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If you have been writing your whole life, is there any point in engaging with a program that teaches you how to write?

This is the challenge that Sarah Zurhellen and the advocates of Writing Across the Curriculum face.

There are immense benefits to cultivating writing skills that go beyond fundamental literacy, but what these are and why they matter isn’t always obvious, even to those in higher education, nor is it always easy to persuade students or faculty of the lifelong advantages these skills provide.

Sarah is the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum (or WAC) Program at Appalachian State University and a Professional Consultant in the University Writing Center. She is the primary WAC consultant for several departments and colleges in App State, which include Art, Biology, Computer Science, Mathematical Sciences, Physics & Astronomy, and Theatre & Dance, among many others.


What is Writing Across the Curriculum?

Writing Across the Curriculum is an initiative or program that assists teachers across different disciplines in using writing as an instructional tool in their teaching beyond just using it for assessment.

“Writing happens in all spaces across learning, in all disciplines, in all fields,” Sarah says. “My job is, really, just to support that — so it's a lot of faculty development work: helping faculty and the disciplines become comfortable with teaching writing and thinking about writing as something that they can teach and not just assign.”

On the student side of things, WAC helps students engage on a deeper level, allowing them to learn and retain more during their time in higher education, and to become better thinkers overall, which provides long-term benefits beyond just their time in academia.

Student Engagement Starts with “Why”

For students, it starts with helping them understand the why of writing.

Sarah says that there is almost always resistance toward the necessity of learning to write at this stage of their respective academic careers, often with the attitude of “Why do I have to take this…? I’ve been writing things since [I was in] kindergarten — I know how to write!”

Despite the challenges, most – if not all – of Sarah’s students come around, albeit not always right away. And when they do come to appreciate the value of developing good writing skills, it’s usually sometime after completing the Introduction to Writing Across the Curriculum course.

“So much of that class was teaching problem-solving and learning strategies in this way. And I would get emails from students the next semester or the next year that would say ‘thank you so much!’”

How To Help Students Write Well and Think Better

A key component of good writing is reflection. "A huge part of that… when I'm in the classroom is helping students see reflection as central to their learning — not as an add-on, not as busy work," Sarah says.

"Reflection is hard and it's a skill… it's not something that most people do well automatically," she says. Sarah points out that effective reflection involves making connections, and it all starts with asking the right questions. “I do a lot of reflection in connection to life, and so a lot of assignment reflections are about … ‘what are you doing? What are you not doing well…? What is happening in your life right now that might be distracting you or preventing you from putting in the time that you need in order to do this thing?’”

Sarah explains her approach, saying, “I do that by scaffolding it. So, [in] the beginning… I do multiple kinds of reflection… we do weekly reflections.” She then provides a list of 14 or 15 questions that students can choose from and use as guides, without being necessarily obligated to use them.

At the beginning of semesters, Sarah is more hands-on with providing guidance, but as time goes by and the students become more comfortable, she directs students toward formulating their own questions to answer as part of their learning process.

"…I want to help you get better at reflection. But ultimately the reflection is for you," Sarah says.

How To Help Faculty Integrate and Teach Writing

In her experience, Sarah notes that many faculty members believe in the value of the idea of Writing Across the Curriculum but may not always be comfortable with it in practice, at least at the outset.

She explains that her “role in that position is really just to keep asking questions like, ‘okay, so clear writing is good writing, well, what does clear writing look like in anthropology?’ and ‘What does clear writing look like in biology?’ and ‘what does it look like in government and justice studies or political science?’”

The process starts with engaging with the faculty member’s class, followed by having a conversation about their syllabus, where they try to understand the goals for things like their assignments and what they ask students to do.

"It's the shift in the verb from thinking about, 'well, I have this writing assignment that I give students,' to 'oh… I need to teach them how to do this!' and of course they – I mean, all the faculty are teachers – they know how to teach their content matter, but they often don't think about writing as part of that," Sarah says. "My job is really just to support that — so It's a lot of faculty development work: helping faculty and the disciplines become comfortable with teaching writing and thinking about writing as something that they can teach and not just assign."

Want to dive deeper and hear more from Sarah and the Writing Across the Curriculum initiative they implemented at App State?

Get the details on how they utilize WAC across the university’s programs and colleges, digital literacy among the so-called “digital natives,” digital ethics in ePortfolios, the often invisible labor placed on faculty members when it comes to learning new teaching methods and technology, and more — listen to the full episode here.

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