The Face of Writing Students

By Rachel Stevens, IWP intern, RTW MA & TESL Certificate Student

Who are writing students?

My fellow Interdisciplinary Writing Program interns and I have addressed this question at length in this semester’s IWP classes, and the answers beget more questions on the topic, all of which propel our efforts forward.

In Erika Lindemann’s “What is Writing” she states, “If [teachers] write as frequently as we ask our students to, we will be better able to share with them the strategies and habits of experienced writers engaged in our own wars with words” (13).

As a graduate student of rhetoric and an English composition teaching assistant, I am guilty of taking Lindemann’s words for granted. I teach an intensive writing course wherein my students complete six different writing projects over the course of one semester. In terms of Lindemann’s quote, they become writing students in my class by engaging in frequent (and often challenging!) writing practice. All students are, for the 16 weeks they’re in my classroom, writing students, and my academic background provides me with the opportunity to share my experiences with them in an effort to help them tackle their own writing. Consequently, I forget at times that once students complete their writing requirement and leave my classroom, many will not return to the English department; their careers as “writing” students will ostensibly end. And yet, despite this mentality, writing requirements are increasingly not confined to writing classes. Disciplines such as Athletic Training (AT) require writing–and at times, intensive writing–assignments, even though students would not immediately associate the discipline with writing requirements. So, I ask again: who are writing students?

This past week, the IWP’s iWriting team ran a writing camp for undergraduate AT students who were completing a modalities application paper. The modalities paper required students to create a patient and injury history, and then develop different treatment plans for different therapies (also known as modalities), supported with extensive research. The camp was held two nights this week and was designed to help the AT students research and revise their papers, as well as learn research and writing skills that would serve them beyond this specific class.To facilitate the process, the iWriting team collaborated with NAU librarians Karen McCoy and Kathee Rose in order to best provide “non-writing” students with research and writing resources. After six hours, ten papers, countless RefWorks searches, and many slices of pizza, an answer became abundantly clear:

Regardless the discipline, a student who writes is a writing student.

I was immediately intrigued by and then ashamed of this realization. My epiphany was too obvious and self-explanatory; of course they are. Who else would they be?

Who else, indeed.

The answer behind such a question is the driving force behind programs like NAU’s IWP. While the range of subject matter and majors are at times overwhelmingly diverse, students write across disciplines and thus there needs to be writing support across the disciplines. Despite misconceptions, students remain writing students long after they finish their English composition requirements, and they need resources. Ezra Shahn and Robert K. Costello’s “Evidence and Interpretation: Teacher’s Reflections on Reading Writing in an Introductory Science Course” addressed this concept; they note, “[Science teachers] want students to express their understanding of science in terms of facts, application, and appreciation of the process by which significant generalizations have come about” and “[d]irected writing provides a means for ensuring that students devote the time and reflection necessary to develop this appreciation.” In other words, science fields want to demand quality writing from their students.

And yet, as Shahn and Costello also note, it can be difficult to establish writing expectations from said students due to a disconnect between scientific subject matter and writing practices. They state that “introducing writing as an integral part of college science courses remains and elusive goal […] largely due to the fact that knowledge of science is traditionally thought to reside in such skills as identification of facts (memory) or quantitative problem solving (algorithmic thinking).” Theirs is not an uncommon issue. On the contrary, as evidenced by this past week’s iWriting boot camps, this very issue is prevalent in some non-English programs here at NAU. AT students who can otherwise explain complex medical injuries struggled to convey this knowledge in writing because they’re “not writers.”

Notably, many NAU English graduate teaching assistants I have spoken with are driven by a motivation to connect English class to majors such as the hard sciences outside the humanities. The English TAs are trained in their first-year orientation to make these connections, since English 105 is a required course outside of many students’ majors, and throughout their tenure as TAs, they take different approaches to assignments in order to best engage students. For example, many English 105 TAs will choose culturally significant speeches for their rhetorical analysis assignments in order to teach students how to analyze rhetorical appeals while simultaneously exposing them to exemplary rhetoric. They will also allow students to explore topics that interest them both academically and personally.

As literature such as Shahn and Costello’s article and Kate Kiefer’s “Integrating Writing into Any Course” illustrate, incorporating writing into disciplines across the academic fields is an ever-rising issue that is being addressed in both the theoretical and day-to-day arenas. Even in my own teaching history, I have yet to have an English major in my class; rather, the class is designed to teach students “universal” writing skills such as analysis, argumentation, and evaluation, that they will then apply to their various fields. In order to facilitate this application, I have my students pursue issues within their fields of study for their informational and argumentation essays.

At the risk of stating the obvious, writing is difficult. Regardless the subject matter or format, one of the greatest obstacles students and faculty alike must overcome is how to integrate writing into their fields. Articles such as Kiefer’s addresses this very issue, providing suggestions for incorporating subject-relevant writing exercises in different disciplines. The good news: efforts are underway to move writing beyond the composition classroom. The iWriting team’s camp is one such effort, and the results are encouraging. The AT students found the camp very useful and informative, and while their academic performance on the workshopped modalities paper is as-yet unknown, the iWriting team gained valuable insight about the writing climate in a science course.

I opened this entry with a seemingly simple question: who is a writing student? As interdisciplinary programs work to increasingly facilitate writing across fields, the questions of who we consider to be writing students and how we best meet the needs of those students will continue to be addressed from multiple vantage points; this blog has already begun to explore these issues from institutional and instructional perspectives. And, as institutional efforts continue to evolve the way faculty and administrators perceive the role of writing in the disciplines, there will hopefully be a universal response to my question. Who are writing students? We all are.


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