Ideas for Developing a Discipline-Specific First-Year Writing Course

A new tt-academic has been thrown in the deep end and told to develop a discipline-specific first-year writing course for the uni at which the person teaches. This is about all the specifications that the person was given. Having never even taught such a course before, and not being a rhetoric professor, the academic sought ideas from the CHE fora. As usual, the other academics were quite willing to share their experiences.

From the CHE fora:

The slogan of Writing Across the Curriculum in its heyday (courses like this one were inspired by WAC) was “Writing to learn.” How can you use writing to help students learn about the author? How can you use what and how the author writes to develop your students’ understanding of how to write well? Your author isn’t just subject matter but can also serve as a model.

Use reading logs to make sure that your students are reading the author, and then have them use the logs as notes toward an essay analyzing the author’s argument. Use topics raised by the author as the basis for the students’ research topics. Require the students to use the author as one of their sources but then go beyond the reading to their own research. Have them debate the author or explore the debates the author is engaged in?

In this type of course (which I teach regularly), the topic of the course and associated readings provide the matter about which the students write and research. It’s not a course of “lecture on Tuesday, writing process on Thursday”, but asking students to write their way into learning about the topic. This approach can be very difficult for lecture-oriented faculty to conceptualize. They look at courses like this and say, “It has no content!” It has plenty of content: the topic, the writing process, analytical thinking, research methods. What it doesn’t have is 50/75 minutes of lecture material on a daily basis. It has activities that lead students through the process of learning about the topic by asking them to engage with it in an active way.

You have to be very careful to avoid setting the course up to seem like two separate courses: one about the subject matter they’re reading about, the other about writing (elsie addressed how to avoid this and I use the exact same method she outlines) and one f2f course and one online course. They need to see the connection between the two.

I’ve found that discussion of the readings is much more productive via a blog (BB has a blog component or you can use a free blogging tool like blogspot or WordPress). Having the discussion take place first in the online part of the course has several benefits: everyone gets an opportunity to participate in the discussion, the students have to think about what they want to say before articulating it in writing (but an informal type of writing, without pressure to be perfect, which is why reading journals are so beneficial, but blogs are much easier to monitor and grade than traditional journals and students can’t wait until the night before the journal is due to write out all of their entries), students can read and directly respond to what their peers have to say (again, with time to think about their response), etc. etc. Then, when you meet f2f, you can address paritcularly interesting or debatable issues that came up in the blog (again, to help connect the two aspects of the course).

In terms of what to do online vs. f2f, I’ve found the flipped or inverted classroom model to be especially effective. Basically, the things that students would normally do in class (like lectures and discussion) become homework and the things that would normally be homework (like drafting their writing assignments) become classwork. This is effective because students have you and their peers there to provide immediate feedback, rather than them spending hours completing an assignment incorrectly.

I do this:
online–students watch mutimodal lecture on some aspect of writing (how to argue a point, how to integrate others’ ideas, how to organize an academic essay, etc.) for homework; they then complete the assigned readings and then blog about them
in class–we spend a few minutes addressing any questions about the lecture; then we spend some time addressing the discussions that took place on the blog (this may lead to the need to continue the discussions in small groups or via a free writing session); then students are given their writing prompts (which are tied in some way to the assigned reading/blog discussions and requires them to practice the writing skill addressed in the lecture) and begin drafting; students can receive feedback from me and their peers at any time during the drafting process
homework–students complete the writing assignment and submit it electronically to me for assessment

My own take on the situation:
As a rhetoric and composition academic, I would emphasize the process of writing. As others, such as Dr. Skallerup, have mentioned in #fycchat on Twitter (Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. EST), reading in the academic discourse, and a discussion of what it takes for that writing to be produced, is also important.

I have never taught a first-year writing discipline-specific course. I have, however, taught a second-year writing discipline-specific course, to which the students were supposed to come having already mastered the basic art of writing an essay and doing generic research. My curriculum, choices, successes, and failures are recorded in “Writing in the Social Sciences: An Old Concept, A New Course” in Currents in Teaching and Learning.

I thought the question was interesting and perhaps relevant for more than this single academic who has just been thrown into the deep end of the pool having just mastered the baby pool. It’s a challenge and a daunting one, but one which can bring satisfaction and development to our students.

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