki. 2006. Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life. Portsmouth: Heinemann.




Link Round-Up: WAC Staff Blog Picks

In preparation for a new school year, here are our staff blog picks from last year.  Read on for four easy-to-use teaching tips for the writing classroom.

Tom Polk, Assistant Director, recommends Mini and Mighty: How the One-Minute Paper can Transform Your Teaching.

In this article, Tom Sura recommends using a simple index card to assess students’ understanding. He uses them at the end of each class to review what students believe was most important and any questions they have.

Tom Polk writes: “what I love about Professor’s Sura strategy is its simplicity.  We often think and talk of teaching with writing as an arduous endeavor, but the one-minute paper doesn’t really require planning, time, or technology.  It, however, can provide critical insight into our students’ learning while also developing their practice of reflection if used regularly.  For professors who are looking for an easy way to start using writing as a pedagogical tool, the one-minute paper is a good place to start.”

Dr. Michelle LaFrance, Director, recommends Error in Student Writing: A Balanced, Developmental Approach:

Paul Corrigan encourages teachers to re-consider their marking of student errors in this piece.  By reconsidering their marking, teachers can better encourage and support students’ writing development.

“Paul’s piece reminds instructors that less is sometimes more in dealing with writers at all stages of development—a prospect that is both good pedagogy and time saving for me as an instructor,” comments Michelle.

Alisa Russel, Associate Editor of The Writing Campus, recommends Placing Writing Processes on the Wall:

Here, Donald Gallehr narrates a teaching experience in which he asked students to map out their writing process and THE writing process, thereby helping students re-consider the effectiveness of their process.

“What I love about this piece, whether you follow Dr. Gallehr’s exact activity (which he details nicely for you) or whether you modify it slightly, is that it encourages explicit discussion about writing processes,” explains Alisa.  “I think many of our students believe that more experienced or professional writers don’t engage a writing process – that words flow through them from on high. It’s all very mysterious. However, Dr. Gallehr’s activity forces students not only to recognize and name their own processes, but then evaluate them against other models.  This way we bring the “grunt-work” of writing out of the mysterious shadows and into the light for our students to better shape their processes – and hopefully produce better papers because of it.”

Emily Chambers, Graduate Research Assistant, recommends Infographics: A Fun, Multimodal Tool for Student Thinking and Writing:

Ben Causey describes how to use infographics and even employs some of his own in this article.  Ben outlines ways to use infographics in the writing classroom for pre-writing, revising, or as a stand-alone assignment.

Emily notes that “Ben describes multiple ways to use infographics in the classroom, such that they become accessible and feasible, even alongside a writing assignment or without technology. I’m excited about the ways that infographics can help students compose or revise, as well as helping them improve their technological and visual composition skills.”

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.

Reviewing Your Pedagogy by Using Jessie Stommel’s #4wordpedagogy

When Jessie Stommel tweeted “Start by trusting students. #4wordpedagogy” and invited others to join in making four-word pedagogy statements, he began an unexpected worldwide conversation.  More than 4,500 tweets followed, with humorous, provoking, and critical comments on education today.  The Twitter conversation Jessie started shows Twitter at its best, as a tool to begin honest conversation and innovation among many.  

Many of the tweets are applicable to those who teach writing, though not so specific as to only apply to them.  Most of the tweets challenge teachers to rethink the way they approach students:

By seeing the humanity of students and the collaborative nature of teaching, teachers are prepared to work with students, not against them; to see students as fellow workers in meaning-making.  Still, teachers must acknowledge that they are for students by showing it in words or actions:

The move to acknowledge and show that students matters moves teachers to humility, and makes them able to learn alongside students.  In the writing classroom, this can look like writing alongside students, such that teachers can empathize with and build camaraderie with their fellow writers, who also happen to be students.  Many who responded to Jessie’s invitation acknowledged that this is just where teachers should be:  

Nevertheless, this working together can get messy, and others who responded pushed educators to allow students freedom in the messy process of learning:

Others proposed that these messy approaches should be student-centered and experimental:

There’s a beauty to Jessie’s challenge to write a four word pedagogy: it forces educators to zero-in on the core of their pedagogy.  As you reflect on the semester past, what are ways that your course adhered to your core pedagogy? What are ways that it got a little off course? Try writing your own #4wordpedagogy, as a way of focusing in on what matters most, then use it to re-evaluate how to move forward in your teaching.  We’d love to know what you come up with; comment below or tweet us @writingcampus.

To read Jesse’s full article, visit: https://storify.com/Jessifer/4wordpedagogy

Announcing Writers of Mason!

At heart, all university campuses are communities of writers.

In Mason’s Writing Across the Curriculum Program, we work with a diverse array of writers. Mason’s students write in multiple contexts, with different styles, and for a variety of purposes. Our faculty teach writing in classrooms, seminars, and as part of their local and global field projects. Students and faculty alike contribute to the literature of their scholarly, research, creative, and professional communities. Continue reading

Playing, Learning, and the Teaching Problem by Barbara Fister

All learning and no play makes students dull, writes Barbara Fister.  Well, not exactly.  Instead, she reviews Allison Gopnik’s NYT piece on the learning processes of small children, with possible applications to the classroom.  Gopnik describes how young children, who are naturally curious and love exploring and imitating, can perform the same task by imitation as if they are taught that task explicitly, yet when taught explicitly, they lose the opportunity to discover on their own.  Fister and Gopnik argue that students are better off learning when they search and discover on their own, creating their own understanding of the world during that process.  These discovery processes are richer. Continue reading

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.  

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Design Thinking in the Writing Classroom

Design Thinking

Image via trishaclarissa on pixabay.com

By Emily Chambers

Emily Chambers is a former WAC GRA and is studying for her M.A. in Teaching Writing and Literature. Her main interests are faculty development and curriculum resources. Prior to coming to GMU, she taught sixth grade English in Culpeper County, VA; now she teaches composition at GMU. She can be reached at echambe5@masonlive.gmu.edu.

Design Thinking is a way of using the principles of design to think about various problems and projects in contexts outside of design.  When clients give designers a brief, a document outlining the goals and results of the proposed project, the designers use design thinking to create prototypes and final products for the client.  Many educators, innovators, and businesses have sought to apply design thinking to the classroom.  For writing teachers, design thinking offers several principles that are helpful, because it addresses the complex challenges that writers face.  By teaching our students to face these challenges together, with minds open to new possibilities and a willingness to fail, we can teach students a means to successful writing.  Design thinking addresses complicated problems with empathy, collaboration, divergent thinking, and failing often.  

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“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