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Writing Across the Curriculum


 
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The Tough Job: Planning a Writing Intensive Course
Wade G. Dudley
Department of History

The most challenging part of any task is simply getting underway. Doubts plague us, inertia presses us into our chairs, and the reward for completing the task may remain both nebulous and distant in time. This is especially true when considering the implementation of a writing intensive course. For example:

Am I really a competent writer? Good heavens! I teach History, not English. I think that I may be splitting my gerunds or infinitizing my infinitives or adjectifying my grozabs. How can I teach writing? AND I have so much to do already – three thousand years of content to teach and I barely have time to grade tests as it is. I mean, what’s in it for me, anyway? Forcing my students to write will not improve my SOIS scores one teensy bit, and somehow I doubt that I will hear the clinking of extra silver from the university’s coffers in my wallet.

Sound familiar? Fortunately, those demons can be wrestled. If we teach, then we are trained professionals with at least a basic competency in writing – no way to get the credentials without that competency. True, it may be helpful to occasionally review Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or delve deeply into The Chicago Manual of Style (or their equivalent in other disciplines), but that is simply professional reading – so toss ‘em on the stack and read on. And, perhaps, when our editors return those much annotated manuscripts, we can pay a tad more attention to their comments (and, thus, stop adjectfying our grozabs). The point is that you are competent to teach writing skills (even though room for improvement, at least in my case, always remains).

As for the payoff in teaching writing intensive courses, you may be amazed at the results. We tend to focus on content in our courses. Content is, typically, impersonal (“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”). However, our critiques of writing are very personal (“On 28 August 2007, your excellent essay convinced me that the ocean sailed by Columbus was, indeed, multi-hued instead of blue. Nice effort, Marie Anne! But continue to work on your grozabs as noted. Feel free to visit during office hours if you need clarification or assistance”). That personal touch creates a bond between student and teacher which enhances and improves the learning experience when coupled with solid content. Try it – and watch your SOIS scores improve as you improve the communication skills of your students, thus preparing them for success in the professions supported by your discipline. As for the clink of silver, who knows? Pigs may fly – if you teach your students to rewrite that particular parable.

Believe it or not, the two preceding paragraphs are the tough part of teaching writing intensive courses. Success follows faith in self and product. However, designing the course requires some additional thought. To assist in that mission, a Course Design Exercise is attached at the end of this article. It is generic, and though tested over time, the numbers (especially in element 7) will vary among individuals.

Before examining the Course Design Exercise, it is worth considering marking and grading philosophy (especially before you actually fill in the blanks in element 7 and discover a rather large number at the end). Writing intensive courses take more time and effort on the part of the professor than courses relying upon multiple-guess exams. There is no escaping this fact. Regardless, the amount of time invested in reading student papers should never be reduced – I feel that I am obligated to read every word that I assign my students to write. As much as anything else, that is a mark of respect for their effort and their rapidly developing abilities. However, the amount of time spent physically marking papers can be reduced by closely marking only a percentage of the grammatical problems (say the first three pages of a fifteen page paper), thus eliminating the need to mark (and to comment upon) repetitive errors. This allows me to focus on the content of the paper while still addressing grammatical and structural problems. And if I am doing my job effectively, repetitive problems should be greatly reduced or disappear entirely by the final papers of the semester. Coupled with this, I do not allow rework of papers. Rather, I demand that improvement (elimination of grammatical/structural errors, better capture of content, stronger analysis and conclusions) appear in each successive paper. Final grades depend as much on that improvement in writing skills as upon knowledge of course content (by the way, elimination of rework allows more time for content).

The Course Design Exercise follows. For a glance at writing intensive courses designed with this model, please see my website at http://personal.ecu.edu/dudleyw/ . Note that HIST 3000 is specifically designed to teach historical research and writing skills. And please, be aware that I may well have adjectifyed some of my grozabs in the syllabus, despite the best of intentions on my part.



Writing Intensive Courses: Course Design Exercise

  1. What is your justification for making this course writing intensive?
  2. List 2-3 objectives for the course.
  3. List the types of writing assignments that will best support your course content (e.g., book review, essay exam, blog, research paper).
  4. List the tools that you will provide to your students to support their writing (e.g., types of handouts, textbooks).
  5. Estimate the actual number of writing assignments needed to meet your objectives and the objectives of the WI program. Include the number of assignments, type of assignment, and required number of pages (e.g., 3 x book reviews @ 2-3 pp.).
  6. a. Estimate the number of days needed to teach (non-writing) content, including test days.
    b. Subtract this from 42 days to estimate time allowed to develop writing skills.
    c. If sufficient time is not available for teaching writing skills, how can you increase teaching efficiency (e.g., substitute papers and discussion for lecture)?
  7. Estimate hours to grade assignments:

     # Pages per Paper
    # of Papers  Best Est. Time to Grade
    Total Time
    1-3
      10 min
     
    5-8
      15 min
     
    10-15
      20 min   
    15-25    30 min
     
    Total Minutes:  

    Total Minutes x class size / 60 = hours of grading required
    How do you plan to handle grading (grade content and grammar, content only, etc.)?
  8. How do you plan to assign final grades?
  9. Remember that the estimated undergraduate effort hours available outside the classroom = 84 (two hours for each hour of class). Remember cost of books.