There is no such thing as writing in general. Do you doubt this claim? Test it out. Go to your desk right now and attempt to write something in general. Do not write for any specific audience, purpose, or context. Do not use any conventions that you’ve learned for school, work, creative writing, and so on. Just write in general.
You can’t do it, because it can’t be done. There is no such thing as writing in general. Writing is always in particular.
– Elizabeth Wardle, Bad Ideas About Writing
Welcome to Processes
This introduction serves as a greeting space, where I define terms and provide background into the educational movements Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) and the history of those movements at Farmingdale State College. We do not pretend to offer a definitive history of WAC/WID or determine how it should run on any campus other than ours. We do hope to inspire others to not only nurture a strong WAC/WID presence on their campus, but also to share that experience with others so that we can all contribute to an ever-larger community of academic writers. We designed this book to communicate how writing sticks with us throughout our careers and lifetimes.
Some readers may not be familiar with WAC/WID and the terminology that goes along with it. The trouble is, WAC/WID efforts resist definition because they form locally in response to the needs of the campuses they support. On top of that, WAC differs from WID in subtle but key ways, which further complicates quick and easy definitions. In fact, when I think of WAC/WID, I think more about what they do as opposed to what they are.
And this thinking is not without reason. A website run by Colorado State University called the WAC Clearinghouse defines WAC this way:
In its simplest form, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) recognizes and supports the use of writing in any and every way and in every and any course offered at a learning institution. A WAC Program in its simplest term is any organized, recognized, and sustained effort—no matter how modest in people, resources, and funding—to help faculty in any and every course use writing more deliberately and more often. (“What Is a WAC Program?”)
Note my italics draw attention to verbs rather than to nouns. WAC Clearinghouse presents this definition directly beneath the title of the web page: “What Is a WAC Program?” The writers do move on to provide a noun-based definition, but not without first discussing the work of WAC, which, given the diversity of ways WAC/WID can form in response to the needs of a campus, makes a lot of sense.
The WAC Clearinghouse also provides some detail on WID programs, couching WID within WAC as a more field or genre-focused version of Writing Across the Curriculum:
Writing in the Disciplines (WiD) focuses WAC on the design and teaching of writing assignments that ask students to write in the specific genres of a discipline. These often call for projects that ask students to communicate professionally with audiences appropriate to the assignment: members of a discipline who read journals in the field, corporate clients who may require a white paper, city planners who might require a flood mitigation proposal, to name just three examples. WiD assignments are usually ones where in final drafts students will often need to meet the conventions and standards of a discipline and/or the genre. (“What Is A WAC Program?”)
It proves difficult to nail down a definition of WAC/WID because even the form of a WAC/WID effort depends on the institution. I’ve worked in WAC offices led by directors, and I currently serve on a WID Committee, led by a chair. So rather than attempt the impossible—or at the very least reductive—task of defining WAC/WID in some overarching way, I will provide a short history of WAC/WID in the U.S. followed by a history of both WAC and WID at Farmingdale State College to show that although these efforts have historically focused on writing, they also provide exciting opportunities to bring students and scholars together around the common but not uniform concern of writing. WAC/WID can help us build communities on campuses.
History of and Community in WAC/WID
WAC/WID do not have concrete beginnings because they represent a gradual shift in attitudes toward writing from “writing is a discreet skill/memory tool” to “writing is a process dependent on context and subject.” Therefore, it proves difficult to pin down one origin. David Russell, professor emeritus at Iowa State University, who has published widely on WAC/WID, claims WAC/WID ideology began in the 1870s, when American academic discourse shifted from a largely oral mode to a written one (Writing in the Academic Disciplines 3). According to Russell, before the 1870s, writing was ancillary to speaking in the professions which college graduates prepared for—like law, politics, or the clergy—and writing represented a simple tool to aid memory (4). But this is a conception of writing that I find difficult to adopt. I challenge anyone to compare a speech read from the page and one recalled—however imperfectly—from memory and then expound on writing’s value as a memory aid for public speaking.
Further complicating the origin of WAC/WID is the fact that, today, instructors do not deal with the thing they called “writing” in the 1870s. Bazerman, Little, Bethel, Chavkin, Fouquette, and Garfus complicate any simple conceptions of the origins of WAC/WID by noting this shift and connecting it to writing study. They acknowledge the changes in writing pedagogy that happened in the 1870s and add that the number of students enrolled in American universities nearly doubled when education expanded from training for law or the clergy to training for employment (17). In the late 1800s, writing proved visible and permanent “evidence” of how the colleges were doing.
In fact, the aspect of writing instruction that has changed most dramatically since the 1870s is likely the demographic makeup of the student body. This shift continued in the 1960s and ’70s in the United States, when more working-class students, women, and people of color were permitted to pursue education (21), and the older ways of writing to and for well-off white Christian men no longer served students, many of whom were not well-off, white, Christian men.
By the 1930s, writing instructors knew they needed to think explicitly about their work because the findings from a study that examined student writing at the beginning and end of their writing courses were disappointing. For example, at the 1931 National Council of Teachers of English conference, Alvin C. Eurich, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, shared findings from a study he conducted on his campus, which showed that first-year writing courses had little positive impact on students’ writing after one semester. Eurich argued for scrutiny into the teaching of writing, which could represent the origins of WAC/WID (Bazerman et al. 18).
Eurich’s study and the critical examination into student writing that followed mark one of many such studies, published and unpublished. Assessment of writing on a large scale happens regularly in writing programs. For instance, FSC’s English and Humanities Department conducts assessments of student writing regularly, as do many first-year writing programs. As a result of this continued scrutiny, many writing scholars today know they must approach writing as it operates rather than prescribing uses for it. We now accept that writing operates as the mode of communication rather than a supplement to oral speech. Some writers never intend for their work to be read aloud, and many students even resist the advice to read their work aloud in revision, likely because for these projects, writing is the mode of communication, and the writers plan on communicating in that mode, which influences rhetorical choices along the way.
As noted above, WAC/WID are movements in academia rather than organizations with centralized authorities and prescriptive lists of practices and strategies. Traditionally, Writing Across the Curriculum is associated with a “writing to learn” mentality, while Writing in the Disciplines espouses a “learning to write” mentality. “Learning to write” means learning not only the mechanics of writing in elementary school—such as grammar, sentence structure, and spelling—but also the refinement of that knowledge to create defined products to meet specific needs (Knipper and Duggan 462). This extends in college to learning about how to write in certain disciplines. In short, “learning to write” is the lifelong process of learning about writing, which can look different at different times in a writer’s career. Alternatively, “writing to learn” espouses approaching one’s subject without considering the product of writing (Knipper and Duggan 462). Writers need not consider revision, and students need not consider assessment or grades in this writing, because this writing represents a student’s reflection on their topic. The product can take the form of low-stakes writing, such as a journal entry, and the writing takes a back seat to content knowledge. It’s worth noting that instructors need not choose between WAC or WID approaches to an assignment or class. An instructor can scaffold an assignment so that early writing associated with it omits concerns for form, while later ones shift their focus to the particulars of writing in a specific discipline when crafting a drafted and revised product.
But today, writing scholars often reject what we call the “product model,” which prizes finished products as the sole focus of writing instruction, an approach more closely aligned with WID. The product, especially when professors plan first-year writing classes, pales in importance to teaching that writing can be process-based because when students enter the academy, their relationship with academic writing has in large part been a relationship with reading finished texts, and the processes that went into constructing them remain unseen.
But that does not debar value from “learning to write.” Farmingdale State College’s WID Committee concerns itself with technical matters by necessity, as we oversee writing instruction on a campus offering widely varying majors with equally varying writing needs. A classic example of this is when faculty from a discipline that uses APA citation finds that their students only know MLA and mention this issue at a WID committee meeting, prompting first-year writing faculty to look into ways of teaching multiple citation styles.
Often, WAC/WID meetings at FSC serve to address misunderstandings, such as when faculty expect writing moves specific to their disciplines, and students do not deliver. McLeod and Maimon respond to many of the misunderstandings that have plagued WAC/WID discourse, such as the idea that WAC/WID only support the teaching of writing mechanics and that “writing to learn” is intrinsically superior to “learning to write” (574). They note: “WAC programs are site-specific by nature (a program structure at a small liberal arts college, where colleagues know one another and much can be done informally, will not work at a larger institution)” (581). As a result, they conclude that WAC/WID on college campuses respond to specific needs and are therefore an expression of campus community.
Furthermore, WAC/WID must rely on the campus community to continue in their missions. Since the WAC/WID movement concerns itself with writing from different angles—writing as a tool for learning, writing as an expression of learning—faculty must rely on each other to ensure these angles are covered. WAC/WID committees and programs gather feedback from faculty to address writing concerns and develop approaches to those concerns that serve students and that instructors can reasonably employ. WAC/WID informs curriculum and content when applicable, and so the relationship between instructors and the smaller subset of instructors involved in WAC/WID proves reciprocal in the design and teaching of courses.
Another reciprocal writing relationship on campuses is the one between WAC/WID and other academic offices, such as Writing Centers. Writing Centers support students in their writing by creating open dialogue between students and either peers or professional writing tutors. The important part here is that Writing Centers do not assess writing so much as support it. Similarly, writing tutors have insight into how students respond to instructors’ comments on their writing, which is valuable information for instructors who otherwise might not know the effects of their comments.
This interaction creates community, as instructors and administrators must rely on each other to make writing instruction work. Furthermore, communities must define themselves, rather than being defined from without. In Democracy and Education, for example, Dewey, using the terms “community” and “society” as near synonyms, notes the dangerously normalizing nature of naming groups as communities from without:
The terms society, community, are thus ambiguous. They have both a eulogistic or normative sense, and a descriptive sense, a meaning de jure and a meaning de facto. In social philosophy, the former connotation is almost always uppermost. Society is conceived as one by its very nature. The qualities which accompany this unity, praiseworthy community of purpose and welfare, loyalty to public ends, mutuality of sympathy, are emphasized. But when we look at the facts which the term denotes instead of confining our attention to its intrinsic connotation, we find not unity, but a plurality of societies, good and bad (82).
The misunderstandings McLeod and Maimon respond to, such as WAC/WID focusing on mechanics over anything else, result from the incorrect notion that communities can be defined and have their needs named and met from without. This misconception represents prescriptive ideas of WAC/WID and writing instruction, but the establishment and maintenance of WAC/WID requires campus communities to define their own needs and support them in ways that work for their own campuses.
WAC/WID also serve to ensure that communities within academia exist and have defining characteristics. Writing does not look the same across disciplines, as Russell notes in Writing in the Academic Disciplines: A Curricular History, as he explains what he calls the “myth of transience” (8), by which teachers and students are led to believe one can simply learn to write, as opposed to learning to write in specific disciplines and/or contexts. If one could learn to “write in general,” as Wardle puts it (30), then attempts in First-Year Writing to teach writing once and for all would work, but they don’t. The different disciplines have different needs and expectations for writing, and those differences set them apart from one another as distinct disciplines. This lends each an identity, which we can use to form academic communities.
However, students struggle to understand the complex dynamics of an intellectually diverse community defined by disciplinary writing on campuses where many disciplines exist. Thaiss and Zawacki note this struggle and use it to explain how many students approach writing in academia, how they become acculturated to the concepts of writing in a larger rhetorical arena that houses smaller discourse communities. Thaiss and Zawacki note that when students enter the academy, they tend to think in terms of “academic writing,” or they imagine writing to be a discreet skill they can learn and apply to any course or writing scenario (note Russell’s myth of transience). Student become even more confused when they notice that instructors want different things, which many students chalk up to instructors’ personal idiosyncrasies. Finally, as students encounter enough writing across their courses, many realize that writing looks different in different disciplines and that instructors’ personal expectations inform their teaching (Thaiss and Zawacki 110).
Depending on whom you ask, college faculty have attempted to facilitate students’ writing enculturation since the 1970s or as far back as the 1870s. Since this is a movement as opposed to an organized effort, these attempts are different at different institutions, depending on the needs of these specific local contexts. We have written Processes to share some of that local history at Farmingdale State College in the hopes that what we’ve learned can apply to your teaching or learning, or we can inspire similar reflections on writing at your campus.
History of WAC/WID at Farmingdale
I had the pleasure of learning about the origins of WAC/WID at Farmingdale State College from the founder of what has evolved into the present-day WID Committee, Dr. Ann Shapiro. The committee’s goals have evolved as per the needs of the campus since its beginnings in 1999, but thanks to the foundational work of Dr. Shapiro, WID has thrived and served various purposes specific to Farmingdale State College.
In 1999, Farmingdale State College’s provost requested a meeting with the department chairs to discuss a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative on campus. Dr. Shapiro and Dr. Paul Kramer from the Physics Department expressed interest in such an initiative. Dr. Shapiro applied for a New York State Professional Development and Quality of Working Life (PDQWL) grant and was awarded $1,300. The grant funded a retreat in Tarrytown, NY. Led by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler, two key scholars in the late twentieth-century WAC movement, the retreat was attended by 60 faculty from across campus.
Dr. Shapiro followed up by implementing peer tutoring at FSC, assigning peer tutors recommended by the English department, and using the remainder of the PDQWL grant. Today, Farmingdale boasts an established Writing Center, where professional tutors consult with students on writing at any stage of the writer’s process and for any course offered on campus. The Writing Center at FSC has since grown enough to establish itself as independent from the WID Committee, though we maintain a strong relationship and work together to support student/faculty writing.
WAC at Farmingdale operated in this capacity until 2001, when the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) review found that writing among Engineering students did not meet expectations. In response, the Dean of the Engineering School called on WAC and Dr. Shapiro. WAC devised semi-weekly seminars on lab report writing and created a lab report template for use on campus.
This genre-specific support marked the first shifts from WAC (writing to learn) to WID (learning to write in the disciplines). The following year, students’ low scores on a series of standardized tests pushed the initiative squarely into WID territory. The College President and Provost called on Dr. Shapiro to assemble a WID Committee, which launched that Fall with a full-day workshop on writing for faculty led by Dr. Sondra Perl, the Coordinator of the City University of New York (CUNY) faculty development writing program. The workshop was well attended, and Dr. Shapiro followed up with bi-weekly faculty workshops (Shapiro Faculty Handbook on Writing 3). While the committee continued to serve faculty in their writing instruction, Dr. Shapiro changed the committee’s name to WID to mark a new beginning and signal the shift from supporting writing in the abstract to supporting writing in specific disciplines.
In 2003, the WID Committee instituted Writing Intensive (W) courses: students were mandated to take one W class to graduate. This put the WID Committee in charge of determining the guidelines for what qualifies as a W course as well as reviewing syllabi to make sure they meet those requirements. With approval from the President and Provost, the Committee also required each department to offer at least one writing-intensive course per semester. At first, this went very well, with W courses certified in the fields of Visual Arts, Physical Sciences, Construction, and Management, among others, but the success of the initial push meant that fewer faculty were left to join the initiative later on.
Dr. Shapiro’s work has had a lasting impact. Her multi-pronged WID program—including but not limited to workshops, course review, and the creation of a handbook for faculty—has survived in different ways over time and in response to campus need and resources. When Dr. Shapiro retired, Dr. Marcia Littenberg became committee chair, continuing the workshops and support for W courses. When Dr. Littenberg retired, Dr. Laurie Rozakis took over, continuing to support W courses and offering workshops, though funding limited them to twice a year as opposed to every other week, and the lack of a budget for outside speakers meant more in-house speakers.
Dr. Rozakis still leads WID, and the program continues to offer support W courses, workshops for faculty, arrange awards for student writing across disciplines, and as of 2021, publish about our work, with the formation of the WID Publishing Subcommittee, who bring you this book.
And Here We Are: Processes
As with much writing, this project has been collaborative from the start, when the chair of the English and Humanities Department at Farmingdale State College, Marlene Groner, approached the Writing in the Disciplines Committee with an idea, which we took and made into a project. Dr. Groner sent us Kremer and McNabb’s 2007 collection, Collide: Styles, Structures, and Ideas in Disciplinary Writing, a collection of texts by faculty across disciplines at Long Island University’s C. W. Post campus. Each chapter includes a piece of writing from a faulty member, a reflection on their writing, and questions for readers—including students—to contemplate as they discuss the chapter. As a graduate of LIU’s Brooklyn Campus, I was particularly interested in learning about how writing worked at LIU from the perspective of the professors.
Collide inspired our efforts, but it is not the only book of its kind. We also found inspiration in Segall and Smart’s 2005 text, Direct from the Disciplines: Writing Across the Curriculum, a collection of articles by Quinnipiac University faculty on writing in their disciplines. Their work does not include reflection, as many of the contributions themselves are reflections on writing in various disciplines, explicitly addressing how WAC works on the Quinnipiac campus.
We saw a pattern here. Direct from the Disciplines collected faculty writing about their disciplines, exposing similar and differing writing needs intrinsic to their disciplines, and how WAC approaches to writing can help specifically in those fields. Collide takes a different approach, including disciplinary texts not necessarily about writing in those disciplines, and adding reflective glosses to make the connections between disciplines and their writing. Each text approaches the question of disciplinary writing at a specific institution.
LIU and Quinnipiac are private universities that offer majors in most of the traditional disciplines, such as nursing, English, communication, business, etc., and their work reflects the writing needs on their campuses. Farmingdale State College is a State University of New York (SUNY) public college that primarily offers majors in fields such as nursing, biology, and business. We attract career-driven students from Long Island, NY, as well as New York City, and many come to us with a purpose: to build a career in the sciences or business. That purpose often has little to do with writing, or so it may seem to our students at first. We offer an English minor and courses such as Basic Writing, College Writing, Technical Writing, and Public Speaking, but most of our students view these courses as supplements to their majors at best and obligatory prerequisites at worst. Often, while taking our classes, students discover how central writing will be in their careers, but they seldom begin the semester with that belief.
We saw fit to contribute our own book inspired by Collide and Direct from the Disciplines, one that reflected how writing works on our campus. As the most recent of these two books, Collide, was published in 2007, we saw an opportunity to update the conversation on interdisciplinary writing on college campuses. We also wanted to examine writing on a campus where writing is perceived as secondary to content/field knowledge. We do not attempt to replace or correct previous texts in this conversation, but rather to add to the body of work that examines disciplinary writing.
We felt we had a lot to contribute as scholars who have regular access to our colleagues in other disciplines by virtue of the WID Committee. For instance, many conversations about writing exude frustration. The public says students can’t write anymore (a perennial complaint that we reject); students find writing confusing and often anxiety-inducing; and English instructors say that students are ill-prepared for the rigors of college writing.
The public expects what it expects, and that is usually writing that looks like its own. Often this complaint comes from educated people, people who majored in a field in which they go on to work, and they expect college writing to look like writing in their fields. Students find academic writing monolithic and the idea of writing like their professors intimidating. English instructors often feel a sense of propriety over writing. It is a truth universally acknowledged that many English instructors believe their ways of writing are the ways of writing.
The English faculty in the WID committee at FSC feel free to admit this because we are not alone in our discipline-centric approach to writing. Our committee welcomes members from all disciplines at Farmingdale State College, and when we get together, we see first-hand how actual writing and writing expectations differ between our disciplines.
These differing expectations create miscommunication among colleagues in different disciplines and confusion among students who are learning about writing from a fragmented body of academics who know their own fields but not each other’s. This book attempts to show those differences and make them the center of conversations about writing rather than an unspoken impediment to them.
Overview of Processes
This book is a collection of writers’ work from across the Farmingdale Community, including students, faculty, and administration. Inspired by Collide, each piece is its own chapter and comes with a reflective gloss in which the writer shares some of the experience, or their own process in writing their contribution. This format serves two purposes. First, readers enjoy insights into different writers’ processes, since no two writers’ processes are the same. Contributors are generous and honest with their reflections, and this presents a rare opportunity to get to know writers in academic spaces, where we often step aside to focus attention on our ideas.
Second, Processes shows that, beyond personal relationships to our writing, there are relationships between writing and our disciplines. For example, explaining the reproductive stages of fungi requires a different lexicon, different body of prior knowledge, and different research methods than exploring the theme of loneliness in The House on Mango Street. In short, the uses of this book span the micro—personal relationships with writing—and the macro—disciplinary relationships with writing.
This knowledge allows us to draw conclusions about writing in different disciplines to meet specific requirements as well as learn about individuals’ comfort with writing, their approach to writing, and their images of themselves as writers. To widen the lens, this book also shows us not only how processes differ across individuals and disciplines, but also that these differences exist. While the topics covered in this book include botany, health sciences, English, and the reproductive states of fungi (pronounced fun-gee), the overarching topic is writing. Writing is a topic most closely associated with English, but the fact—and the lesson to be learned here—is that writing needs no disciplinary home.
Uses of This Book
In his book On Revision, William Germano shares an open secret: “it’s OK to be scared by the responsibilities of writing and revising, at least sometimes” (Germano 9–10). This quote struck me as indispensable to our project and central to my own perception of writing. Thaiss and Zawacki’s model of how students learn about academic writing—from considering it monolithic to mistaking field-specific expectations for faculty’s personal expectations to understanding that both personal idiosyncrasies and field-specific expectations exist alongside one another (110)—accounts for some of the anxiety people have about writing. Students seek out patterns and signs that they are doing something right, and they may very well misinterpret those signs as they calibrate their expectations and perfect their knowledge.
But what about those of us who are no longer students? Why doesn’t the anxiety go away when we write, considering our degrees and accomplishments? I again find William Germano’s insights into writing helpful: “At least in part, we are what we write. As you revise your text, you’ll be revising some part of yourself, too” (Germano 11). Unlike most students, some of us define ourselves as writers. I dedicated 15 years of my life to the structured study of writing, picking up several degrees along the way, but still, when I see that blank screen, with the cursor seemingly mocking me as it blinks, I fret. I worry that this project will expose me as a fraud. I worry that somehow, just enough of my professors were feeling tired or generous as they responded to my writing, and I slipped through the system, fumbling for words in full regalia. Writing represents a core part of my identity, and so it is important for me to get it right. Hence, I worry.
Likely, anxiety about writing stems from different things along the lifetime of a writer. Perhaps the level of anxiety depends on the individual, but those anxieties are there for most of us, and they are OK. In other words, are you worried about a piece of writing? Good! Welcome to the fold.
Earlier I mentioned that the WID Committee intends for Processes to become one more entry in a larger discussion about writing, one that hope others will expand on, revise, or correct. To that end, we chose a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike License for this publication. This license allows people to use and alter the text (or portions of it) without securing permissions, but it bars anyone from putting a commercial license on any derivatives they may create (Apfelbaum and Stadler 2). Essentially, the license guarantees that users can access the text and any future iterations of it for free. We chose this license after careful consideration and consultation with the Farmingdale Library experts in publication formats to ensure that people can make the most out of this book, and that they are animated to do so because of their love of writing, not for profit. Again, we want people to join conversations about writing, and if they can do so by expanding on or disagreeing with our work, then we feel that we have been successful.
After all, Processes is merely the product, and nothing can alter the experiences we have shared during the process of creating it. This includes the revelations writers had while reflecting on their work, the learning we’ve done as we assembled the book, and the conversations that have sprung up around it on our campus. Working together on this helped us build some much-needed community after working apart, alone with our anxieties, for two years.
WID Conference 2022
This is not a book entirely about anxiety, and I am truly sorry to disappoint on that front. This is also a book about community. As discussed previously, WAC/WID at Farmingdale State College has operated in varying forms, but central to its mission was always the good of the Farmingdale community. Higher administrators called on faculty to establish college-wide writing support in 1999 and again in 2002, and faculty rose to that challenge. WID proved a resource of knowledge for committee members and a source of support for all, and that tradition continues today.
In the spring of 2022, the second semester of in-person learning after COVID and the first semester of maskless learning at Farmingdale, the WID Committee held a lunch conference to promote Processes on campus. This was our first opportunity to hold an in-person event, and it was well attended. Students, faculty, and higher administration sat in the audience and stood at the podium, and we all engaged in a rigorous conversation about writing on campus and in our careers. As a faculty member, I found the Q&A portion of the conference exhilarating. Often, I employ several strategies to promote participation in class and see what works, but when the final speaker of the afternoon finished and I asked the room to share any questions, a spontaneous conversation broke out. Faculty shared stories of being students, and students shared their perspectives on writing, some of which were surprisingly in line with the experiences of faculty. The college President conversed with a student from one of my classes about how the word “writing” means different things to different people. This was community and writing had brought us together.
Returning to the quote from Elizabeth Wardle that opens this book, I want to note what it means to me and to the students with whom I share it every semester. It’s from a book called Bad Ideas About Writing, a collection of reflections from noted writing studies scholars. The book is set up somewhat like this one, and it is an Open Educational Resource that all of us can use. Each chapter contains a short reflection on one bad idea that permeates conversations about writing. Wardle’s chapter is titled “You Can Learn to Write in General,” and the whole point is that one cannot learn to write in general, a surprisingly disruptive claim.
Too much conversation hinges on the idea that writing is a discrete skill that one can apply anywhere at any time under any context and still succeed without any preparation. This “Writing Myth” assumes that sufficient preparation takes place in a first-year writing course. David Russell uses the analogy of sports, likening learning about writing to learning sports played with a ball. To be faithful to Russell’s analogy, one can learn to play ping-pong, and in fact master the game, but then be utterly at a loss playing jacks, a game with a similarly sized ball but with entirely different aims and ways of using the ball (“Activity Theory” 57, 58). I like this analogy because it plays out in real life. I recall a marketing campaign by Nike from the late 1980s/early 1990s that said “Bo Knows ______ [insert whatever there is to know here].” In the 1980s, Bo Jackson played everything, or at least he played baseball and football, and he played them well. This ability was enough to grab an audience’s attention because Bo’s athletic ability was uncommon. Few athletes cross borders the way Bo did, because learning to use a ball in sports is not a transient skill. If it were, we could switch baseball players with ping-pong champs and get the same results.
Writing, like using a ball, is never in general. It is always in particular. Baseballs would make terrible ping-pong balls because of their size and weight. An email written to my friend would make a terrible email to my boss because my boss doesn’t need to know how my kids are doing, and I generally dispense with boss-level formality when talking about my family.
Because writing is always in particular, we need to keep those particulars at the forefront of conversations about writing. Otherwise, that difference slides into the periphery—but it does not go away. That difference will affect writing and conversations about writing in ways we cannot name and cannot see, and we therefore cannot account for them. We need not put the Wizard of Oz back behind the curtain, and I hope we don’t because I want to know what all those levers back there do.
Please use this book however you see fit. It is for all of us.
Apfelbaum, Danielle, and Derek Stadler. “A Crash Course in Creative Commons Licensing.” Serials Review, vol. 47 no. 3, 2021, pp. 122–125.
Bazerman, Charles, Joseph Little, Lisa Bethel, Teri Chavkin, Danielle Fouquette, and Janet Garfus. A Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. Ed. Charles Bazerman. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2005.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press, 1914.
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Russell, David R. “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995.
———. Writing in the Academic Disciplines: A Curricular History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
Segall, Mary T., and Robert A. Smart. 2005. Direct from the Disciplines: Writing Across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
Shapiro, Ann. Personal interview. 20 February 2022.
Shapiro, Ann. Faculty Handbook on Writing. 2005.
Thaiss, Chris, and Terry Myers Zawacki. Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2006.
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“What Is a WAC Program?” The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University, https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/wac/intro/programs/. Accessed 14 July, 2022.