Articulating that Writing Matters

By Laura Rosche, IWP Intern, RTW MA student

I teach English 105 at NAU, and let me just say: you have never known the importance of tactful justification of your assignment prompts until you have taught a 100-level Composition Course.  Currently, my students are working on an annotated bibliography assignment that will lead them into a larger research project.  They’ve complained day in and day out about the amount of work it takes to effectively research both sides of a debate they’ve chosen to write about.  Today, the first draft of their annotated bibliography was due, and they asked:

“Miss Rosche, why does this matter?  Why do we have to write so much?”

I’m always initially struck by this question.

“You have to write because this is a writing course,” I want to say.  But I know it’s bigger than that.  Composition courses exist to benefit more than just the English Department.

Writing is important in all disciplines because it serves as more than just a regurgitation of knowledge; it’s a form of communication that’s utilized heavily in professionalism because of its rapidity and conciseness.  Written communication is important because we can’t always engage in oral communication.

A few weeks ago, as a part of our internship project for the Interdisciplinary Writing Program, my team and I interviewed Mary Bowers, a Senior Lecturer of Management at Northern Arizona University.  She’s been at NAU since 2000, and exclusively teaches Business Communication and Writing courses.  We met with her in hopes that she could inform us of the expectations the College of Business has for their students as writers, and she certainly shed light on the growing need for effective writers in the Business field.  However, she talked about more than that.  She discussed the need for students to be successful written communicators because despite their academic field or potential profession, they’ll undoubtedly be communicating via emails, memos, proposals, etc.  Bowers talked about the important of succinct and clear writing.  She said that outside of education, professionals are expected to communicate quickly because of the fast-paced workforce.  CEOs don’t have time to read full reports, so they rely on an effectively written executive summary to fill them in.  Students need to learn how to communicate in this fashion because they’ll be expected to do so.

I found Bowers’ perspective to be incredibly valuable because it existed in agreement with Lloyd Bitzer’s academic article, “The Rhetorical Situation.”  In his article, Bitzer writes:

[A] work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs some task. In short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. (219)

Bitzer’s academic research supports Bowers’ feelings about student writing skills.  Rhetoric is meant to be used purposefully.  Students must be prepared to communicate tenaciously in their disciplines and future professions through writing.  It’s impractical to think that all communication will be done through face-to-face interactions or phone calls.  Professionals are expected to communicate via emails, memos, etc. because written forms of communication are efficient and accessible.  Students must be able to write with purpose as to “perform some task” (Bitzer 219).

For each of my students, writing matters differently.  Each of their futures will involve writing and research in varying capacities, but if there’s anything that I’ve learned through my exploration of writing across the curriculum, it’s that students will have to write regardless of their academic field.  They will have to be able to communicate effectively through textual mediums.

In Beth Finch Hedengren’s A TA’s Guide to Teaching Writing in All Disciplines, she writes, “Students should learn to write in the classes that prepare them for future careers.  Ask professionals in your field, and they will usually explain that writing in an important part of what they do everyday” (17).  According to Hedengren, yes, students should be introduced to academic writing conventions and expectations in the Composition Classroom, but it seems that students should continue to learn about writing in discipline-specific courses.

I talked briefly in my last post about Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), a program that emerged in the 1980’s as a response to poor student writing skills.  The program promotes learning through writing.  Hedengren explains, “The WAC movement recognizes that students cannot learn all they need to know about writing in one or two semesters of required composition classes.  As with all skills, writing ability improves with practice.  Students need to practice writing throughout their university careers to improve as writers” (9).  Students need the opportunity to write in their field because they need exposure and practice with the language they’ll be expected to use in their future professional discourse communities.  By writing formal essays or informal journals, students are better able to understand what they need to say and do to be considered effective communicators in their field.  Hedengren writes, “Perhaps the most important reason to include writing in the subject-based classroom is that writing actually helps students learn and remember material” (10).  By giving students the opportunity to write within their discipline, educators are granting their students access to invaluable learning tools.

To supplement Hedengren’s ideas, I turned my attention to Janet Emig’s article, “Writing as a Mode of Learning.”  In this article, Emig highlights the critical thinking skills students develop through writing.  She discusses different forms of knowledgeable expression, but speaks in favor of writing because she believes, “Writing, unlike talking, restrains dependence upon the actual situation. Writing as a mode is inherently more self-reliant than speaking” (13).  When writing, students are expected to be conscious of their words.  They’re expected to go through whatever revision processes are necessary to produce articulate and thoughtful work.   Writing is not necessarily conversational; it must be able to exist on its own and transcend contextual constraints.  To do this effectively, students must be critical of the information they choose to express.

From the interviews my team has conducted with faculty in different departments to discuss the role of writing in their fields, we’ve realize that each department believes writing to be important.  They have classes with high writing expectations, but it seems that some professors struggle to express exactly what those expectations mean.  I recently asked a professor, “What does good writing look like to you?” and he replied simply, “I just know when I see it.”  And I don’t think this ambiguity is the fault of the professor – they weren’t trained in teaching writing.

In his article, “Evaluating Writing Across the Curriculum Programs,” Toby Fulwiler addresses the issues we see we in underprepared professors.  He writes:

Most college instructors have had little or no training in how to teach. In fact, many professors actually pride themselves on having taken no education “methods” courses, holding such courses (rightly or wrongly) in low esteem. The result, it seems to me, is that most college teachers teach the way they were taught, relying on the simple dispensation of information rather than on any studied strategies that best exploit how human beings actually learn. In general, college professors take few risks and make few innovations in strategies or techniques- with wonderful exceptions, of course. (66-67)

Lacking the conventional skills necessary for effective teaching of writing, some professors fail to successfully communicate their expectations with students because they don’t know how to do so.  Professors in different departments across the university were never taught how to most effectively introduce their students to writing because it is not their field’s area of expertise.

This is something the IWP can help with.  We can help teachers find the language they need to use to help their students better understand their expectations. 

And we’ve started doing that this semester.  One team has been taking the information gained from the completed interviews and attempting to create supplemental writing guides that can be used to help professors help their students better understand what it means to write effectively for that discipline.  For example, if a professor says that a strong piece of writing has a clear purpose, our interns can follow up with questions like: how would you want that purpose articulated?  Where would you want it stated in the piece?  By asking these questions, IWP interns can help professors figure out the best way to express their expectations to their students.  We’re moving towards something great, I think.

So what do I tell my students when they ask me why writing matters?

I’m inclined to tell them that writing matters because a change is coming.  Professors are learning how to express their expectations for writing in their classes, and students will be held to higher standards because of it.  Writing matters because it’s a valued form of communication expected in both academic and professional settings.  Writing matters because it’s relevant.  To everyone.


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